Once a niche spirit enjoyed by the bocce players of Bloomfield, Super Punch has made a resurgence across the city of Pittsburgh after nearly going extinct. Whether it be a swanky cocktail bar or a shot-and-beer type dive, you’ll often see the curiously aggressive one-liter bottle, engulfed in neon green flames, housing a nearly black liqueur known as Super Punch.
A Uniquely Pittsburgh Spirit
Super Punch is the spirit of Pittsburgh. It’s the only U.S. city that imports this unique Italian amaro, and over 80% of the product never leaves Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh has embraced this foreign cordial and welcomed it into the fabric of the city – an unusual feat that is sure to conjure up a story or two.
“We’ve always had a bottle somewhere,” says Justin Steel, co-owner and executive chef at Bar Marco. “For a couple years, it was probably that dusty bottle on the shelf that no one really touched besides us while we were pouring it in our coffee on a Sunday.”
Dusty or not, the bottle is eye-catching. Its red block letters set ablaze gives it the look of an outlawed Caribbean spirit that has found its way into your glass after befriending an island local. But its Italian charm strikes when you rotate the bottle 180 degrees and read the poorly translated description:
“A really unique liqueur of its kind. You can enjoy it straight or as an aperitif. With ice and soda its refreshin. Moreover it is unequalled in flavour when combined with ice cream when sprinkled on”
Bar Marco opened in early 2012 when a group of childhood friends decided to share the culture and flavors they’d experienced during their travels outside of Pittsburgh.
“Those first few years we would just pull bottles off the shelf and share stories with guests and try to familiarize Pittsburgh with some of these amari, different wines, or whatever we were doing at the time,” said Steel.
Amaro is an amalgamation of botany. There’s even something paradoxical about amaro when realizing that these often complex elixirs come from a culture that prides itself on regional cuisine built upon simplicity. Yet while seemingly complex, amaro still tends to find a way to remain delicate in nature, and then…there’s Super Punch.
What’s Super Punch taste like?
Dark, strong, and viscous, Jannamico’s Super Punch wears its name well. Coming in at a whopping 88 proof, where its contemporaries typically fall in the 40-50 proof range, this mysterious potion punches quick and coats your tongue with a flavor that tastes like Jägermeister and children’s amoxicillin went on a tropical vacation together and missed their flights home. Some say it’s super, some say it’s not.
“The reaction is a little bit mixed,” says JJ Rosemeyer, bar manager of Smoke Barbeque Taqueria (currently operating as Smoke Sandwich Shop), who first introduced me to the drink when I moved to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2017. “You’ll get, ‘Whoa what is that?!’ – and I’m shocked by that reaction, because for me it’s just a sweet, delicious, sugary thing that’s got some citrus going on. It’s not weird to me.”
Rosemeyer was first turned onto Super Punch during a brief stint working at Bar Marco in 2014. Its revival was rooted as a “bartender’s handshake,” or shot shared amongst those in the restaurant industry. It was something enjoyed by the staff after a shift, but there was more. Bar Marco has a connection to Super Punch.
“It’s something that’s pretty special to us,” says Steel.
A special Super Punch connection at Bar Marco
Bar Marco is named after Marco Enrico. Enrico cooked and managed a restaurant called DeNunzio’s in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, where Justin Steel began his restaurant career, like many, bussing tables. After spending time working together and sharing a serendipitous adventure in Italy during Steel’s study abroad semester, Enrico became Steel’s culinary guru.
“When we came back from Italy we would spend time hanging with Marco at his house in Jeannette,” said Steel. “He would host elaborate four-hour lunches. To this day he is one of the best chefs I have ever met.”
Enrico was decades older than Steel and his friends and had a history with Joseph D’Andrea, the man who brought Super Punch to Western Pennsylvania. The D’Andrea family came from Lanciano, part of Italy’s Abruzzo region, where the small cordial producer, Jannamico, has been producing products like Super Punch since the late 1800s. After immigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s, making Western Pennsylvania home, D’Andrea kept his family’s ties to Lanciano alive.
Joseph D’Andrea and Marco Enrico were good family friends and brought a great deal of flavor to Jeanette’s Italian community. Legend has it that the two would get in a truck, drive straight to the docks of New Jersey, load up the truck full of Super Punch right off the boat, turn around and drive it back to Pittsburgh.
“Initially it was just ethnic Italians. If you were from central Italy you would drink it, and then it really evolved,” said John D’Andrea, son of Joseph D’Andrea and current owner of D’Andrea Wine & Liquor Imports, exclusive importer of Super Punch. “A lot of restaurants were from that town or had family in that town, and Pittsburgh is a pretty healthy Italian city. So you know, they would promote it behind the bar in some of these restaurants and get people involved in it.”
The next generation took note and got involved.
“I distinctly remember going to places like Jack’s and the Pleasure Bar, or just other random Bloomfield spots where they would call it Italian Jägermeister – and I was like okay, I want to try it,” said Lou DiDonato, general manager of Grapperia. “So we did shots of it. We loved it. It was good.”
DiDonato started drinking Super Punch in 1998 with his friends but recognizes that amari culture was very different back then.
“Amaro wasn’t really a thing in the late ‘90s, early 2000s,” recalls DiDonato. “But in Pittsburgh, mainly in Bloomfield, there was this stuff called Super Punch, and they’d put it in the cooler right next to the Jäger. We didn’t sip it warm like amaro. I feel like no one sipped anything back then.”
It wasn’t until Pittsburgh’s cocktail craze bubbled up that Super Punch got removed from the cooler and began to find a featured role on menus across the city.
“It’s fun to use. You can use it anywhere that calls for sweetness,” says Rosemeyer. “For an Old Fashioned, you can use Super Punch instead of simple syrup or demerara. It gives you that little citrus and can kind of go undetected – but if you like Super Punch, which I have some regulars that really like it, they’ll detect it and love it.”
The Bar Marco crew’s first cocktail with Super Punch was a riff on a Manhattan, naturally called the “Super Manhattan.” They also serve a signature Marco Coffee, which is a cup of coffee with a shot of Super Punch, one of the ways that the D’Andrea family has enjoyed it for many years.
“With Italians, you know they’ll hand it down to the next generation, but how long will that last?” questions D’Andrea. “Will Super Punch be continued down through Italian families? I don’t know. I think the cocktail scene has really resurrected it.”
Keeping the Super Punch traditional alive
The arrival of the cocktail scene may have resurrected the libation, but without a passionate fan base, Super Punch may have gone extinct in Western Pennsylvania years ago.
“I thought about discontinuing it a couple times,” says D’Andrea. “But, you don’t bring it in and then you cause a ruckus in the Italian community! So yeah, no plans of discontinuing now,” he says with a laugh.
Tariffs have raised the cost of importing Super Punch over the years, but D’Andrea plans to keep cost for as long as possible. In fact, the company hasn’t raised the price at all in the past ten years. But Super Punch has never been a moneymaking scheme – not for the D’Andreas, Bar Marco, Grapperia, Smoke, or anyone else serving it. It’s been about the story.
Super Punch is a small-batch product, made from quality ingredients, yet it isn’t fancy or high class. It’s a drink that’s unapologetically itself. It can be consumed straight up as a sipper or a shot, in coffee, on ice cream, in a cocktail, or even as an elixir (you know a culture eats and drinks well when their medicine tastes great).
A Drink for the People
Whether it meets everyone’s tastes or not, it is truly a drink for the people. That’s why you’ll find it at dive bars, cocktail bars, trendy restaurants, and in your grandparent’s liquor cabinet. That’s what makes it so Pittsburgh.
“You see the back of the bottle and people say, ‘This shit’s from Pittsburgh, let’s drink it,’” says DiDonato. “Come to think of it, I haven’t actually done a shot of Super Punch in nearly a year,” as he motions to the bar.
“Hey, two shots of Super Punch!”
Look for the green flame-engulfed bottle in the liqueurs and cordials section at many Fine Wine & Good Spirits, most commonly at the East Liberty location. When you’re at your neighborhood bar or restaurant, make sure to give it a try and think of its journey to Pittsburgh. Maybe buy a shot for your bartender?