My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018
Far too often, many of us treat eating like an afterthought: Wolfing down a subpar sandwich between teaching classes, or hitting the dreaded drive-through line on a long commute home. Italians, though? Italians know that eating is an art form and a ritual unto itself, on par with any operatic performance or sculpture-adoring museum visit. You don’t eat to live in Italian culture; you live to eat.
This means that most meals have a sort of theatre to their structure, ensuring that each step of the dinner waltz is well coordinated. There’s the aperitif: a light drink intended to whet the appetite for the meal ahead. The ruby-hued liqueur Campari, a dry prosecco or a glass of vermouth (red or white fortified wine) are popular options, and are often served with salatini, a small breadstick or bar mix-style snack. (After all, no one wants to get ahead of themselves with one too many glasses before the main course.)
Then there’s dinner, where wine leads the way, playing a supporting role to what’s on the plate. But after dinner? That’s when the fun really begins.
Digestifs, in my estimation, are the most exhilarating and complex category of Italian spirit, reflecting the nature of their home region and some of the most compelling liquor-tinged histories around. Crafted to aid in digestion, the range in flavor, mouthfeel and hue of these drinks — from dark and bitter to buoyant and vegetative — is like an artist’s palette — or palate! —of fine Italian drinking.
There’s Genepì, from the Piedmont region, which is made from variants of wormwood and not only helps after a meal, but is said to be a cure for motion sickness. Amaros are a rangy family of herbal liquors that cast a wide net, reflecting both a wealth of flavors and their point of origin: Sicily’s Amaro Averna with its citrus notes; Fernet Branca with its spearmint-heavy taste from Milan; Cynar with just a hint of artichoke in its makeup of 13 herbs. And let’s not forget grappa, a grape distillate that can trace its role as a digestif back to the Romans.
But many of these heavier drinks can, occasionally, feel a little Mary Poppins-like on a warm spring day: These spoonfuls of sugar (read: glasses of liquor) to make the medicine (read: meals) go down might prove to be too cloying for the heat, or too heavy after a long meal.
That’s where limoncello comes in.
Sure, you could sip a glass of saffron-colored Strega, a liqueur from Campania with a name that means “witch” in translation, reflecting the region’s long-held association with those potent spell casters. But my cup will always be filled with limoncello: a sunshine-colored, lemon liqueur that’s an instant pick-me-up after a decadent dinner. Typically served ice cold in small ceramic cups, it’s a lauded elixir of the highest order.
Limoncello’s origin story is shaky at best, rooted just as much in legend and lore than in any documentable facts. Some people claim monks invented it to sip between prayers. Others swear that it has been whipped up by fishermen for generations as a means of warding off colds (and, possibly, scurvy) while out at sea.
One thing’s for sure, though: Limoncello is a drink inspired by warm Mediterranean breezes.
A mixture of fresh lemon zest, simple syrup and a clear alcohol (traditionally, grappa, but more recently 100-proof vodka or grain liquor), limoncello is the unofficial drink of Southern Italy. Locales such as Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri each staunchly believe that their location is the rightful home of the drink.
In Amalfi, they trace limoncello back to the cultivation of lemon trees themselves in the region, seeing the two as inextricably linked. Capri, however, points to the grandmotherly owner of a guesthouse rich in citrus trees, who made an early version of the lemon liqueur around the turn of the 20th century. Eventually, the family concoction found its way onto her nephew’s menu at a pub, becoming a signature drink. Decades later, the bar owner’s son would introduce the drink to the rest of Italy — and the world — leading to a rise in popularity from the late 1980s onward that’s now landed limoncello as the second most popular liqueur in Italy (behind Campari). The paternity of lemoncello, as the residents of Capri see it, belongs solely to them.
But despite the community scuffling, the majority of limoncello producers agree that, traditionally, it is the Femminello Santa Teresa — or Sorrento — lemon that is most associated with crafting limoncello. Juicier and deeper-hued than other lemon varieties, Sorrento lemons have a higher content of oil in their skin, making them ideal for imparting a bold, tart flavor into the drink.
In Southern Italy, lemons are beloved, and those used for the creation of limoncello are deeply cared for, picked by hand to ensure none touch the earth below the trees. What’s more, all lemons produced for limoncello must be untreated with chemicals or pesticides and, when combined with the accompanying ingredients, completely without the bitter (and unappetizing) pith finding its way into the liqueur due to substandard zesting.
Limoncello should typically sit for up to three months — six weeks, at an absolute minimum — in order to allow the flavors to properly mesh, but as the drink has increased in popularity across the globe in recent years, home cooks have been trying their hands at crafting a limoncello that’s ready for drinking in as little as 10 days. Chefs and bartenders have also experimented with taking the limoncello model of liqueur-making and applying it to other fruits: strawberries, pistachios and, in New Orleans, kumquats. (Somewhere in Italy, a tradition-loving nonna is shaking her head.)
There’s something satisfying, though, about the bright simplicity of limoncello and how easy it is to craft a drink that’s so delicious, so easily. I’ve often made the liqueur to keep on hand as a quick, thoughtful birthday or thank you present: It’s a gift that’s more appreciated than a fruit basket (liquor!), and more unexpected than a bottle of wine (lemons!).
We might not have Sorrento lemons at the ready, but with just three ingredients (and a little bit of time) it’s not impossible to feel as if you’re gifting someone the gift of an Amalfi vacation — or, at least, a lingering Italian dinner — in a bottle. So, next time life gives you lemons, skip the lemonade: It’s limoncello you want to make.