Amaretto's Origin Story Has An Artistic Touch

IN THE WORKS of Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini, the Madonna features on several occasions. From celestial depictions, as in ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels’, to the more intimate portrait ‘Madonna del Roseto’, to frescoes and scenes from the life of Christ — she is a recurrent figure in Luini’s repertoire. While his legacy is of great interest to art historians and scholars — who’ve long been absorbed in inquiries such as, just how much of Leonardo da Vinci’s output could actually be attributed to Luini and others — there is a lesser-known (and wholly delicious) aspect connected with his work. 

 Luini has been attributed as one of the chief figures in the making of amaretto — the Italian almond- or stone fruit-infused liqueur (its name translates as “a little bitter”). There are two versions of the story in which Luini’s presence contributes to the ‘invention’; both versions are set in 1525, in the town of Saronno, where Luini was working on a series of frescoes for the Sanctuaire de la Beata Vergine dei Miracoli, depicting the Virgin Mary and Christ. One version of the amaretto origin story states that a local innkeeper, close to a family named Reina, was serving as a model for Luini’s rendering of the Madonna. She prepared a drink for the painter, and it was this recipe that was passed down the generations within the family until it came to be commercially bottled in the 1900s. The second version of the story changes some of the details — the innkeeper/Madonna model is instead described as a widow who fell in love with Luini while he painted her. Wanting to please him, she prepared the liqueur now known as amaretto, with brandy, apricot kernels and a few spices.

There is a third origin story — one that doesn’t involve Luini at all. This version claims that amaretto was first prepared by an entirely different Saronno family: the Lazzaronis. The Lazzaronis were known for their amaretto cookies, which they’d seemingly made in 1786 as part of a banquet for the local king. By 1851, they’d come up with a unique twist: alcohol infused with their cookies and a little bit of caramel for colour. This, they claimed, was their specially devised recipe. 

Today, amaretto is had not only as a dessert liqueur and cocktail ingredient, but also as an ingredient in desserts themselves, be it cookies or tiramisu. Moreover, its history may go much further back than either of the sparring Saronno families. The first amaretto may very well have been a twist on a drink that was popular since the time of the Romans: bitter almonds steeped in wine. Brandy burnt sugar and almonds replaced the ingredients in this early recipe to culminate in the delicious liqueur we know today.