"Most people's first grappa experience is at 3 a.m. after a long night, when someone's grandfather pours them a glass," says Domenic Branduzzi, chef/owner of Piccolo Forno and now of Grapperia, his newest venture. Opened in early March, the bar was dreamt up as the charming, cozy companion to the Lawrenceville restaurant, where guests can enjoy an aperitivo, a pick-me-up or a nightcap. In the context of Italian dining, this means amaro, espresso, grappa and wine, and at Grapperia it means beverages of Italian origin only. Beautifully and simply decorated and tucked away on a side street behind Piccolo Forno, Grapperia makes it easy to imagine life at a more Mediterranean pace.
As the name suggests, the bar's focus is grappa, a drink that's been around since the Middle Ages and is distilled from pomace, the leftover pulp of grape seeds, stems and skins from wine-making. In the same family as liquors like akvavit, eau de vie and even vodka, grappa has earned a reputation as a drink for the hardened, tough and wise — or, as writer Italo Calvino put it, "suitable only for defrocked priests, unemployed bookkeepers and husbands who have been cuckolded." If any of this holds true, my future lies in and then out of "the cloth."
My first delicate, tulip-shaped glass of Nardini Riserva, a barrel-aged grappa with a smooth, honeyed taste, not unlike top-shelf bourbon, will have me returning for more post haste. Poli Merlot Secca, a clear, pungent grappa derived from only Merlot grapes, was delivered when I asked for something Italian grandfathers would drink. It was slightly bitter, with strong notes of fruit and a satisfying after-burn. The menu also offers grappa cocktails as a familiar way to try something new. The G&T (grappa and tonic), with orange peel, rosemary and pink peppercorns, was summer in a glass and went down even easier than its more common cousin.