Joe Campanale may be a native New Yorker, but he’s in a long-term long-distance relationship with Italy. “My love for Italian food, wine and culture informs everything I do professionally,” says Campanale, who first visited Italy when he was studying in Florence as a college student at NYU. Back in New York, he got a gig at a wine shop—one of the first in the country to focus solely on Italian wines—and then worked for an all-Italian wine importer and distributor. Soon, he’d become one of the youngest sommeliers in America, and after a stint at a top Italian restaurant in Manhattan, he went out on his own, opening his first restaurant in the West Village in 2007.
But Italy is always on his mind, and he visits Italy several times a year. At the regional Italian restaurant he co-owns with chef Erin Shambura in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, the beverage menu is firmly rooted in the Italian tradition, from the aperitivo drinks to the smart Italian wine list to the extensive amari program, which includes a number of handpicked vintage bottles.
“I love that amaro is an elegant digestif. There are so many different styles and variations in sweetness that there’s an amaro for everyone,” Campanale says. “When I take a sip of Averna, I’m transported back in time to my college days traveling through Sicily and to Piazza Duomo in Ortigia, where I had it for the very first time.”
Dedicating a large portion of his Brooklyn restaurant’s backbar to amari has helped pique the curiosity of guests who might be unfamiliar with the category—the colorful and evocative labels on many bottles, he explains, help draw people in. And once they’re in, his staff is expertly trained to guide them. “Because our team is so informed on the topic,” says Campanale, “their enthusiasm translates pretty naturally to our guests in the restaurant.”
His own enthusiasm for hospitality is also on display when he entertains at home. He leans toward rustic spreads of top-notch ingredients, which he presents—simply and dramatically—on a large wooden board. Along with a selection of cheeses, you’ll find Spanish hams, like jamón ibérico and pata negra, as well as Italian mortadella, which Campanale finishes with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of fresh-cracked black pepper. Or he’ll do a sort of mixed grill, visiting his local Brooklyn butcher for pork blade steaks, sausages and lamb shoulder chops, which he carves into slices and serves on a cutting board, adorned with good olive oil and Maldon salt.
Campanale can’t help but finish the meal with a bottle of amaro, brought to the table with glasses and ice to encourage guests to serve themselves and linger after dinner. He’ll turn to Averna for a caffè corretto, adding a splash to a postprandial coffee or an espresso. It’s a classic move he learned from watching the tradition at Italian cafés, where people add some Averna to the bottom of their empty coffee cups to help sweep up any remaining drops of coffee or any errant grounds for the perfect bittersweet finish.
While it may be a nod to an authentic Italian custom, Campanale’s take on an after-dinner Averna is filtered through a contemporary lens. It isn’t about imitating life abroad; it’s about the joy of ritual, and the pleasure in appreciating each moment. And as Campanale proves, the amaro lifestyle—on its own, in a cocktail, or paired with a feast—works as well in Brooklyn as in Palermo.