On the terraced hills of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the Mediterranean sun
and ocean air combine with volcanic soil to produce lemons the size of grapefruits.
For hundreds of years, southern Italians have used the thick, juicy skins of
these Sorrento lemons, named after the nearby town, to create a sweet
tangy, liqueur known as limoncello (as the Italian word for lemon is
limone). Historians suspect that limoncello, like many other regional
liqueurs, was developed by local convents. In the 17th century, the nuns of
Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini used the lemon liqueur to make
their famous lemon pastry, sfoglietta Santa Rosa.
For generations, local families have passed down their own recipes for macerating
lemon peels to create limoncello. Only four ingredients may go into the liqueur
– lemon zest (the colored portion of the peel), grain alcohol (or vodka),
water and sugar – but Italians argue that much can go wrong if those ingredients
are not up to par, or if the maceration process is interrupted. There are hidden
pitfalls everywhere. For example, the limoncello may not turn out right if the
alcohol is not strong enough. Some recipes allow two weeks for the mixture to
ferment; others insist on as many as 80 days.
Many Italians most often enjoy limoncello, which is almost always served cold,
as an after-dinner digestivo. They keep the bottle in the freezer, along with
a few dainty shot glasses.Just as so many Italian families seem to have their
own time-tested limoncello recipes, so do many restaurants. Owners often bring
out the unmarked bottle of yellow liquid along with frosted glasses as a treat
for their favorite customers.
Once a regional specialty, limoncello, is now popular throughout Italy. It
makes sense, since the country is the world’s largest producer of lemons.
The lemon liqueur is second only to Campari in popularity and accounts
for 35 percent of Italian liquor sales.
Limoncello bottles of every shape and size have long been fixtures in the tourist
shops of Sorrento, Naples and Capri, and Americans would stock up on the liqueur
before returning home. Now importers have caught on to limoncello’s popularity
and the Italian delight is available at liquor stores for about $15 to $20 a
bottle. Many Italian-American restaurants offer the drink after dinner, and
its flavor has inspired such new dishes as limoncello cheesecake.
The American appetite for limoncello has inspired an American-made version
of the drink. The Spirits of Coachella, is poised to become the first
domestic producer of the cordial by using Southern California lemons to replicate
the flavor of Sorrento lemons. “It’s not just appealing to the younger
generation. It’s crossing all boundaries,” says Dan Silvers, the
While many Italians would argue that the best way to enjoy limoncello is straight
up, mixing the liqueur with other liquids creates a variety of refreshing drinks.
Add limoncello to club soda, lemonade, champagne or cream, and create a cocktail
for any occasion.
Playing off its traditional function as an after-dinner treat, limoncello can
be poured over ice cream, fresh strawberries or fruit salad to create a dessert
with some zing. But limoncello can be used in just about every course. Coat
fresh or shrimp in the liqueur before grilling.
If you want to try to make your own limoncello at home, try this recipe from
the cookbook Lemon
by Lori Longbotham (Broadway, 2002).
Makes seven cups
1 750 ml bottle of 80- or 100-proof vodka
Zest of 6 lemons
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
Combine vodka with zest in half-gallon jar and let stand at room temperature,
tightly covered, for about 10 days. Swirl jar occasionally. It is ready when
zest has turned pale and vodka is deep yellow.
Pour liquid through strainer into large bowl. Leave zest in strainer and place
strainer over large glass measure or bowl.
Bring 3 cups water and 11/2 cups sugar to boil in a large saucepan over high
heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Boil for 3 minutes. Pour hot syrup
through zest in strainer into glass measure. Discard the zest. Cool the syrup
Add syrup to vodka. Pour liqueur into large bottle or smaller decorative bottles
with tight-fitting lids. Let stand for 5 days before serving. This is best stored
in the freezer and served ice-cold in tiny glasses.
This article, written by Dream of Italy Editor and Publisher Kathy
McCabe, was first published in Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits.