The Story Behind The Little Italy
The Little Italy is a modern classic rooted in Italian-American taste. The Manhattan riff, which swaps out its bitters for artichoke-based amaro Cynar, gets its name from New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood, just a stone's throw from the now-shuttered Pegu Club where the drink made its debut in 2005.
Manhattan variations were popping up left and right in the early days of the cocktail renaissance. Many were named after various NYC neighborhoods, including Vincenzo Errico’s Red Hook (rye whiskey, Punt e Mes, and Maraschino liqueur) and Michael McIlroy’s Greenpoint (a traditional Manhattan spec with the addition of yellow Chartreuse), both of which were created at legendary cocktail bar Milk & Honey. But the Little Italy was dreamed up by bartender and former Pegu Club co-owner Audrey Saunders while enjoying a round of Manhattans one night at Soho institution Raoul’s. Saunders was suddenly inspired to use amaro instead of bitters in the classic cocktail’s spec. Keeping all other components consistent with the original build, Saunders replaced the bitters with Cynar, an Italian apéretif manufactured by Campari Group. The exact ingredients in Cynar are a company secret, but it allegedly contains 13 different herbs and plants, one of which we know is artichokes. It’s also one of several liqueurs, along with Fernet-Branca, Chartreuse, and St-Germain, that had an early-aughts resurgence in the mixology community.
Though similar in flavor profile, the Little Italy expresses more savory and spicy notes than a typical Manhattan. Cynar’s bitter medicinal character takes a supporting role, and its more tangy dried fruit notes shine through. The recommended rye, the high-corn Rittenhouse, brings a bourbon-like sweetness and imparts a caramel-heavy flavor with a leathery, assertive foundation. For the sweet vermouth, Saunders opts for the Italian brand Martini & Rossi.