L’ Anisetta Meletti, bevuta anche da Francis Ford Coppola, è la crème de la crème dei liquori italiani per Forbes.
By Alan GoldfarbAbout a year-and-a-half ago I gave a bottle of anisette to Francis Ford Coppola. I thought that the anise-flavored spirit would elevate the famous film director’s spirits as I prepared to interview him for a magazine story. And, I would honor a southern Italian tradition – that of pouring a bit of anisette into a cup of espresso — a ritual inculcated in me by my Sicilian-American uncle when I was a boy in New York. Coppola loved the anisette in his coffee, and I got a pretty good story.More than a half-century later, I found myself a few months ago in Ascoli Piceno, near the Adriatic in east-central Italy, on a reporting trip to find out what this intoxicating elixir had instilled in me back in the Italian-American Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn; and why I’ve been so intrigued about it all these years. Many years ago in fact, when I opened a coffeehouse in San Francisco (with no liquor license), inspired by the beat-generation boîtes of Greenwich Village, I would keep anisette under the counter to share with some of my best customers, most of whom were delighted but had never heard of the rite of pouring it into their espresso.Anisette or anisetta (ah nha ZET ah), as the Italians spell it and pronounce this clear, strong licorice-like drink, is but a myriad of anise-redolent spirits consumed around the world. From Italy (Sambuca), France (Absinthe, Pastis, Pernod), Spain and Portugal (Chinchón, Aguardiente), Greece and Cyprus (Ouzo, Raki), Arrack (Turkey, Israel), Arak (Lebanon), and from Raki again (Albania, the Balkans), it is consumed straight up, or on the rocks, or as a soda, and even as a viscous syrup poured over desserts such as gelato.But the manner in which the Melettis – the family that has been producing anisetta from their Meletti distillery — prefer to experience their anisette, is varied. They take it in their demitasse; or after drinking their espresso in what the Italians call corretto, some prefer it in a delicate swirl around the cup to dredge the residual brown crema (froth) left by the rich coffee. Meletti, while not the largest producer of anisetta, is the crème de la crème of Italian anisetta.Situated in the outskirts of the small city of Ascoli (AHS co lee), the Melettis have been making anisetta for 150 years(!). From an unremarkable, whitewashed two-story building in an industrial zone, the fifth generation Melettis turn out about half their production or 200K bottles (a comparatively small number, but which makes it the largest producer of anisetta in Italy) in three different styles. There’s the Classic with 34% alcohol, the Dry (42% with 24% less sugar; and in actuality is not dry at all), both priced at about $21; and the Riserva, of which only 100 bottles are made a year, and alas, is not available in the states.Thirty-four-year-old head distiller Mauro Meletti uses dried anise seeds from the fields around Ascoli and his home region of Le Marche (MAR kay). The province is the largest producer of anise in Italy; and apparently the salty sea breezes from the Adriatic render a pure and clean concentrated flavor of anise for Meletti’s anisetta. I’ve tried other country’s renditions of anisette – from France and even from the U.S.’s lone anisette producer – and those, in a blind tasting, smelled and tasted somewhat medicinal and not as unalloyed as Meletti’s version. Mauro Meletti claims that that the green anise from Le Marche is “2-to-3 times more fragrant and higher in essential oils than from the other Mediterranean areas.” Perhaps for that reason, Meletti in the past few years has increased its marketing in the states in hopes of reviving anisette; and in an apparent attempt to lift it out of the realm of old-man southern Italian/Italian-American lore.
The young Meletti is not averse to employing marketing terms to hype his product. “You may think of us as a big name, but since our founder (his great-great grandfather in 1870), we haven’t changed anything,” he says as he stands in front of small red and white painted pot stills that seem quaint and very old. “We think of ourselves as artisanal and (we embrace) the concept of a craft distillery, which fits perfectly with artisanal production.”To my mind, while Mauro Meletti seems as earnest and sweet as his anisetta, this spirit deserves and has earned the right to stand on its own. Its sugary black licorice flavor but mature countenance, should fit well for another generation to embrace into its pantheon of after-dinner digestivos or even as an il dolci to top off a substantive evening.