What to do, when life hands you a lemon or two – make limoncello of course

one of my favorite markets at 22nd and Irvine

a favorite market at 22nd and Irving

Happy days are here again!  Spring is the favorite time of year for many people, and I am no exception.  I love heading to the neighborhood market and discovering my favorite citrus has returned for a spell: blood oranges, myer lemons, pomelos are back.  The sight of blood oranges puts a grin on my face.  I enjoy finding ways to use all parts of these wonderful fruits, and it seems a shame to throw away the rind when it is filled with those amazing aromatic oils. (As a child, I loved rubbing a sugar cube across the rind until it absorbed the oils of the fruit, and then sucking that flavor packed cube until only sweet syrup fill my mouth.  They were my homemade lemon drops.)

Spring is when I am brave enough to retrieve my ice cream maker from storage, and make homemade sorbets with all this citrus fruit – I am too too cold to be motivated for such endeavors in these San Francisco winters.  But as I stated, I am left with a dilemma because I hate wasting the rinds.

Almalfi Coast (photo from goitaly)

Almalfi Coast (photo from goitaly)

A trip to Italy provided that “Eureka” moment.  Limoncello!  Let me tell you, if you have never had limoncello before, you are in for a treat.  If you are lucky enough to have homemade limoncello – well, I do not know where to begin, but I’ll try, starting with  some woefully inadequate  adjectives fantastic, awesome, wonderful…but they fall short of expressing what a delicious, refreshing and versatile drink this bit of sunshine is.

I am not the only one to feel this way, heck – Danny DeVito has his own brand, for Pete’s sake.  If you have a glasss of homemade limoncello at hand, first hold it up to the light and admire the wonderful color it has (a bit of sunshine – I know I am pushing the connection, but it is true), next take a whiff – the smell of the citrus is wonderfully refreshing, finally close your eyes, and savor that first sip of bliss.

Limoncello is a lemon liqueur produced in Sorrento, in southern Italy, around the Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi Coast.  It is made from lemon rinds (traditionally Sorrento lemons), alcohol, water, and sugar.  As I mentioned, it is bright yellow in color, sweet and lemony, and since it has no lemon juice, there is no sourness.

Now, I am going to let you in on a secret, limoncello is easy and inexpensive to make; requiring only sugar, water, lemon zest, alcohol, and time to mature, or should I say patience.   If you give it away as gifts, people will get down on their knees to thank you – seriously, I’ve had it happen.

Homemade limoncello often has a stronger, more pronounced lemon flavor and certainly scent than the store bought versions.  To achieve this result a pure high proof alcohol must be used andit should be diluted only after extraction.  Lower proof alcohol such as 40% vodka does not extract all the oil flavors from the peel – so the best part is left behind.  Different varieties of lemon produce their own unique flavors, and the variety used is often dictated by the region where the limoncello is produced. Various alcohols give their own distinct flavors, but the two that I find most commonly identified in recipes are grain alcohol (everclear ring a bell?) or vodka.  Higher quality sugars used in the infusion process create a sweeter liqueur.

Serving Limoncello

limoncello glass with some citrus options

limoncello glass with some citrus options

Limoncello is traditionally served after dinner as an aperitif.  It is served in tall chilled glasses, and savored – not consumed in one gulp like a shot.  The rest of Italy thought this was a good idea, and have since adopted the drink, often putting their own spin on this beverage.

A very refreshing drink can be made by adding seltzer water, it cuts the sweetness, but leaves the best of the citrusy flavor and scent.  Homemade seltzer gives it an added burst and definitely keeps with the freshness theme.

Limoncello vs Limoncino

Northern Italy has limoncino, and Southern Italy it is limoncello.  The variance in taste is subtle; one reason for the taste variance is that they are made with different varieties of lemons.  Each variety imparts their own unique qualities influenced by the microclimate in which they are grown and even the time they are picked – first blossoming lemons, picked at dawn have the most concentrated flavors.  Of course, minor tweaking of the recipe also accounts for some differences, and limoncino is made of grappa of prosecco, with added the skin of Sicilian lemons.

Similar liqueurs

A number of similar liqueurs are produced with some modifications; some use lemon juice, and some substitute other citrus fruits.  These include Limoncino, Limonello, and Limonetta and Crema di Limoncello which is made with milk, or milk products, to provide a creamy texture.  Also common is a liqueur using Mandarin oranges, called Mandarino, a ginger liqueur called Zenzerino, and let’s not forget the raspberry liqueur called Raspicello, or the peach liqueur called Peachcello.

Limoncello outside Italy

In recent years, some adaptations have sprung up, and I added my own twists as well.  I did what I always do when I discovered a recipe, I immediately tweaked it.  I replaced the lemons with oranges, meyer lemons, pomelos, and blood oranges.  I called my blood orange version bo-cello – blood cello was not appealing, and blocello just did not sound right.  My pomelo experiment was name po-cello.

My favorite, and by far most successful experiment was the pocello.  The grapefruit flavor cut through the sweetness adding a lovely distinctive taste.  (Some people do not like the tartness of grapefruit, but if you have never tried a pomelo, you really ought to.  It has the grapefruit taste without the pucker power).  Other batches involved adding herbs when I made the simple syrup – rosemary went into one batch, and basil to another (blood orange) and the addition made for some more tasty tonics.  Here is a pretty basic recipe for the limoncello, but, as noted, creativity is encouraged.

Homemade limoncello


15 lemons
2 bottles (750 ml) 100-proof vodka (can use other grain alcohol)
4 c sugar
5 c water
home made limoncello (photo from cramper)

home made limoncello (photo from cramper)

Scrub the lemons to remove any reside of pesticides or wax; pat the lemons dry.  Zest the lemons with a zesteror vegetable peeler so there is no white pith on the peel.  (Only the outer part of the rind. The pith, the white part underneath the rind, is too bitter and would spoil your limoncello)

In a large glass jar (1-gallon jar), add the vodka and the lemon zest as it is zested.  In a large saucepan, combine the sugar and water; cook until the sugar has disolved – this is essentailly a simple syrup.  Let the syrup cool before adding it to the alcohol mixture.
Cover the jar and let sit at room temperature for at least for up to 40 days in a cool dark place. The longer it rests, the better the taste will be.  Check on it after a week or two, as the peel pales you know that the oils have been extracted.  (There is no need to stir – all you have to do is wait.)  As the limoncello sits, the vodka slowly take on the flavor and rich yellow color of the lemon zest.
After the rest period, strain and bottle: discarding the lemon zest. Keep in the freezer until ready to serve.

Note:  do not discard the lemons – this is where the sorbet making, lemonade, or other directions your fancy takes you.

Also note, that limoncello makers are a very opinionated lot, and everyone has their take on a recipe, so my advice is most certainly different than the next persons.

Best of all worlds

Obviously the best way to taste limoncello is to jump on that plane, or train and head to Sorrento, a town of less than 17,000 inhabitants in the Campania region of southern Italy.  It is a popular tourist destination.  The town can be easily reached from Naples and Pompeii, as it lies at the south-eastern end of the Circumvesuviana rail line. The town overlooks the Bay of Naples, and many viewpoints in the city allow sightings of Naples (visible across the bay), Vesuvius and Capri.

The Amalfi Drive (connecting Sorrento and Amalfi) is the narrow road that threads around the high cliffs above the Mediterranean, and a must do experience for tourist, but be prepared for some queasiness – the twisty roads are not for everyone.  Ferry boats and hydrofoils connect Sorrento  Naples, Amalfi, Positano, Capri and Ischia. Sorrento’s sea cliffs are impressive.

Almafi Coast

Amalfi Coast

The Roman name for Sorrento was Surrentum.  In antiquity Surrentum was famous for its wine (oranges and lemons which are now so much cultivated there not having been introduced into Italy in antiquity), its fish, and its red Campanian vases; the discovery of coins of Massilia, Gaul and the Balearic Islands here indicates the extensive trade which it carried on.

The position of Surrentum was secure, protected by deep gorges. The only exception to its natural protection was 300 yards where it was defended by walls, the line of which is followed by those of the modern town. The modern streets were planned so as to preserve the ancient town.  No ruins are preserved in the town itself, but many remains can be found in the villa quarter to the east of the town, running above the modern road, across the mountain.  It is the site of one of the largest (possibly belonging to the Imperial house) villas now occupied by the Hotel Victoria.  Under the terrace of a small theatre is an ancient rock-cut tunnel descending to the shore. Remains of other villas may be seen, but the most important ruin is the reservoir of the (subterranean) aqueducts just outside the town, with no less than twenty-seven chambers.
In 1861 Sorrento was officially annexed to the new Kingdom of Italy, and in the following years confirmed its status of one of the most renowned tourist destinations in Italy.  A very abreviated history of a facinating town – believe me, I edited a lot of interesting stuff out.

Sorrento is in the Campania region of Italy, famous for…can you guess?  If I told you the capital of the regions is Naples, does that help?  …Ok, you got it – pizza – high on the list of foods for which this region, and Italy, is famous.  Pizzas hailing from Naples include pizza fritta (fried pizza); Calzone (literally “trouser leg”), which is pizza frita stuffed with ricotta cheese; pizza Marinara (seamans’ style), with olive oil, tomato sauce and garlic; and pizza Margherita, includes olive oil, tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil.

Spaghetti is another famous dish from Campania, with Neapolitans among the earliest European adopters of tomatoes not only as ornamental plant, but also as food and garnish.

Campania is known for its cheeses, including Mozzarella di Bufala (buffalo mozzarella – made from buffalo milk), fiordilatte (“flower of milk”) a mozzarella made from cow’s milk, ricotta from sheep or buffalo milk, provolone from cow milk, and caciotta made from goat milk.

Campania is home to many different cakes and pies.  Pastiera pie is made during Easter.  Casatiello and tortano are Easter bread, and made by adding lard or oil and various cheeses to the bread dough, and garnishing with slices of salami.

Babà cake is a well known Neapolitan delicacy, best served with rum or limoncello. The recipe comes from an old Austrian cake which arrived in Campania during Austrian domination of the Kingdom of Naples and became a “walking cake” for citizens to consume  while on the go.  Sfogliatella is another cake from the Amalfi Coast, which is gaining recognition worldwide, as is Zeppole, traditionally eaten on Saint Joseph’s day.  Struffoli, little balls fried dough dipped in honey, are enjoyed during the Christmas holidays.

Fish based dishes, such as insalata di mare (seafood salad), zuppa di polpo (octopus soup), and zuppa di cozze (mussel soup), are popular. Other regional seafood dishes include frittelle di mare (fritters with seaweed), triglie al cartoccio (red mullet in the bag), and alici marinate (raw anchovies in olive oil).

Campania is home to those beautiful lemons of Sorrento, much loved by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?” (“Do you know the land where the lemon-trees bloom?)

– Goethe

Rapini (or Broccoli rabe), also  known as friarielli, is used in Campanian cooking, along with locally grown nuts, especially around Salerno and Benevento.  The Campanian cuisine varies within the region -while Neapolitan dishes focus on seafood, Casertan and Aversana rely on fresh vegetables and cheeses. Sorrento cuisine combines the best of Naples and Salerno.

So if you do not have the time, money, or inclination to make that trip to Italy – limoncello can transport you there with one sweet, lemony sip.

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19 comments for “What to do, when life hands you a lemon or two – make limoncello of course

  1. March 13, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    Homemade limoncello sounds awesome! Thanks for all the info! I’m going to demand that Wegmans orders some meyer lemons for me – that’s one thing they don’t have!

  2. March 13, 2009 at 4:15 PM

    A couple of years ago, I actually had enough meyer lemons from my tree to make limoncello. Delicious!

  3. foodgal
    March 13, 2009 at 8:36 PM

    I do so love limoncello. It’s like a burst of sunshine in a shot glass. OK, a POTENT burst, to be sure. 😉

  4. giverecipe2009
    March 14, 2009 at 3:41 PM

    Never tasted it before but you make me so curious about this Italian drink. The best is that we can make it at home. I love lemon and vodka together, so maybe limoncello will be my favorite. But I’m not sure I can wait that long though.

  5. oysterculture
    March 14, 2009 at 3:59 PM

    Zerrin – you will love limoncello! Enjoy, I bet given your proximity to Italy that you should find some good brands.
    Foodgal – potent is the word!
    Lisa – lucky you to grow meyer lemons in your yard. Ah, the food you can cook!
    Natasha – I think Wegman’s is extremely short sighted not to have any meyer lemons available. What’s an East Coast food lover to do?

  6. March 14, 2009 at 8:41 PM

    I found them!!! Just a few bags hidden away among other citruses. It’ll be a lot of fun to experiment with them.

  7. oysterculture
    March 14, 2009 at 8:43 PM

    Awesome – please let me know what you think – I bet you’re going to love them!

  8. March 16, 2009 at 8:16 AM

    Ah, homemade limoncello…I dabbled a couple of years ago in this myself and found people had the same reaction you mentioned! Having ties to southern Italy through my husband’s family, we are always given a bottle of the homemade stuff when we go visit and spring is definitely the perfect time for it!

    Btw, we finally decided on a name. But mum’s the word until the little guy joins us officially on the outside. 🙂

  9. oysterculture
    March 16, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    Fastastic – I am sure that’s a load off with the little guy’s name – I have some friend who can’t decide are are waiting to see what their little guy looks like on the outside to make a final determination. 🙂

  10. duodishes
    March 16, 2009 at 7:17 PM

    But of course! We have GOT to get some Meyers before they are out of season.

  11. March 20, 2009 at 3:26 PM

    The restaurant I used to work for had a working farm in Napa. We would get two meyer lemon harvests…try processing buckets and buckets of meyer lemons. Even with gloves our hands and arms were citrus-burned! Meyer lemon souffle cakes, meyer lemon opera cake (think the chocolate kind, but with lemon cake and lemon white chocolate ganache and lemon butter cream instead), preserved for fish, segemented for salad. And my favorite – the bartender always made gallons of limoncello!

    Raising a glass of limoncello to the Italians for all their delicious food + drink contributions!

  12. cellartours
    March 21, 2009 at 11:37 AM

    very informative post and excellent as always 🙂

    You are right, the secret is the variety of lemon; to produce real limoncello you should use Sfusato di Amalfi lemon:

    Enjoy your limoncello!


  13. May 18, 2010 at 9:52 AM

    I think Danny De Vito is most famous for his role as the Penquin.””‘

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