The grandmother who gets the credit for Limoncello is said to have first crafted it at the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is). But others insisted the recipe is far older, and that maybe it was some other grandmother, or a whole slew of Italian grandmothers, all similarly inspired by the bounty of fruit outside their doors.
Everyone can agree (more or less) on where It was made: on the southern coast of Italy, specifically the glamorous sea-kissed area known as the Amalfi Coast, where seafood is on every plate and the lemons abound.
Imagine a fragrant lemon grove overlooking the sea, with throngs of bright yellow lemons hanging like drops of captured sunlight on florid green trees kissed by the salt spray of the sapphire water. It makes perfect sense that anyone with a soul would want to capture that feeling, that moment, in a distilled spirit. Unlike so many of the postprandial digestifs to come out of Old Europe, Limoncello is not some conglomeration of thousands of secret and obscure ingredients. It is simplicity itself, a lesson in less is more.
To make it, you take the zest from roughly a dozen lemons and infuse them for four days to a month (longer is better) in 750 milliliters of a clear spirit, like vodka or Everclear. After your prescribed soaking time, strain out the zest, and add simple syrup to taste. What you end up with is essentially bottled sunlight, a sippable crystallization of pure, mouth-puckering joy that Italians worship and view as uniquely their own.
Traditionally, Limoncello is made from Amalfi Coast lemons, Sfusato Amalfitano. These are not your grocery store lemons — they are knobby and primordial-looking; can grow to the size of basketball; and are sweeter than most other lemons, with a thicker, less-bitter pith. The lemon tree, an evergreen, originated in Asia, but it was an early traveler on trading vessels, and lemons are so rooted in Italian culture that they show up in the frescoes at Pompeii.
Strictly speaking, Limoncello proper is from the Neapolitan region, while limoncinoa slightly different liqueur also made from lemons, alcohol and sugar, comes from Liguria, but in practice the two often are conflated (and might in reality be more or less the same thing, allowing for regional variations in preparation and, of course, lemons).
Available in a variety of alcohol strengths, Neapolitan Limoncello, made from Amalfi Coast lemons, is easy to buy in the United States and comes with a bona-fide geographic designation.
If you choose to make your own, however, the humble domestic American lemon will serve you just fine. Use organic lemons (no pesticides on the skins), and lemons that have, ideally, not been coated in wax. You can dewax your lemons with a bath in boiling water, but those peels will be a tad less flavorful.
My stepmother, who is from Rome, is rightfully proud of her homemade Limoncello, made with the lemons you find in Indonesia, where she lives: lemons born and bred in their native Asia that have never even dreamed of a Mediterranean villa.
In Italy, Limoncello is second only to the ubiquitous Campari in popularity, and it pairs beautifully in cocktails, finding an unlikely friend in that most American of spirits, bourbon, and it’s also a heady addition to a whiskey sour. It can be added to lemon juice and clear vodka to make a very lemony Lemon Drop, stirred into fizzy water or even sparkling wine to make a lemon spritz, or added to any cocktail that calls for lemon juice for a more intense lemon undertone.
You also can drizzle it on ice cream, add droplets to tea or soak it into a nice boozy sponge cake. But it is most properly sipped chilled, by itself, after a meal, a little kiss of tart Mediterranean sunshine to cleanse the palate of the aged cheese, fresh pasta and salty fish from a prepared meal, if you’re very lucky, by an Italian grandmother.