In Italy, any respectable bar or cafe has at least a dozen different types of amari, bitter concoctions with wonderful old-fashioned labels made with such things as artichoke or bitter mountain herbs. They're said to stimulate the appetite and settle the stomach.
For some people, these bittersweet vermouths may be an acquired taste, but I took to them on my very first trip to Italy. Maybe it's just that I fell in love with the idea of the aperitivo. Over the years, I've tried them all, but the one I prefer is Punt e Mes. It's made by Carpano, the company that bears the name of Antonio Benedetto Carpano, the Piedmontese barman credited with devising the drink in 1796. Punt e Mes means "point and a half"--one point bitter, half a point sweet. The exact recipe, of course, is a secret, but we do know that it's a fortified white wine (16% alcohol), sweetened with sugar, and flavored with more than 50 different mountain herbs.
How do you drink it? On the rocks, with a twist of lemon or a slice of orange, which is when you get that sharp hit of sweet laced with bitter. Some prefer a long drink, though, in which Punt e Mes is mixed with tonic water or--shudder--orange juice.
About $18. Widely available at most wine shops, retailers and liquor stores.