Growing up, every gathering at my grandfather’s house involved full spreads of Italian food and seasonal libations. I remember polenta poured onto ten-foot tables, antipasti plates stacked high with marinated squid and salty olives, and different types homemade pasta. While most dishes, like pasta (hold the clam sauce, please), truly appealed to my youthful tastes, others required a more sophisticated palate. Pan-fried smelt … no thank you. Stinky cheeses … I’ll pass. And distilled beverages that tasted like, well, Bactine … maybe next time.
Around Easter, my family broke lent’s fast with traditional limoncello, an Italian after-dinner aperitif infused with the flavors of springtime. Of course I didn’t appreciate this drink poured from a frosty bottle into slender, squat glasses. And instead of shooting it back (like I would’ve in my college days) the adults slowly sipped this cordial alongside their stovetop espresso.
Old Country Traditions
Limoncello, and most digestivi, dates back to the middle ages. These strong and often bitter drinks soothed the stomach after a heavy meal. Italian monks grew and infused herbs, concocting digestifs to ward off diseases like cholera. And Italian fisherman sipped limoncello each morning to stave a cold. Families of the Amalfi Coast served this light and sweet digestif to guests when lemons were in season. It’s incomparable flavor, due to the large fresh Italian lemons with thick flesh, became a fashionable drink and an Italian custom.
Today, Italians serve ice-cold limoncello after meals to give thanks, similar to the ancient monks. And the artisanal distillers still source their lemons directly from farmers and process them only after scrupulous selection.
A Maturing Palate
Despite my humble upbringing, the exposure to fine foods eventually paid off. My grownup tastes have since taken a liking to salty fish, aged cheese, and strong limoncello drinks. But instead of hunting down a bottle of the imported variety, like the kind my grandfather served, I prefer to make my own concoction with local distilled vodkas and only the best organic lemons.
Since limoncello is made from the zest, or peel, of the lemon, selecting fresh, pesticide-free fruit is important. Organic, in-season lemons yield a sweet tasting liquor with an almost fluorescent hue. And while traditionally enjoyed after meals, limoncello makes a perfect anytime drink (and much more pleasant than its bitter counterparts, Campari or Aperol). Savor it mixed with club soda or Pellegrino, or infused in desserts and sorbets.
If I’m lucky, I’ll craft my seasonal potion with fresh California lemons sent to me from my friend’s backyard. But since citrus fruits aren’t native to my mountain region, I’m confined organic varieties found at my local grocer.
On the alcohol front, however, I’m much more privileged. Local organic rye and potato vodkas create the base for my homemade digestif.
- 10 lemons
- 1 quart vodka
- 2 ½ cups water
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- Wash and dry all the lemons.
- Using a vegetable peeler, remove the yellow zest from the lemons. Try to keep the long peels in tact. Trim away any large pieces of pith. Use the naked lemons promptly to make lemonade for the kiddos!
- Transfer the peels into a one-quart Bell jar and pour over the vodka, completely submerging the peels. Screw on the lid and let sit, away from direct sunlight, for two weeks (you can strain them earlier, but the longer they sit, the more lemony the taste).
- Strain the vodka through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the zest.
- Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring to form a simple syrup. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
- Pour the vodka into the syrup and stir to combine.
- Funnel the mixture into large bottles and cap or cork tightly.
- Store limoncello in the fridge for a minimum of four hours, and up to two weeks for a mellower taste, before consuming. Keeps in the fridge for up to one month and the freezer for up to a year.