Anthony Scalabrino's story is a good ol' American story.
His grandmother, Giacamo "Jenny" Scalabrino, or Grandma Scal as the family calls her, was the daughter of Sicilian immigrants who found a new home in Michigan. Her husband (Scalabrino's grandfather) played football on an All-America high school team alongside future U.S. president Gerald Ford, was a boxer, and worked on the railroad by day. Grandma Scal, a mother of three, worked second shift at the Keebler factory, climbing her way up the ranks over the years to become the line supervisor in charge of quality control for cookies, a detail that makes Scalabrino intensely proud.
She worked hard and was very humble, often reminding Scalabrino to live by the golden rule: treat others how you want to be treated.
Grandma Scal's holiday tradition was to handcraft a bottle of amaretto for each of her sons. And that recipe provided the impetus for Scalabrino to start Oak City Amaretto in Raleigh.
Scalabrino has now adopted the amaretto-making tradition, but, with blessings from the rest of the Scalabrino clan, he's scaled it up.
Inheriting Grandma Scal's work ethic and dedication to service, Scalabrino, at eighteen, left his small suburb of Grand Rapids to join the United States Naval Academy in Maryland. He has since studied and served in the United States and abroad, including Djibouti, Italy, Scotland, Iceland, Greece, Bulgaria, and Spain. His current tour of duty is as a Naval ROTC professor at N.C. State, where he's also pursuing a graduate degree in computer networks. Oak City Amaretto was born earlier this year. Scalabrino says Raleigh makes him feel more at-home than anywhere else he's lived. "It's nothing but open arms here," he says.
Throughout her lifetime, Grandma Scal insisted on keeping the amaretto recipe a secret within the family. Scalabrino is still tight-lipped about the ingredients, but his own recipe is almost exactly as Grandma Scal designed it, with only a minor tweak or two.
The amaretto is light, delicately flavorful, and more nutty than fruity. Unlike more popular amarettos like Disaronno and Lazzaroni— the only commercial brands that Scalabrino finds palatable, by the way—Oak City Amaretto has few cherry notes. It isn't syrupy or overly sweet. A sip packs spice notes, with subtle, lingering flavors of honey. It doesn't feel boozy, though it's 27 percent ABV.
Some amarettos have this cloying tendency to coat the inside of your mouth and overpower other flavors on your palate. Oak City Amaretto is not one of those, so it is just as delicious and enjoyable neat or on the rocks. It begs to be paired with a good scotch in a Godfather cocktail and would add a sweet kick in a savory dish, sauce, or dessert. Small-batch, handcrafted, secret-family-recipe amarettos aren't often for commercial sale, which makes Oak City Amaretto even more special.
Wake and Orange Counties' ABC stores are among the few places where folks can find Oak City Amaretto. But, according to Scalabrino, the Durham ABC Board needs to see interest from Durham restaurants and consumers.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Anthony Scalabrino started Oak City Amaretto.
"Go in and ask for it!" Scalabrino says, adding that you should ask for product code 66700. "It takes a village to raise a baby, and this is my baby."
Meanwhile, Scalabrino continues to work with several Raleigh bars and restaurants—Fox Liquor Bar, Beasley's Chicken + Honey, Trophy Brewing Co., Sitti, Bida Manda, The Pit, Anchor Bar, and Foundation, to name a few—to either carry it or include Oak City Amaretto as an ingredient in one of their craft cocktails or desserts. Free tours and tastings take place every Saturday at two p.m. at Raleigh Rum Company with which Oak City Amaretto shares a warehouse and distillery space.
Scalabrino says he wants to use his profits to give back to community efforts and is figuring out how.
"I have a lot of ideas. Maybe ROTC scholarships, maybe building homes for people. It's what Grandma would want," he says, resolutely, holding back tears.
Treat others how you want to be treated, she would tell him. "I think she'd be proud of me for that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweet Inheritance"