Friday, March 29, 2013 at 7 a.m.
During the hot, humid summers of my misspent youth in New Jersey, my grandmother's neighbor, an old Italian woman with eyes in the back of her head who cooked like an angel and could whup you with a cooking spoon from 10 feet away, would go into the basement and bring out her ice shaver, a cantankerous old machine with a cloth-wrapped wire that must have come in a box marked, "I like Ike." Then she'd send me and her grandson to the store to buy a bag of ice, and she'd go to work. The noise from that relic (the machine, thank you) was unbearable, but it put out absolutely perfect shaved ice that could be packed into round balls that didn't fuse into a giant cube.
Then she'd bust out the amari--bitter mixes of herbs and spices distilled and infused into grain alcohol--pour them on the snow cones she'd made, and we'd all get faded, carousing and singing "Vieni sul mar" off-key until the police found us collapsed in a sodden, drunken heap of cut-off jeans and support hose.
Okay, that last part might be an exaggeration---I'm pretty sure it was benign anise or lemon or cherry syrups, though she made them all from scratch--but if it weren't, the Italian Snow Cone ($12) at ARC in the South Coast Collection would be what we had.
The Italian Snow Cone is made from those bottles you usually see gathering dust in the back of the bar, strange and unloved concoctions whose descriptions don't exactly inspire the desire to taste them. It's principally made of Cynar ("chee-nar"), which is made principally made of artichokes. Yes. Bitter artichoke. Yum. Add to that Aperol, which contains rhubarb, gentian, bitter orange and cinchona bark (the thing that gives tonic water its flavor). It's balanced with citrus and mint, but there's no disputing it: This drink is made of Old Man Liquors.
Yet somehow this is the world's most perfect summer drink; the bitterness of the amari is cut by the citrus, and the mint provides a slightly sharp tang, more scent than flavor. It's served with a metal straw with a small paddle on the end, and you'll want to know that because you'll find yourself crunching the granita-like ice for as long as it lasts.