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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

Toronto's Exclusive Aperitivo Paints the Town Red

For bartenders and fans of Italian-style bitters, Capo Capo finds a lovely middle ground between gentle Aperol and tart Campari

The aperitivo hour isn’t part of daily life in Toronto, and maybe it never will be. Truth be told, there are no North American cities where a typical work day ends with a lightly alcoholic pre-dinner drink as in Northern Italy or Southern France – apart from Montreal, where the cinq à sept is an institution.

This (unfortunate) cultural gap makes Capo Capo such a gamble. A bittersweet red liquor in the northern Italian style, the product calls out (in a romantic cadence, of course) to be served on the rocks with soda, with olives or some other salty snack on the side, or else mixed with prosecco and soda to make a sunset hour spritz. In terms of strength, sweetness and bitterness it fits neatly between sprightly Aperol and puckeringly bitter Campari, the leaders in the aperitivo product category. Capo Capo is made in Trento, northeastern Italy, and seems ideal for the northeastern Italian market.

Too bad for the folks in Friuli that it’s actually being produced for Toronto, Ottawa and – as of yet – pretty much nowhere else.

So for the time being, Capo Capo is something to look out for in the bars and restaurants of Toronto (and to a lesser extent, Ottawa), whether you’re a resident or just visiting. Why is an Italian product – of a kind that Canadians barely understand – being made in Italy and exported here exclusively? It all started when Joel Clarke, president of wine importer Henderik & Co., reached out to the makers of Cappelletti, a rival product to Campari and Aperol that’s hard to find outside of northeastern Italy. (New York is your other best bet.) Clarke was interested in importing Cappelletti’s flagship product, Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano Rosso, to Ontario. Instead, the two firms ended up collaborating on a new product entirely, produced for a market the Italians had presumably never considered.

To hear more of the story, Billy met up with Clarke and Cassandra Mosher, Henderik & Co. sales director for Toronto, at the Midfield Wine Bar, a cosy west end Toronto neighbourhood spot. There, the spritzes are made with Capo Capo using an ounce and a half of the liqueur, two ounces of prosecco, and just the barest splash of soda, on ice with a slice of orange. (Clarke and Mosher approve of the abstemious hand on the soda gun – they agree that spritzes à la North America can be too watered down. “It shouldn’t be a very long drink,” Clarke says.)

“It was called Gino. It was in a plastic jug. The branding was so bad.”

As many who have tried to do business with Italians have discovered, personal relationships can be everything. They’re certainly valued more than the internet. When Clarke went looking for Cappelletti, “it took a while to find these guys” online, he says. After a while it became clear that in order for Cappelletti and Henderik to take advantage of the small-but-bubbling Canadian market in spritzes, the most promising product to import was not Cappelletti Aperitivo but another, mostly neglected liquor in the portfolio. “It was called Gino. They’d never exported it. They’d never even sold it. It was just something they made for friends and family; it was their version of an aperitivo like Aperol,” Clarke says.

The flavour profile wasn’t quite right, and that was just the first problem. “It was super viscous. The sugar level was too high. It wasn’t bitter enough,” Mosher says. “It was called Gino. It was in a plastic jug. The branding was so bad.”

Courtesy Capo Capo

It just so happens that “Gino” can be a derogatory term for Italians in Ontario, something like “Guido” in the United States. Needless to say, the name was a non-starter. With a tweaked flavour profile that now makes delicious use of rhubarb and cinnamon, Gino became Capo Capo (capo means “chief,” “head” or “boss”).

Introduced to the stuff for the first time last summer, bartenders took to it immediately, and cocktail recipes incorporating Capo Capo abound on the city’s menus. Asked about locations in Toronto where it’s available, Clarke and Mosher rattle off a list that includes everything from neighbourhood bars to high-end hotels — there are some 75 in all (to wit: Northern Belle, Cold Tea, The Windsor Arms Hotel, and the Toronto outposts of Terroni and the Drake). The upshot: Whereas you probably can’t try Capo Capo anywhere but Toronto and Ottawa, at least it’s mercifully easy to find when you’re there.

What you can’t do yet is buy a bottle to take home: It isn't stocked for consumers at the province’s LCBO stores, which are the only outlets in Ontario where you can buy spirits (other than duty free or at a distillery gift shop). Bars and restaurants are buying Capo Capo by the case via the LCBO, as they do for many products here. Henderik & Co. hope to get Capo Capo onto consumer LCBO shelves for summer 2017, which should generate the capital they need to take the product on the road to all the places where distributors have expressed interest. Especially since the red Capo Capo bottle popped up in the February 2016 issue of Monocle magazine, calls have come in from points as distant as Tokyo and London.

New York and Montreal make more sense as immediate target markets. Meanwhile, another local booze entrepreneur, Eric Brass of Tromba Tequila, had a sit-down with Clarke and Mosher to impart some godfatherly advice. He nudged them toward another big city that really loves its bitter liquors – and is open to anything novel and delicious, really. According to Clarke, Brass said: “Chicago. Do there next.”

And who knows? If all continues to go well, perhaps Capo Capo will even be available in Italy someday.

Published Wednesday, June 29th 2016

Header image credit: Cassandra Mosher and Joel Clarke. Adam McDowell/Billy

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