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.
Reserve the peel. Make a heavier syrup (more sugar) and gently cook peel in syrup. Remove & then dip in melted dark chocolate. Chill. So delicious. Works well with orange peel from making Gran Marnier.
My family has been moons this for decades and it just what you do after making wine, use the grape skins to make grappa and then we make lemoncello....
We use honey and coconut sugar now and the flavour is soooo smooth and the perfect sweetness ... We also use strawberries or rhubarb instead of lemon peels sometimes too.
I'll definitely be trying this!