Seven years ago, I immensely enjoyed a dinner at U Bossu, and accordingly gave Enzo’s seven-table restaurant on a forgotten Taormina side-street a star rating in the Frommer’s guide I was researching at the time.

Enzo was gregarious, friendly, jocular, and overall a genuine impresario for his little trattoria—and the food was fantastic, especially for a moderately cheap joint. At the end of that meal, he had poured me (and everyone else in the place) a shot of a fiery pepperoncino liqueur of his own invention. I love spicy things, and I love sugar, and Enzo’s homemade hooch was a perfect marriage of the two tastes. Also, it packed an alcoholic wallop.

Fast forward to last night. As I entered, I saw the little “Recommended by Frommer’s” sticker proudly displayed in his window, and gave a little smile, wishing I could tell him who I was and why he had so deserved that stamp of approval. Instead, I just dug into my dinner with relish, delighted that the food was as excellent as always–tagliatelle alla mafiosa (egg noodles made fresh that morning topped with a ragù of pistachios, tomatoes, cream, pancetta bacon, and mushrooms) and cartoccio di spigola allo scoglio (buttery sea bass baked in tin foil along with a handful of mussels)–and that Enzo was still a great character, endlessly entertaining to his few guests.

The pair of English ladies talking in low voices by the wall looked a bit taken aback at and overwhelmed by Enzo’s gregariousness, but the Irish couple sitting behind me, who had eaten here every night of their holiday so far, thought he was a hoot. They shared with me their belief that our host looked like an Italian version of George W. Bush. Enzo made a sour face when he overheard that, but I had to agree there was a resemblance, and had trouble from then on shaking the image of Bush, with a tan and a little paper hat, speaking English in an Italian accent so heavy it was almost comical. When two young Dutchmen strode in, Enzo grinned widely and held out both arms “Welcome back!” then made a show of looking anxiously behind them. “But where are your girlfriends tonight?” When the pair explained that the women were off “For a ladies’ night, without us boys.” Enzo winked and said, “That’s OK. We can have fun on our own. Sit here, I bring you good wine.” And he hustled back to the kitchen.

At the end of the meal, Enzo asked if I would like an almond-flavored digestivo. Now, when I had arrived at the restaurant, Enzo had asked how I found his phone number (as I had booked ahead). I told him that he had provided me with a memorable dinner in the summer of 1998, and I’d always planned on coming back. So when he asked me about a digestivo, I said I recalled he had served me a fantastic liqueur of pepperoncino before, and could I please have that?

Enzo stared at me for a moment, bemused, then sighed. “Ah! My great failure.” He smiled wanly, said, “Just a moment,” and went to the little desk to rummage around under stacks of paper. He returned with a coated, unfolded paper brochure for his Liquore di Venere, and explained how he had tried to make a go of it.

In 1993, when he was still working as a chef in someone else’s restaurant, Enzo thought a digestivo as fiery hot as Etna looming in the distance might prove popular. He admitted to knowing nothing of liqueur-making, or even really of basic chemistry, and so went through a lot of failed batches of moonshine before finally hitting on a method for distilling an essence of pepperoncino, mixing that into a sugary syrup, then marrying it all to a liquor base.

At first he served the stuff to patrons at his employer’s restaurant as a “digestivo artigianale.” By 1995, he had opened up U Bossu–dialect for “The Boss,” which he finally was (though he jokingly calls himself little more than a “plate-ferrier,” carrying dishes from the kitchen to the tables and back)–and decided to try and make a success of his invention. He picked out bottles, had labels designed and printed, and sent a sample of his liqueur (along with reams of paperwork) to the official governmental body in Rome that regulates such things.

Then, since moonshine is illegal everywhere, he had to have an official distillery to produce it. Since starting one from scratch would take far more money, time, resources, and–most significantly–paperwork than he could handle, it was far easier simply to buy a distillery that already existed on paper but wasn’t actually in business. (The sheer bureaucratic inertia of the Italian regulatory systems makes such seemingly oddball solutions far easier than just going about things in a straightforward way.)

So, Enzo ran his new restaurant, and he made his Liquore di Venere, named for the kind of burning desire the Goddess of Love could instill in mortal man. He served the digestivo to all his customers, who were generally delighted and would often buy a bottle to take home. Selling the odd bottle to a patron, however, wasn’t going to pay the bills–especially since most of the time Enzo would refuse to accept payment, and usually ended up just giving the bottle as a gift, insisting that the customer had already paid him “With excellent conversation.” I know, because that’s how I ended up taking home a bottle seven years ago. But the testimony of a few satisfied restaurant customers (not even those who would go on to encourage their guidebook readers to sample the stuff) were not going to be enough to turn Enzo and his liqueur into the success he was sure was in the cards. “Cinzano. Martini & Rossi. They all started as just one man with a recipe. Now look at them! Why not me?”

Enzo started sending letters and making phone calls. He contacted every liquor label and company he could think of. No one was interested in distributing a single item from a lone producer in limited quantities. He told them, no problem: he could make more. They all said, essentially, no thanks. They didn’t really want to work with an outside producer.

Eventually, about a decade after perfecting his formula, Enzo finally gave up. He started serving a mass-produced almond liqueur from Marsala to his restaurant patrons as the digestivo he always offers “on the house” along with the bill.

“I still have three or four crates of the Venere at home.” He said, and for the first time all night he looked sad–not the sad-sack act he puts on when moaning that he’s nothing more than a glorified “plate-ferrier,” but genuinely defeated. “I give bottles away as gifts, sometimes. I open one or two for special occasions at home. But in the restaurant, it’s just the almond liqueur now.”

He walked over to fetch a bottle of that and poured me a small glassful. I weakly said something about how unfortunate it was about the Liquore di Venere, because it really was a fine digestivo. “Eh, si.” He said, with downcast eyes. “I was going to have great success with that.” He looked up at me and smiled bitterly. “It was good! It should have been a success. The liquore would become famous, and I would have been rich.”

It was late. The restaurant was empty of other patrons by then, and I was feeling downright awful having inadvertently re-opened what was clearly a painful wound. I tossed back the bitter almond liqueur, and stood up to leave Enzo and his cook to clean up and head home for the night. “Beh,’ buona sera and thanks for another excellent meal.” I said, sticking out my hand to shake Enzo’s. He shook the vague cast of sorrow off his face, and beamed at me. “Tell you what.” He said, taking my hand firmly and not letting go after the standard pump-and-a-half. “I’m back here around eleven in the morning, to do the shopping and get ready for lunch. Stop by around 11am tomorrow, and I’ll bring a bottle of the Venere for you.” Then he let go of my hand.

So, the next morning, I went by U Bossu. Enzo was bustling about in his little paper hat; though the open window to the kitchen I could see the taciturn chef chopping things up. Enzo smiled when he saw me and shuffled into the dining rooms, pausing to take a bottle from the desk covered with stacks of paper. In the clear liquid floated a hot pepper bleached white by time and long exposure to alcohol. Enzo dusted the bottle off with his apron before handing it to me.

“Liquore di Venere,” he said with a flourish. “I hope you enjoy it!” I could tell he meant it.

And, just like before, Enzo refused to let me pay.