If the wind is just right as you wander Seattle, you’ll likely catch a healthy whiff of brewing hops or roasting coffee beans. This city has a thriving beverage scene of which it’s mighty proud. But beer and java better watch their backs because another tasty drink is stealing the show at Tulio Ristorante. Seattle, meet grappa. This fragrant, grape-based pomace brandy hails from Italy and brings an undeniable zest you won’t soon forget.
By now, most of us know which latte flavors fit our fancy and which IPAs please our palates. Yet, for many, grappa remains a mystery. To remedy this, we chatted with grappa guru Chef Walter Pisano, the culinary talent who charms Tulio patrons with his boldly flavored Italian fare and nearly 40 types of grappa. He grew up in an East Coast Italian family but has been wowing the Pacific Northwest for 30 years; he delights in sharing his heritage with others.
Seattle is the prefect city for grappa, says Pisano, referencing those gray, rainy days that call for a warming drink sipped in a cozy space. To get his grappa program going, he brought in an expert to educate his staff. He thinks it’s easy to garner interest in this lesser-known drink, thanks to its huge tradition and its often-beautiful, sleek packaging (some grappa arrives in hand-blown bottles, for example).
The flavor of grappa, much like wine, depends on the type and quality of grapes, plus the specific distillation process used. Pisano marvels that for years he only had access to a few types of grappa in the States, but now he can stock his menu with dozens. While most of Tulio’s come from Italy’s masters, he also stocks local brand Soft Tail (owner/distiller Dennis Robertson fell in love with grappa while traveling in Italy and now brings the taste to Pacific Northwest fans).
Above all, Pisano wants to dispel myths of grappa being “fire water” or “moonshine.” He discusses the elaborate array available, catering to all tastes. Whiskey drinkers might like a grappa aged in oak, for example, while others might enjoy gentler, herb-infused options like a chamomile flavor. The Tulio menu includes categories like “For Whiskey Drinkers”; “Fruit Forward” (the Jacopo Poli Amorosa di Settembre Vespaiolo is described as “soft with vanilla, raspberry cream and quince); “Elegant” (like the Alexander Grappolo Prosecco, “very lush with notes of yeast, brioche, raisins and dried peaches); and “Robust and Refined” (like Cavatappi Grappa di Nebbiolo, herbal with notes of wood, melon and lemon).
So how to enjoy this beverage? Italians enjoy grappa at any time of day — even poured into their espresso — but Pisano prefers it as a digestive served at the end of a meal. At Tulio, located at Hotel Vintage, patrons can enjoy grappa flights and a grappa happy hour after 8pm. Pisano suggests pairing most kinds with sweet treats like chocolate biscotti, figs drizzled with honey, or even a dark-chocolate caramel.
He prefers serving grappa in a tulip-shaped glass that allows the drink to open up. You can either swirl it or let it sit on the tongue (which he prefers); however, he warns: Don’t throw your nose in there. Instead, subtly run your nose by the glass so as to not overwhelm. He suggests first trying liqueurs, which are sweeter, or an infused option. You have to introduce yourself to grappa, to sit on it, like a good brandy or cognac, he advises.
Pisano hopes you’ll enjoy his passion, too: “If you’ve had a bad one or one you didn’t like, please don’t give up. There are so many more to try.”