Bartender’s Notebook: Il Lazzarone’s Laura Wagner and Andrew Iwersen are in love — with amari

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Laura Wagner and Andrew Iwersen, Il Lazzarone’s recently appointed bar manager and beer director, respectively, are dwarfed by the City Market restaurant’s mammoth bar. They stand behind its vast marble slab, in front of shelves of liquor that reach toward the restaurant’s high ceiling. The décor here — bright-red barstools, artfully distressed wood — feels modern, but the space’s simple structural beauty also hints at old-school Italy.

“When Laura and I talk about this bar, we talk about what it means to give people an original but still authentic Italian experience,” Iwersen tells me. “We already represent authentic Neapolitan pizza, which has its own set of regulations. There’s no rule book for what our bar needs to be authentic, but we know that Italian culture really appreciates aperitifs and digestifs.”

Iwersen gestures to an entire shelf dedicated to amari (the plural for amaro, the Italian word for bitter).

“Amari are quintessential to that,” Iwersen says. “They’re spirits that are infused with different botanicals and herbs to aid the digestion and prepare you for the next meal. So, while we celebrate Italian culture in our kitchen, it only fits that we should celebrate it here at the bar.”

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I consider my amaro options. There are more than 30 bottles here, from the fluorescent orange of Aperol to the inky black of assorted fernets. Together, Iwersen and Wagner select three. We start with the Nonino, a dainty-looking amber liquid. Iwersen pours an ounce into a cordial glass.

“This is for someone who’s never tried an amaro before and might be a little shy,” Iwersen says. “This is a little lighter on the tongue than most. There are some floral characters to it and some spice.” I detect a few other notes: honey, lemon, tea, bark. When Iwersen tells me that the Nonino is grappa-based, aged in oak barrels for five years, I’m not surprised. But there’s no harshness in the flavor, and the overall profile sways more sweet than bitter.

The next amaro will prove more traditional.

“The Zucca is rhubarb-based,” Wagner tells me. She takes a whiff. “It’s got this really musty, earthy smell that I love.”

By “musty, earthy,” she probably doesn’t mean “smells like mothballs and moldy underwear,” but that’s what I get from my own sniff. I tell Wagner, and she laughs, confident that the taste will trump any olfactory turnoff. She’s right. It has a lighter body than the smudgy brown color suggests, and a pleasant, slightly syrupy sweetness. Wagner and Iwersen take turns bouncing off flavor notes — lemon zest, dried citrus peel — before we move on.

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“There’s a distributor in California who is almost the direct cause of popularizing Fernet-Branca, and this is the next thing in her portfolio that she’s begun to push,” Wagner tells me as she pours the Santa Maria al Monte. “It has really limited distribution in Kansas City right now because not a lot of it is being made.”

The Santa Maria al Monte is by far the most biting amaro we’ve tried so far — not quite as astringent as my beloved Fernet-Branca, but close. There’s a great punch of ginger on the nose as well as on the tongue; after a few sips, I feel my lips tingle.

“This is super-bold,” Iwersen agrees. “If you’re building a cocktail with these, you might have to use a little more of the Amaro Nonino and the Zucca to really let them shine. You only need a little bit of the Maria al Monte, and it’s going to stand out.”

A cocktail, you say?

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I ask Wagner and Iwersen to each select a favorite of the three we’ve tasted and work it into a new recipe. Wagner takes the Zucca, Iwersen the Santa Maria al Monte.

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Iwersen, a self-proclaimed history nerd, goes first, with a riff on the fernet-driven Hanky Panky. “This recipe dates back to the 1920s, and it’s really popular in Italy right now,” he tells me. “We’re going to sub out the fernet for the Santa Maria al Monte, and instead of sweet vermouth I’m using Cocchi Americano Rosa, which is another style of fortified wine.”

In a mixer, Iwersen combines those ingredients, plus J. Rieger & Co.’s Midwestern Dry Gin and a dash of orange bitters. He stirs, then strains the result into a coupe glass. He calls it the Danza di Giacamo, and he’s as curious about it as I am. “I haven’t tried this yet,” he warns me.

The liquid’s bewitching, ruby-red glint makes it look both intimidating and glamorous, like a handsome stranger at a bar. Iwersen has managed a sophisticated balance, even as the zest and ginger of the Santa Maria al Monte coyly play through the flavors.

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Wagner’s drink has twice as many ingredients and steps as Iwersen’s. She’s going for a variation of a flip — a frothy style of drink that involves an egg white — using mezcal and the Zucca. She combines these ingredients, plus lemon juice, orange juice, her own chili-infused honey, a pinch of black sea salt and a few drops of olive oil. (She got used to using kitchen ingredients in cocktails, she says, working under bartender Erik Mariscal at the now-closed Local Pig in Westport.)

A few shakes later, and Wagner sets up a drink that appears in two layers, the bottom a rich caramel color, and the top a creamy quarter-inch of foam. A smear of black sea salt decorates the rim of the glass. The mezcal, which tends to lead the charge in a cocktail, is strangely muted, especially given the drink’s name: Smoke of the Earth. It’s actually airy and delicate.

“Italians will drink for hours on end, before and during and after the meal, which is why you have a lot of lower-proof amari,” Wagner says. “That goes along with Italian culture. Here, we like to overindulge, but Italians don’t drink to overdrink — they drink to enjoy it.”

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I glance at the remainder of my cocktail, turning my head toward the sounds and scents of the kitchen. I certainly am enjoying this.

DANZA DI GIACAMO (GIacamo’s Dance)
1 ounce J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin
1/2 ounce Santa Maria al Monte
1-1/2 ounces Cocchi Americano Rosa
1 dash orange bitters

Iwersen: Combine ingredients over ice, stir, strain into chilled coupe glass. Garnish with orange peel.

SMOKE OF THE EARTH
1-1/2 ounces Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
3/4 ounce Rabarbaro Zucca Amaro
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce chili-infused honey
1/2 ounce orange juice
small pinch black lava sea salt
4 drops extra virgin olive oil
1 egg white

Wagner: Combine all ingredients. Dry shake, then add ice and wet shake. Strain into chilled Nick & Nora glass, garnishing rim with black sea salt.

See also

Il Lazzarone is already cool. It’s time for it to be great, too 
Il Lazzarone’s Erik Borger adds new pizzas, cuts prices — and preps ramen restaurant
Bartender’s Notebook: Seth Shaver reveals his secrets at the American Restaurant

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