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Fernet Branca dishes: The spirit moves to the plate

Italian liqueur Fernet Branca—a bartender favorite—is popping up in sweet and savory dishes at New York City restaurants.

 (Fernet Branca)
Fernet Branca
 (Photograph: Virginia Rollison)
Photograph: Virginia Rollison

Fernet Branca ice-cream sandwich at Pearl & Ash

 (Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson)
Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Fernet root-beer float at Corkbuzz Wine Studio

 (Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson)
Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Liver-and-onions pâté at Miller's Near & Far

 (Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson)
Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Tiramisu at Ribalta Pizzeria

A few years back, Fernet-Branca—once just a dusty digestif for Italian grandpas—developed a cult following in the drinks industry, with bartenders knocking back the Milanese liqueur as a postshift shot. But recently, chefs have also taken a shine to the bitter spirit, which is made of cardamom, rhubarb, and 25 other roots, herbs and flowers.

Two downtown spots plug it into frozen treats: an intensely herbaceous ice-cream sandwich ($6) at Pearl & Ash and the crowning scoop atop the boozy root beer float ($13) at Corkbuzz Wine Studio. Just a few blocks away, at pizza joint Ribalta, chef Pasquale Cozzolino introduced a tiramisu laced with the stuff ($9) in September. Inspired by his Neapolitan grandfather—a devoted fan of the digestif—Cozzolino dunks airy ladyfingers in a fernet-coffee bath, then tops them with fluffy whipped mascarpone.

And it’s not just sweets that are getting an infusion of the aromatic spirit. At Miller’s Near & Far, the chef adds fernet to sautéed shallots and carrots to caramelize the vegetables, before they’re pulverized with chicken livers into a rich, creamy pâté ($10). In another savory spin, Chris Jaeckle will serve pan-roasted Atlantic cod with a fernet-and-mussel nuoto (an acidic white wine jus) at his soon-to-open trattoria, All’onda.

Pinpointing this rise of fernet in the kitchen is an herbal spirits dinner on October 21 at Betony. Chef Bryce Shuman—who drank Fernet-Branca “religiously” while working the line in San Francisco—plans on using it to poach pears for dessert. For those wary of intense liqueur, these dishes are a lighter introduction to the bitter(s) truth.