Fernet Branca shakerato, the only way I drink it

Above: Fernet Branca shakerato at Tony’s in Houston.

Mama Judy flew into Houston yesterday and we’ll be celebrating the Passover tomorrow evening in Austin. And last night, the Branch, Levy, Kelly, and Parzen families gathered at Tony’s for una cena da leoni — an epic meal.

And after such a sumptuous and rich meal (see below), I must have a Fernet Branca — shakerato (chilled, shakered, and strained), the only way I drink it.

My relationship with the storied and celebrated digestivo stretches back to my earliest days as a copywriter in the early aughts back in NYC. My first gig was as editor of the Fernet Branca monthly newsletter.

At the time (before the tragedy of September 11, 2001), Fernet Branca had just reopened its bottling facility in TriBeCa. It was an amazing space: until the 1980s, when the US FDA blocked the import of Fernet Branca because it was still being sold as a drug (!), it was so popular in this country that the company continued to operate its 1930s-era bottling facility in lower Manhattan. When the US government blocked its sale, Fernet Branca hastily abandoned and boarded up the place, leaving the entire operation in place. In the late 90s, they decided to reopen it as the headquarters for a relaunch of the brand (which, by that time, was coming into the country legally, classified and regulated as a spirit).

The most amazing part of the facility was the counterfeit detection laboratory. The brand was so popular — before, during, and after Prohibition, when it was marketed as a “tonic” and regulated as a drug — that the company devoted significant resources to its anti-counterfeit operation. The laboratory — like a set from Young Frankenstein — was a museum of Fernet Branca imitators and pirates. Cobwebs and a patina of nearly two decades of dust. An amazing sight…

During my tenure as the editor of the Fernet Branca newsletter (which ended when the tragedy of 2001 reshaped the landscape of that neighborhood), I traveled twice to the Fernet Branca distillery in Milan and it was fascinating experience to learn the secrets and study the history of this brandy infused with mushrooms and herbs — the restaurant and bartending professional’s digestif of choice in this country (just ask any bartender).

Highlights from dinner…

Tony’s famous “Greenberg” salad. (I must confess that besides writing a hit song, I also aspire to having a salad named after me.)

Gnocchi “Primavera” with fiddlehead greens and Washington state ramps. Delicious…

Whole, salt-encrusted Gulf of Mexico red snapper, filleted tableside…

And then dressed in a reduction of guineafowl jus and Barolo… This dish wowed our table of ten…

Tracie P was truly aglow last night… more beautiful than ever… Mrs. and Rev. B drove in from Orange just to see everyone and break bread together (photo by cousin Dana).

Cousin Marty is now more than halfway through his treatment (very tough, as you can imagine, but he’s soldiering through it). He rallied to be with us last night. It just wouldn’t be a dinner at Tony’s without Marty: “If I’m going out to eat,” he exclaimed the day before with the panache that I love him for, “it’s going to be at Tony’s!”

A wonderful, wonderful, unforgettable night… a table of ten, celebrating the lives of our families, remembering how lucky we are to be here and to be together, and dreaming of the future… at the table of a great friend…

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