Chinotto is Italy’s version of Coca-cola. While it went out of style for a while, there has been a gain in its popularity over the past couple of decades. Italians have a taste for an often missing component in food: bitterness; from the multitude of after dinner digestifs known as “amari” which literally means bitters, to simply sautteed bitter greens to Camapri, a bittersweet alcoholic liqueur used as an apéritif. Chinotto is no different.
If you order a Chinotto (kee-No-toe) at a restaurant or bar, you will receive a fizzy dark brown drink that suspicioulsy looks like Coca-Cola. The taste, however, is considerably different. It is a bit sweet with a bitter and aromatic aftertase. It is really hard to describe the taste and something you must try at least once or again and again if you fall in love with it.
So what exactly is chinotto? Chinotto (Citrus aurantium var. myrtifolia) is a ping-pong to tennis ball sized citrus fruit that grows on a pretty white-flowering tree.
It was originally imported from China to Italy by a Ligurian sailor in the 1500s. You can find the Chinotto trees mostly in Sicily, Calabria, Tuscany and most notably Liguria.
The actual chinotto fruit is a citrus fruit and they are mouth puckering bitter and quite acidic. The fruit was originally used to make compotes. They were also candied and preserved in liquor. During the Belle Époque area of the 1920s when jazz and slinky gowns were the rage along the Ligurian coast, it was popular to serve a syrupy candied chinotto in a maraschino liquor. Unfortunately, a series of cold spells hit the growing regions of the chinotto tree, and using the chin otto fruit went by the wayside. However, all that changed shortly after World War II as the chinotto tree and its fruit reemerged from the shadows.
Chinotto soda was actually invented in the 1930s and various brands claimed to be the inventor; most notably Pelligrino. The Chinotto soda often compared to Coco-Cola as they are both caramel in color and carbonated. However, Chinotto is based on a mixture of extracts from the peel of the chinotto fruit as well as other aromatic herbs and is more bittersweet than Coca-Cola. It has sublte flavors of spice, fruit, liquorice, and menthol with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Chinotto had its golden moment when the Neri brand began promoting Chinotto a few years after the war in 1949 proclaiming it as a patriotic alternative to the American version of Coca-Cola.
Beginning in the 1960’s, Coco-Cola penetrated the Italian market as a sweeter, more fashionable version to the local Chinotto beverage. This, ultimately, led to the decline of the Italian Chinotto beverage. Interestingly, over the past couple of decades, there has been a slow resurgence and “rediscovery”of Chinotto and a cult like phenomenon has developed to those who enjoy it. Today, it is not seen as uncool if you order one at the bar and given the slow food movement here in Italy, I imagine the renaissance will continue; much to the delight of my husband.
So, the next time you are visiting Italy and order a pizza, ask for a Chinotto instead of the usual coke or beer.
Happy Wanderings and Buon appetito!