Stappi Red Bitter is refreshing over ice, or in a nonalcoholic or even low-proof cocktail. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

An ode to Stappi, Italy’s red bitter soda

I don’t know if my love affair with Stappi is because of the bitter edge to the sweet soda or because of its vibrant vermillion color and the super-cute little bottles.

I don’t know if my love affair with Stappi is because of the bitter edge to the sweet soda or because of its vibrant vermillion color and the super-cute little bottles.

Flavor is important in Italian culture, yes, but so is design. Stappi brings together both beautifully.

We’re talking about Stappi Red Bitter, one flavor in a line of Italian-made sodas that also includes rabarbaro (rhubarb), chinotto (another bitter flavor), gassosa (lemon), coffee, cedrata (citron), lemon, cola, tonic and orange. I discovered it a few years back at an Italian market, a six-pack sitting unassumingly in the refrigerator case, next to the apricot and pear nectars and sparkling waters. A sucker for Italian products, I carted a six home.

And loved it. The bottle’s sloping neck, its diminutive size (holding just 100 milliliters, about 3.4 ounces, or under { cup). The bright color. The bitter flavor, a taste we don’t expect in a soda, but Italians embrace. Slightly fizzy, and a bit viscous, it’s a refreshing nonalcoholic version of the country’s aperitivo liqueurs, the most famous of which is Campari.

Though I’ve read plenty of comparisons to that famed drink, Stappi Red Bitter is not that. It doesn’t have the same flavor profile, nor the complexity. But it does fit into the predinner drink niche. The fact that it’s alcohol-free gives it versatility. If you don’t drink or want to skip booze, it’s great on the rocks, or cut with some sparkling water to up the bubbly factor of the just slightly frizzante soda. As a base for a low-proof spritz, it stands in ably for Aperol and its kin. I like it with prosecco, at two to one, Italian sparkler to Stappi.

Made in the small town of Sant’Elena Sannita in the eastern region of Molise, a few hours east of Rome, Stappi sodas claim a long history. The brand dates to the 1980s, but the company, Di Lorio, goes back to 1896 and claims it uses pure mineral water. Those facts are in case you like a little history with your drink. And another tidbit to pull out at cocktail hour: Stappi comes from stappare, which means to uncork. Story goes that the then hand-blown bottles were topped with marbles and removing one created the characteristic sound captured in the name. Sounds apocryphal. But also like a tale that’s very Italian, just like the drink.

___

SPRITZ

1 bottle (100 milliliters) Stappi Red Bitter

3 ounces sparkling wine

1 ounce sparkling water

1 slice or wedge orange

Pour the ingredients over ice in a wine glass. Stir gently. Garnish with orange slice or wedge. Give a gentle stir. Adjust with more of the sparkler, if you like.

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