Italian soda is a product with strange and a tad convoluted history. It has crossed cultures and borders, changed a few times, and yet has stayed surprisingly consistent in almost the entire century it has existed.
What image does your mind provide when you think of Italian soda? Is it in any way different from American soda drinks, or is it the same dark brown or bright orange color the famous Coca-Cola and Fanta come in?
If so, you’re not particularly far from the truth, but if you’ve never tasted Italian soda, the image you have of it is wrong. All the worse if we were to discuss Chinotto soda - the one Italian soda variety that is genuinely, authentically Italian in all the ways it can possibly be.
But let’s get the main questions out of the way first: what is Italian soda, what makes it so distinct, and why is Chinotto soda the one that deserves special attention among the dozens of flavors the drink comes in.
What is Italian soda?
Italian soda is a moderately sweet, soft fizzy drink that is most often flavored with some kind of fruit. There’s no easier way to describe it. It’s typically a combination of concentrated fruit syrup and carbonated water (club soda is the most traditional option, but seltzer water isn’t uncommon).
The peculiar thing about Italian soda is that while the creators were as Italian as they came, it was created on US soil because classic American soda fountains were what drove them to create it.
Rinaldo and Ezilda Torre immigrated to America from Tuscany at the beginning of the 20th century, along with thousands of other Italians, looking for better opportunities in life. They settled in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, a place with a strong and prevalent Italian community.
In the 1920s, soda fountains were becoming a huge thing all across the country. Rinaldo and Ezilda, who had made a business selling flavored syrups made with family recipes from back home, decided to capitalize on the new form of soda craze. They started mixing their flavored syrups with carbonated water to imitate the American treat but gave it a distinctly Italian flair. Their community responded to the drink very favorably, and soon enough, the drink found its way across the pond to Italy, quickly becoming as popular as back in the US, if not more.
What is Chinotto soda?
Chinotto soda is often referred to as simply Chinotto back in Italy. Chances are, if you find Chinotto on a menu in an eating establishment, it’s referring to the drink.
In reality, Chinotto is not the drink itself but fruit that serves as the basis for the drink. However, it was nigh forgotten for a while between the 1960s and 1990s. In the meantime, the name became so strongly connected to the drink that it’s used interchangeably after its reemergence in local food culture. So chinotto, the term refers to both the fruit and Chinotto soda.
Chinotto, the fruit is a type of citrus, reminiscent of a miniature orange (it’s usually not much larger than a ping pong ball). They were imported to Italy from China in the 16th century by Ligurian sailors and are still most prevalent in Liguria and Sicily.
By the 1930s, Italian soda had become so prominent in Italy that local manufacturers were rapidly expanding production. Not only by upping the amount of soda produced but by coming up with new flavors.
Chinotto soda is considered to be the first authentically Italian soda because we know for sure that the flavor was first created in Italy. The question of who made Chinotto soda first is still up for debate, as several companies lay claim to the achievement. Still, the most widely agreed-upon version is that San Pellegrino was the first to put chinotto soda on the market. They continue chinotto soda production to this day and are considered to be one of the premier manufacturers in the segment.
What’s the difference between classic Italian soda and Chinotto soda?
The big difference between classic Italian soda flavors and chinotto soda is that latter is a bit… bitter. Italy has long had appreciation for complex flavors, and bitterness (“amarezza”) is considered a vital flavor characteristic.
There’s even a separate set of digestifs called Amari (“bitters”). Consider chinotto soda to be a digestif without alcohol.
Chinotto the fruit is on a more bitter and pleasantly herby side of citrus flavors, though not as bitter as lemons. Chinotto syrup maintains these bitter flavor notes despite being sweetened with sugar, and they cut through the drink as well.
While no Italian soda is as sweet or heavily carbonated as classic American sodas, few of them veer as close to being bitter as chinotto soda. Other citrus-based varieties like Limonata (lemon soda) or blood orange soda may maintain acidic citrus notes. Still, Chinotto’s pretty much the only soda variety that would qualify to be an Amari.
As it’s non-alcoholic, if it’s not accompanying a meal, it usually serves the same purposes as Negroni and Campari for Italians who feel like avoiding alcohol for one reason or another.
What does Chinotto soda taste like?
Chinotto soda flavor is complicated to describe, which is one of the reasons why it’s beloved by Italians. It is definitely somewhat bitter, but not overwhelmingly so, rather refreshing and pleasant, especially in combination with light carbonation. It has a distinct citrusy flavor close to pomelo or grapefruit, though not quite similar that you wouldn’t notice differences.
The undertones are a bit harder to detect, especially if your palate is unused to bitterness. But those who enjoy chinotto soda tend to describe them as spicy. There have often been mentions of cinnamon and clove, as well as some mentions of rhubarb-like notes in the aftertaste.
It’s always described as fresh, herby, and summer-like.
What’s the history of Chinotto soda?
Long story short, Chinotto was (and after its reemergence in mainstream gastro-culture, arguably still is) the Italian answer to Coca-Cola.
When it was created in the 1930s, Coca-Cola’s presence in Italy wasn’t particularly powerful. But local manufacturers hadn’t missed how popular it was in other countries.
They were looking for a drink that would attract a similar niche - young, hip consumers who had already warmed up to Italian soda but held no loyalties to any brand. This was a segment ripe for the taking. It just needed a right push.
Despite several brands starting to manufacture chinotto soda commercially at the beginning of the 1930s, the drink truly exploded in popularity only around two decades later. While it was popular enough to continue doing steady business during this time, it seems that chinotto became a nigh-ubiquitous answer to the question of “what is Italian soda?” almost overnight.
This explosive popularity is associated mainly with the Neri brand’s new approach to marketing in 1949.
What Neri did was combine innovative advertising ideas and patriotic sentiments in their new strategy. Chinotto soda heavily leaned on then-popular black-and-white stylistic photography and heavy pop-up advertising.
The marketers tried to present Chinotto soda as a cool drink, something the elites loved and craved. Not infrequently, adverts would include luxurious elements. Chryslers and Cadillacs were cruising in the streets with huge chinotto soda bottles riding atop, creating a strong association between the soda and popular cars.
Along with it, marketing heavily leaned into chinotto being a traditional Italian taste. Where America had Coca-Cola, Italy had Chinotto. And wasn’t the local drink just as cool, maybe even cooler?
Sadly, but predictably, Chinotto’s meteoric rise to the top didn’t last for very long. It had its glory decade in the 50s when it was undoubtedly the #1 soda on the Italian market, but by the 1960s, things started to change quickly.
In the 1960s, Coca-Cola finally started to expand in Europe, including Italy, aggressively, and local soda just didn’t have what it took to compete with a global giant. In a few years, chinotto soda started losing its popularity, while Coca-Cola once again proved that it was an unbeatable beast.
That said, Italians’ love for Chinotto soda did remain relatively strong, if not as strong as when it was considered to be the coolest drink around. There’s even a Network of Chinotto, which, by the way, played a large part in reviving both the fruit’s and the drink’s popularity in the 1990s. These days, it may not be anywhere near the top of popular Italian soda drinks, but many companies are competing with San Pellegrino, like Galvanina and Paoletti.
Who will like Chinotto soda?
We won’t pretend. Chinotto soda is not a drink for everyone (though we’d argue that you should give it a taste at least once, if only to be able to say you know what Italian soda is).
The easiest way to decide if Chinotto soda is something that fits your palette is to judge by how you feel about other bitter Italian drinks, like Negroni and Campari we mentioned above.
(Just to clarify, no, Chinotto doesn’t taste like either Negroni or Campari, but its flavor profile is somewhat similar).
If you’ve never tried either, then you can judge by how other citrus-based Italian sodas make you feel. In fact, if you’ve never had any Italian soda previously, it would probably be wiser to start with something less peculiar and go from there. Try Limonata (lemon soda), grapefruit, or blood orange soda, before you decide to go for Chinotto.
It bears to reiterate that Italian sodas are less sweet and not as strongly carbonated as American sodas. If a blood orange soda tastes good to you, then there’s a chance something more bitter would be, at the very least, not wholly unpleasant to your palette. If you don’t like it, then the chances of you enjoying Chinotto are even lower.
What goes well with Chinotto soda?
Chinotto is usually served either on its own, before a meal (a more traditional choice), or with a meal (a more common option these days).
That said, its complex, herby, and bittersweet flavor can be somewhat hard to pair. The dish needs to be intensely flavorful all on its own so that chinotto doesn’t overwhelm it.
Grilled seafood, particularly grilled fish with the skin on, is a classic pairing (not surprising, considering seafood is generally often paired with bitter citrus). Typically, dense and salty flavors tend to pair well with it.
Another choice would be some kind of heavy pasta dish, the kind with thick and chewy pasta variety and hearty sauce, either with meat or chunky vegetables. A salad with a variety of bitter and peppery greens is another option.
Chinotto soda isn’t typically paired with desserts since it’s considered to be far too bitter for it. But if you desire to cut through the bitterness with something sweet, then a light and mildly sweet cookie would do best. Something like a lemon biscotti, for example.
Chinotto soda isn’t a traditional cocktail-mixing ingredient (not in the least because being non-alcoholic is a point of attraction to many regular consumers). But with the drink steadily rising in popularity in the last few years, it has started to pop up in more and more bar cards.
There are even cocktails with Chinotto soda as the primary ingredients. The Bitter Philadelphian, for example, combines Chinotto soda with rye and orange bitters; Ph.D. Pepper Redux is a combination of bourbon and coffee liqueur with Chinotto, while Heart of Darkness combines the beloved Italian soda with Virgin Islands Rum, Fernet Branca, blackberry syrup, lime juice, and mint.
Can you make Chinotto soda at home?
Mixing most Italian soda varieties by yourself at home is easy. There are plenty of companies that package concentrated syrups in a variety of flavors that can be used for the purpose. Some, like Monin, have dozens of options. One can easily mix anything from classic blood orange soda to a unique chocolate-Irish cream-hazelnut concoction. All it takes is some syrup and club soda.
Unfortunately, mixing Chinotto soda at home isn’t quite so easy. Not a lot, if any, manufacturers produce concentrated Chinotto syrup since it’s still not considered a popular enough flavor independent of the soda drink.
Luckily, you can easily find the premier Chinotto soda manufacturers in our collection, along with multiple other flavor options, if you’re looking to buy Italian soda online.