By Anthony Caporale
Certainly no image better captures the experience of enjoying limoncello than that of drinking “golden sunshine.” While the above lines were likely not written about limoncello, we know that Keats was an ardent fan of Italy so it’s more than possible that the fiery-sweet liqueur at least indirectly played some part in their inspiration. The Italian cordial is fast gaining popularity in the U.S., though it is still the exception rather than the rule to find it behind the bar here – and that’s too bad.
Limoncello is a spirit-based infusion – or more correctly, extraction – of lemon skins, sweetened with sugar and enjoyed primarily as an after-dinner digestivo. The basic recipe couldn’t be simpler: soak fresh lemon peels in high-proof liquor to extract the oils, dilute to drinking strength, and add sugar syrup. Produced throughout Southern Italy from Naples to Sicily, the drink makes ideal use of the local bounty of lemons.
Femminello Santa Teresa lemons are the preferred variety used in Sicilian limoncello, while in the Campania region including the Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Sfusato Amalfitano lemons are the standard. To the locals they’re also known as bread lemons, because the especially thick skin has more “bread” (the spongy white layer between the outer skin and the inner fruit, also known as the pith) than other varieties. Because limoncello only incorporates the fruit’s peel and not its juice, the drink gains the lemon’s entire flavor without any of its sourness.
Two of the better-know brands of limoncello available in the U.S. are Pellegrino made with Sicilian lemons and Pallini using fruit from Amalfi. Pellegrino Limoncello, bottled at 32% ABV and colored with saffron, has an attractive, almost pearlescent sheen in the glass. Medium-thick at 0°C service temperature, the nose is sweet and lemony though noticeably astringent. There is roundness in the mouth, and while the fruit is prominent the alcohol bite will most likely be too strong for most.
Pallini’s Limoncello, bottled at 26% ABV and tinted with Yellow #5, is far smoother to both the nose and palate. The lemon aroma is subtler and also includes floral notes, with little of the astringency present in the Pellegrino. It is more translucent and less viscous at service temperature, and feels a bit softer in the mouth with almost no alcohol bite. Though the lemons are not expressed quite as strongly, most drinkers will probably find the overall flavor profile more pleasing.
During a recent trip to Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples and producer of some of the finest limoncello in the world, I had the opportunity to visit a lemon ranch and taste the genuine article in its natural setting. At first glance, the liquid appears thicker than the imported products found stateside, but it’s not immediately clear whether that’s just because the Ischians are almost religious about serving their limoncello ice-cold, even down to the frozen cordial glasses holding the drink. A taste reveals we’re worlds away from the exported brands, as the elixir slowly warms in your mouth and releases the flavor of fresh lemons like a flower coming into bloom, all the while retaining its silken texture. There’s just no comparison to commercially bottled versions.
The ex-sea captain who owned the ranch shared his secret for the perfect lemon liqueur: use the skins of green lemons instead of the fully-mature yellow fruit, and throw in some fresh lemon leaves for good measure. A complimentary bottle headed off a run-in with the Caribinieri later, as this particular version wasn’t available for purchase but was, nevertheless, coming home with me one way or another.
Can’t find limoncello at your local liquor store or bar and don’t want to spring for tickets to Ischia? No problem – thankfully, you can make excellent limoncello right in your own home (but check your local laws first). Remember to use the freshest lemons you can find, as the skins dry out quickly. At my house, it’s understandably become a New Year’s Eve tradition and a welcome alternative to the obligatory champagne toast.