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The Great Italian-American Soda Debate

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By Fresh Bites

 
Is it really an Italian Soda if it is not from Italy? 

With the temperatures now hovering around 30°C and city patios gearing up for World Cup revelers, a second debate will soon be starting up between servers and customers.  Do you want a Chinotto or an Italian Soda?  Some may have never tried either of these beverages.  For others, they are one in the same.  The truth is that they are two very different celebrations of Italian drink culture – of which only one is of Italian birth.

If you have travelled to Italy and asked for an Italian soda as a tourist, chances are you received a chinotto – a carbonated beverage resembling Coca-Cola.  One sip and you will quickly realize that this is not the American classic you may be accustomed to.  Chinotto is made from the myrtle-leaved orange, a compact shrub or tree identified by its small leaves. The fruits of the tree which resemble that of an orange, are sour or bitter.  The tree grows in Italy and parts of Malta and the name “chinotto” is believed to have originated from the plants birthplace, China.  In addition to chinotto, the fruit is also used to make Italian bitters, including Italy’s famous Campari.

The juice from the fruit, along with some herbs, is used to make the Italian sparkling drink referred to as “Chinotto”.   Chinotto is believed to have first been introduced in Italy back in the late 1940s and early 50s.  At the time, the bittersweet beverage gained immense popularity with the Rocoaro brand being one of the most widely consumed.  San Pellegrino also produced chinotto along with another company known as Neri.  In North America, it is still a staple in old-world Italian communities and you can be guaranteed to find it on a menu at your favorite authentic pizzeria or Italian sports hall.  Here in Canada, most people are familiar with the Brio brand of chinotto and more recently, the San Pellegrino brand has begun appearing in grocery stores across the country.

 
The myrtle leaf orange...the key to making chinotto! 

What needs to be made clear is that this is not an Italian Soda.  In fact, Italian soda isn’t even from Italy.  Yes, it is not uncommon to see patrons in your local “Little Italy” enjoying a “syrup and soda”, the origins are actually believed to be from the opposite direction in which Alitalia flies…good ole San Francisco, California.

An Italian soda is what is commonly referred to a carbonated soft drink made from carbonated water, and flavored “simple syrup”.  There is still debate as to whether or not a true Italian Soda includes a splash of half and half – but we already have enough confusion with chinotto to start debating this one.  Legend has it that the first “Italian Soda” came from Rinaldo and Ezilda Torre, a couple from San Francisco’s North Beach area and founders of the globally recognized syrup and sauce company, Torani.  The couple began producing syrups from recipes they acquired in Italy back in 1925.  They began mixing their syrups with sparkling water and serving them to residents of North Beach from their grocery store.  The rest is history.

 
Torani has been making a wide range of simple syrups and sauces since 1925.

Today, Italian Soda is commonly served in most cafés and coffee shops across North America.  Vendors on the boardwalks in New Jersey, community pool halls in Brooklyn, and even the celebrated patios of Montreal’s plateau would not be the same without patrons sipping colorful Italian Sodas on a warm summer’s day.  The classic favours of the Italian Soda in most Italian-American and Italian-Canadian communities include lemon, lime, grape, cherry, black currant, and strawberry.  The Torani brand of syrup is not the only one on the market today; however they are probably the one with the most flavours.  Most major coffee chains also use these syrups to make flavored coffees, a concept believed to have been developed in San Francisco when a local café successfully used Torani syrup to create a vanilla-flavored latte in the 1990s.

 
Modern day San Pellegrino Chinotto - available at most grocers.

So, back to the issue at hand.  The confusion lies in what it is you are asking for and who officially invented it.  In 1932, San Pellegrino (whose history dates back to 1395) started producing “Aranciata”, an orange flavored sparkling water containing San Pellegrino sparkling water as its primary ingredient along with concentrated orange juice.  This should be considered the first native-“Italian Soda” to Italy, even though it was a full seven years after Torani started selling it in San Francisco.  Today, cans of San Pellegrino “flavored carbonated water” can be purchased at your local grocer.  They include a chinotto (which we now know is not an Italian Soda), a Limonata (a lemon sparkling water), Sanbittèr (a bitters infused sparkling water), and of course the classic orange flavoured Aranciata. 

However, an authentic “Italian Soda” remains the one developed in San Francisco back in 1925 using flavoured syrup such as Torani and carbonated water.  So, with World Cup season upon us and your patio chair reserved, keep this in mind.  If you want a chinotto or Limonata, ask for it by name.  If you want an Italian Soda, perhaps specifically asking for a Torani Lemon and Soda is a good idea.  Of course, we will no doubt ask for a Peroni, it just goes better with soccer matches.

 



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