800 Words about Grappa

Italy’s World Famous “Elixir” —

The Historical Tradition of Grappa found in Bassano del Grappa, Italy

If you know an Italian “from the old school” you know that the culture in Italy discards very little, using every useable bit of the food supply, be it animal or vegetable produce. So it was in winemaking, the tradition to capture every last essence of the grape, by distilling the skins, pulp, seeds and stems, called the pomace, into “grappa”, now a name protected by the EU, historically from the medieval Latin “grappolus” or bunch of grapes. To be called “grappa” the product must be born and reared in Italy.  “The Instituto Nazionale Grappa represents 80% of the production of the grappa distillate and its main purpose is its promotion and protection,” said Elvio Bonolio, President. Many family-run distilleries have produced this “elixir of ages” for many generations.

Grappa must be 35-60% alcohol by volume compared to wine (12%+/-) or vodka, rum and tequila (40%+/-). At the end of the meal, in Italy, it is a digestif. It is also added to espresso (“caffe coretto”). Like wine, grappa can be “young” or “old” and is served in the appropriate type glass. It can be colorless or a variety of tones, depending on its blend.

Terms and Definitions Can be Confusing

Grappa is obtained by distilling the skins and seeds of grapes, or the grape-pomace that is obtained exclusively from grapes produced and vinified in Italy and put into stills in Italy, following the restrictive indications prescribed by law. Grape Brandy is obtained by distilling fermented grapes with both the solid and liquid parts of the grape, but not quite a wine brandy (distilling only liquid material). Young Grappa is bottled nearly one year after it was distilled; Aromatic Grappa is obtained from aromatic varieties like Moscato or Traminer; Aged Grappa is matured in oak casks for 12-18 months and is amber in color from the oak; To be called “old”, aged grappa which must remain in wooden barrels of any type or size for at least one year. “Barrique”refers to an aging process in French oak barrels of 225 liters. FruitFlavored Grappa is young, bottled with   the infusion of a specific fruit like blueberry for a few months and is the color of the infused fruit; Fruit Brandy is obtained from the fermented pulp of fruits like cherries, raspberries, pears, etc. and is always crystal clear.

How Old is it?

According to Simon Difford’s Guide, “it is probable that grappa predates grain-based distillates” since written evidence dating to mid-14thcentury places grappa origins in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The oldest book on the subject is dated May 8, 1500, by Hieronymus Brunschwigh. Alchemists intent on discovering the elixir for a long life, Renaissance doctors who distilled herbs and flowers for medical purposes, and Venetians producing brandies, all helped the distillation process to evolve. It spread through the northern regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Val d’Aosta and by the 15thcentury became licensed with taxes.

Bortolo Nardini established his inn and distillery on the Brenta river bank in Bassano del Grappa in 1779. Bassano del Grappa in the Italian region north of Venice is known as the “capital” of the Italian distillate. The Poli Distillery (est.1898) invites visitors to the Poli Grappa Museum where the history of the distillation process is illustrated in detail. In addition, the Poli Grappa Museum is home to a collection of approximately 1600 old and modern books about grappa and the art of distillation and the largest known collection of Grappas in Italy. On display are thousands of bottles from hundreds of distilleries, many of which have now disappeared.images-2

The Poli Distillerie is open every day 9am-7:30pm. Admission free.

Where Does it Come From?

Italy has risen to the demand for fine cuisine and wine. Grappa production and export is prominent in Northern Italy due to the cooler weather and altitude. Today, grappas carry the aromas and characteristics of their specific grape varieties and therefore, different taste attributes. The eight recognized geographical Grappa Regions are:

  1. Grappa di Barolo
  2. Grappa Piemontese/Grappa del Piemonte
  3. Grappa Trentina/Grappa del Trentino
  4. Grappa Friulana/Frappa del Friuli
  5. Grappa Veneta/Grappa del Veneto
  6. Sudtiroler Grappa/Grappa dell’Alto Adige
  7. Grappa Siciliana/Grappa di Sicilia
  8. Grappa di Marsala

Bottled and labeled with one of these designations dictates these are grapes from the region and at least 40% alc./vol.. Grappa sold without the above indications must be at least 37.5% alc./vol.. Additional style and age designations can be found on  https://www.diffordsguide.comor www.poligrappa.comor email questions to info@poligrappa.comor info@grappa.com.

According to Dunn

Among the more consistent quality Italian producers are Alexander, Candolini, Jacopo Poli, and Nonino. In America, “the best I’ve had comes from an Oregon producer called Clear Creek,” says food critic and author Dan Dunn. Other countries like Greece’s tsipouro and Turkey’s raki have their own version of grappa, again made from century-old recipes including herbs, roots and spices traditional to their culture.




The Glorious Gondolieri


It occurs to me that most of the culture in Italy is built in layers, upon layers, upon which its truths become known. We see it in art as the stiff figures of the 14th century transformed into more human forms in which beauty could be brought forth and appreciated in the natural landscape not just a gold background. We see it in the ever present layering of flavors and food. We see it in the teachings of the ancients and in the culture today.

In Venice, for example, one of its symbols is the gondola. A tradition of centuries and construction of layers.  The iron of the bow is structured to communicate the historic and cultural grandeur of the city. The upper part specifies the Doge’s hat, beneath it is the arch to represent the Rialto Bridge.  The double “S” that runs the length of the iron bow represents the Grand Canal. Each of the prongs jutting out below the Doge’s hat represent the six “sestieri” (districts): San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, Castello, Dosoduro and Cannaregio. More recent finishes on the back side of the prongs are meant to represent the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.


The “ferro”representing the districts and islands of Venice.

Like the “slow food” known to be the tradition in the Italian kitchen, and signature of famous chefs, a gondola takes time to build, about a year. Comprised of 280 pieces, made from 8 different types of wood: oak, elm, lime, larch, fir, cherry, walnut and mahogany. The oar is made of beech and the “forcola” or oarlock (a work of art itself) is made of walnut. The only parts in metal are the “ferro” in front of the craft, and the “risso” at the back. The flat bottom allows for easy navigation in shallow waters. The gondola is asymmetrical, 24cm longer on the left to help counterbalance both the gondolier’s weight at the back and the tendency of the boat to sway left since the gondolier continually rows on the right.

Competing noblemen would weigh lavish decoration upon the gondolas during Serenissima’s splendor during the 15th and 16th centuries, including settees for lovers inside small cabins with doors, windows, draperies and heaters. The Senate ruled with a law that holds fast today that all gondolas now must be standardized and painted black.

It is not easy to become a professional gondolier. Traditionally, only men were allowed to be gondoliers, from a family of gondoliers. The “Ente Gondola” guild imposes strict requirements that include attending a special school, passing a public competition, and apprenticeship to a professional gondolier for 6-12 months.

Venice is one of Italy’s wealthiest provinces, the cost of living is high and so is the gondolier’s investment. A gondolier could earn more money for less work on the mainland, but his passion is in his highly competitive trade, where he must make a living a few months of the year. Gondolas cost upwards of 20,000 euros and take over 500 hours to build. A traghetto is a public gondola ferry and a great value at only 2 euros to cross the Grand Canal at different spots. The vaporettos are public water buses for which a city card grants you indefinite access on different lines serving different neighborhoods. Water taxis are more expensive private service transport about the canals and to the airport. From the airport, a transit bus may be the least expensive and quickest way to your hotel, compared to the Alilaguna blue line boat. With 400+ footbridges with multitudeness stairs, it’s best to pick a hotel that’s easy to reach, wheeled luggage notwithstanding. There are no taxis or rickshaws in Venice. Nor Uber.

The first female gondoliera was licensed in 2010. Giorgia Boscolo, the 24 year old daughter of a 40-year veteran gondolier, was the first to pass the requirements and obtain a license. Alex Hai, a transgender man, was granted an unofficial gondolier license (Italy is full of controversy) and operates private tours from one of the hotel sites in Venice.gondoliera.4568

The logo on the gondolier’s uniform features St. Mark as the winged lion holding an open book, a symbol of peace and strength, framed by two traditional iron gondola prow ornaments. I was surprised to find the very uniform shirts, sweaters, jackets and more for sale in two shops at the Rialto and one in Cannaregio. Although you can find look-alike items on Amazon, and with vendors in Venice, only the deemed-authentic uniform is found in Venice and on the emilioceccato.com site.

Buying them, I’m told, supports the gondolieri and their trade. The authentic emblem is sewn right into the clothing and represents the Venetian lion and Association of Gondolieri. Does every oarsman wear the authentic emblemed shirt or jacket? No.GondolierBlue_0243

Want a Ride? Practicalities and the Price

Some liken it to a hansom cab in New York’s Central Park. “Best to enjoy the ride and forget the price.” As negotiable as it is, however, be prepared.  A gondola carries up to six passengers, and the city of Venice sets the rates at about 80 euros for 40 minutes, tip not included. Additional 20-minute increments are 40 euros and up after 7p.m. Gondoliers are their own master, boosting the price with singing, or regarding the official rates as polite fiction. A concierge can negotiate for you, even seek out wheelchair accommodation, but may add further charges, and/or increasing the risk of miss-communication. Have in mind exactly what kind of ride you want, and where you want to go also well specified before you set foot in the boat.

Summer Zucchini Pizza


It’s the season, they are everywhere and can be used in sautés, cakes, muffins, ragouts, stews, soups and now……..PIZZA!


Round pizza pan
1 large globe zucchini
sm. disk of Brie or other melting cheese, thinly sliced
2T  fresh chopped herbs (thyme, basil, lemon balm, etc.)
3T tomato paste
I sheet puff pastry rolled out
Pepper and lemon zest to sprinkle

Slice zucchini into thin rounds and place on paper towels to absorb moisture. Sprinkle liberally with salt and place weighted paper towel on top. Allow to sit 30 mins. Press out moisture with another towel if necessary.

Place dry zucchini rounds on sprayed/greased pizza pan, overlapping if necessary. Place small dollops of tomato paste all around, then slices of cheese, a sprinkle of pepper and lemon zest, and fresh herbs (salt is already in the cheese and zucchini). Lay puff pastry sheet over all to cover. Bake in 400º oven 30 mins. until pastry and zucchini begin to brown.  Allow to cool slightly. Loosen with spatula (though it will flip easily). Place another round pizza pan or serving dish over the pizza and flip in one quick motion. Additional grated cheese or seasoning can be added before serving. Buon gusto!


Travel Prepared

Preparing for a trip to Italy is not for the faint of heart. Of course, you surmise: pack light, check passport, research your destination so you know what you are looking at when you get there, and confirm all reservations up one side and down the other. Are you fit? Travel requires that you handle stress and strenuous activity like walking and negotiating your routes on upturned cobblestones and around voluminous tourist crowds, especially children who are particularly noisy and never look where they are going. Taking age into account, I had physical therapy because of knee inflammation and then went to the gym for months before the trip. But I never, ever, took into account The Stairs.

There are truly magnificent staircases in the museums (elevators are few, hidden or non existent due to the age of buildings). Such as the age of my hotels’ buildings: 6 flights in the one I moved out of and two long and narrow flights in the one behind Santo Spirito church. The exit signs in the Ducale Palace were turned around and getting lost means many times crossing the Bridge of Sighs and climbing up and down the monumental staircases.

There are 448 bridges in Venice, all with stairs going up and going down the other side.


There are no wheeled transports in Venice, so you are on your feet all day. Going back to your room might mean climbing more stairs. Maybe that’s why the outdoor and indoor cafes are so crowded!