Limoncello Rating: 98
I’m ten years old, sitting in my Grandfather’s home in Capistrano, California. The afternoon sun is sneaking through the wooden shutters. The small kitchen is mixed with natural and man-made light, giving the lemons that my grandfather is carefully peeling by hand and collecting in a ceramic bowl, a luminous yellow glow. I watch him, mesmerized, as he moves the peeler delicately around the fruit. “You must never go deeper than the white flesh. Just the skin,” he says to me, not looking up from his impeccable work. “Remember to handle the peel as little as possible,” he says, giving me a side glance and a little wink. I want to learn, and he wants me, to want to learn.
My grandfather, Alfred Gallo, was an Italian “fresh off the boat” immigrant, who with his family, arrived at Ellis Island back in 1905. He was six years old. A determined and proud man, if there was something my grandfather wanted to do, he did it. Though not a chef, he could have been. From homemade wines to handmade pasta, he could do it all and make it look easy. He was a bull of a man and stood about 5’3”. He had the hands of a boxer and a belly of a well-fed man. In 1960, he left New Jersey in search of sunnier weather and ended up in California. There was so much I didn’t know about him, but what I did know, was two things he loved. One: tending to his garden and Two: making delicious food from his homeland for his family and friends.
I continued to watch him delicately peeling the lemons, my parents were on the patio, deep in conversation with my uncle, my aunt and several of my cousins. The outside table was adorned with an Italian tablecloth, a freshly made antipasti tray, a charcuterie platter and of course, wine. Lots and lots of his homemade wines.
Nearly every Sunday, our family gathered in this way, but this particular evening, there were only 10 of us, a smaller than usual affair. Yet as always, my grandfather made enough food to feed a village. It was just his way. The air was perfumed with the aroma of my grandfather’s gravy, which was simmering in a large pot on the stove. Strands of freshly made spaghetti noodles hung all over the kitchen. There was a lasagna in the oven that was next to a tray of baked eggplant and browning garlic bread.
If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn he had eyes in the back of his head and an internal clock that allowed him to keep time with everything. Somehow, he was able to watch the stove top and the oven, know just how much wine was being consumed, glance up at the TV to catch a glimpse of the Yankees playing the Cubs, and listen to Sinatra sing, the way only he could, on a small radio he kept on the counter next to him, all while cooking the meal of a lifetime… every Sunday night.
He had the posture of a bent man, but that never seemed to slow him down. When he finished the task of peeling the lemons, he straightened up, dried his hand on his apron, grabbed two shot glasses out of the cupboard and walked toward the fridge. “Hey, Johnny, don’t tell your mother.” Gramps, as I called him, opened the freezer and took out a bright yellow frosted bottle, put down the two shot glasses on the counter and filled them both to the top. He pushed a glass towards me and said, “Drink it all at once… It’ll put hair on your coglioni.” Without hesitation, I lifted my shot glass, looked at Gramps and slammed that sweet and sour lemony hooch down my throat. He followed suit, laughed out loud and then went right back to peeling his lemons.
“Wow, that tastes like candy!” I said, and boy did it. What I knew at that moment, was that I loved it. What I didn’t know was what I was drinking, but I would soon learn. As it turned out, the first drink of liquor I’d ever sample ever in my life, would end up being my grandfather’s homemade Limoncello and just thirty seconds in, I was buzzed, hooked, and he knew it.
Finishing with the lemons, he walked over to the stove and pulled the pot of gravy off the hot burner, setting it onto a wooden cutting board. He looked at me, smiled and said, “I’ll give you a bottle to take home.” He laughed and hunched over, opened up the oven door to take a look at the night’s menu.
That night was my first experience with the now famous Italian liqueur known as Limoncello or Lemoncello. However, you choose to pronounce it, it’s a lovely lemon drink, and it’s usually served after a big meal, and for me, it always brings me back to that day in my grandfather’s kitchen.
I’ve chased that yellow dragon memory for most of my life. I’ve had many, many, many variations of it over the years and none of them lived up to what I had that night in my grandfather’s kitchen. I have even made my own on occasion, but it wasn’t until recently that I found what I’d been looking for, what had alluded me, all these years. Something that rivaled the memory of what I drank that night, with my grandfather.
Last Christmas, I made a special handmade batch of Limoncello, put in personalized bottles and gave them out as gifts to friends. I posted pictures I’d taken on Instagram, and someone who liked one of the photos messaged me and said, “You need to try my Limoncello.”
I get solicited by wineries and wine accessory companies all the time on Instagram. I have a large box full of various corkscrews, bottle preservers, foil cutters, wine bags that can be used for travel, picnics, and storage. On some occasions, I’m asked if I’d like to try a particular wine or vintage and I’ll be sent a few bottles. Whether it’s a single bottle or a case, it’s not lost on me. Truly. I mean, the thought that I might be able to influence a company’s social status or that my opinion means something to them, is flattering and it’s a gesture I take graciously. Not to mention, there’s still a standing offer from the tourist bureau of Alsace, France to pay them a visit and stay at Grand Cru Estates. I’ve not yet taken them up on that, but I assure you, I will.
I messaged the person back and said, I’d love to try your Limoncello. Where can I buy it in the USA? He wrote back and told me that his company is in Italy and he has no distribution in the US. “Well!” I thought I’m always up to acquiring something that I cannot easily obtain. My collection of authentic Absinthe that I’ve collected from Spain, France, and Switzerland over the years is proof of my tenacity. In writing him back, I told him “I’d like to personally purchase three bottles, and I will pay to have them smuggled shipped to California.” The ‘how’ they ended up getting here is not important. You dear reader only need to know that three bottles landed on my doorstep two weeks later.
They arrived and there beautiful! The carefully packaged bottles arrived like a gift. The packaging itself that the bottles were sequestered in reminded me of something Andy Warhol would have designed. Bright blue, red and yellow were splashed around the cylindrical containers. It’s pop art that screams at you from across the room. The bottle itself is very modest. A simple label that is hand numbered and signed by the maker. I put the bottle in the freezer and waited.
A bit of history before I tell you what it was like to drink this gem and to make the case, I will be referencing Wikipedia. Yes! I’ve had a few critics piss all over the fact that I use Wikipedia as a source, but here’s the thing. I don’t plagiarize, I like to give credit where credit is due, and I like giving you some factual and detailed backstory when I feel it supports what I’m writing. Besides, why rewrite what’s already been written well and to the point. It’s about the story, not my ego. So, to those pithy people who don’t like that I use Wikipedia, I simply say, Buggar Off! and here you have it, from Wikipedia:
Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur mainly produced in Southern Italy, especially in the region around the Gulf of Naples, the Sorrentine Peninsula and the coast of Amalfi, and islands of Procida, Ischia, and Capri. Traditionally, limoncello is made from the zest of Femminello St. Teresa lemons, also known as Sorrento or Sfusato lemons. Lemon zest, or peels without the pith, is steeped in rectified spirit (most commonly grappa, but vodka may also be used) until the oil is released. The resulting yellow liquid is then mixed with simple syrup. Varying the sugar-to-water ratio and the temperature affects the clarity, viscosity, and flavor. Opaque limoncellos are the result of spontaneous emulsification (otherwise known as the ouzo effect) of the sugar syrup and extracted lemon oils.
A few hours later, I pulled the bottle from the freezer, grabbed a shot glass from the cupboard, and poured myself a very chilled 2-ounces. On the nose, I was at once transported to my childhood. “Could it be?” I thought. Bright aromas of lemon filled not only my nose but the air around me. The bottle was filled with delicately skinned lemon peels. As I breathed it in, I heard a line from a Beastie Boys song play in my head. “Tilt your head back and finished the cup.” and that’s exactly what I did and just like that… BOOM! There I was, suddenly back in Gramp’s kitchen, sitting there, watching him like the one man orchestra he was, preparing the night’s feast. That yellow dragon I’d been chasing for so long, was finally found. This Limoncello was exactly how my grandfather made his. It was spot on! I stood in my kitchen and took in the moment. Of course, to be sure of my findings were correct, I had to examine the liquid again. Second shot. Yup! This was the droid I’d been looking for.
Now to tell you about the maker of this liquid gold, or yellow, rather. The producer is Lemon Limoncello. They make extremely limited editions and only once a year in the months from April to July. The reason for this is that the Sorrento lemons, from the Amalfi region, are the correct (and best) lemons to use in making limoncello and they have a very small window for reaching their maximum aromaticity, and the aroma of the lemon is an essential element.
You should know that in 2016 Lemon Limoncello only produced 560 bottles and 1090 in 2017. In the wine world, they would be considered a ‘cult producer,’ and that’s saying something. After all, we know what happens to highly rated cults wines, right? They are sought after, the demand for them goes through the roof and then they can (and often do) charge irrational prices, which many people will pay for. What’s sad, is that more often than not, those who are willing to pay the rate hike, do so ‘only’ because of the ‘Veblen Good’ status, not because of the actual quality of the wine or love for the winemaker. Seriously, ‘Veblen good,’ it’s a thing. Look it up. I mean, can you say, Armand de Brignac ‘Ace of Spades’ champagne? Meh!
Okay, back to the ‘guest of honor!’ Here’s the truth. I love this drink, their drink specifically. Here’s another truth. I’m not hip on the production of Limoncello in the world, but I do know that the quaffable bottles I’ve had over the years (and I’ve had many) were not in the same league as what Lemon Limoncello is making. Not even close.
Roberto Peveroni is the producer, and he carefully hand peels the lemons that he acquires from the groves of Sant’Agnello, in the Gulf of Sorrento. He is the only Limoncello producer that has peels so thin that you can eat them. Each lemon is washed, and carefully hand dried to avoid rubbing the natural lemon oil off the fruit. Once peeled, the skins are placed in a bottle of neutral ethyl alcohol, at that point refined beet sugar is added along with water from the Panna Springs from Tuscany. Then a secret ingredient is added; a leaf from a special plant that grows in Roberto’s father’s garden. How’s that for passion.
My grandfather used Grappa. He loved the concept of mixing grapes and lemons. He told me that some people use vodka, but why would you mix potato with a lemon? I was ten years old, how could I argue?
Peveroni uses all natural ingredients with absolutely no additives or dyes that you’re likely to find in so many other Limoncellos on the market. The result is a smooth lemon-centric deep-dive into your mouth. The sweet sugar mellows the intensity of the delicious sour citrus. I’m telling you, after a big meal, this relaxes the belly and brings everything you just ate, to life.
The choices for limoncello produced in Italy, by makers who use lemons from Sorrento is vast. It’s like microbreweries in the US. They are everywhere, and everyone makes it slightly different. I just happen to be lucky enough to find one that reminds me of childhood, that stirs some of my fondest memories, that takes me back to my grandfather’s home when I was a kid when the family gathered like a small village.
Now if you will excuse me, summer is approaching, and I still have two bottles left to enjoy. Cheers!
If you happened to be in Italy, Roberto Peveroni has a restaurant in Robbio you may want to visit and after a good meal, try his limoncello, in the homeland where it’s made. That’s living.
Via San Valeriano, 5 – Robbio (PV) Italy
If you’re interested, here is a simple and tasty Limoncello recipe I’ve used to make my own, from the Italian Blog.
You will need a large glass jar
Zest of 6 or 7 large organic lemons
1 quart of pure grain alcohol or vodka
5 cups (1250 ml) water
3 cups (700 gr) sugar
The water sugar ratio can be adjusted to taste
Peel the zest from the lemons with a vegetable peeler and place them into a large glass jar. Try to avoid the bitter white pith of the lemon skin, under the yellow zest. Add the alcohol to the jar with the lemon zest. Cover the glass jar with plastic wrap and store it in a cool place for 7 days.
On the sixth day: Boil the water and add the sugar to the boiling water. Stir the sugar until it is fully dissolved in the water. Set the sugar syrup aside to let it cool overnight.
On the seventh day: Strain the lemons peels from the alcohol and discard the peels.
Pour the sugar syrup into the glass jar with the alcohol and stir well.
Serve chilled, from the refrigerator or freezer.
NOTE: The limoncello will keep for one to two years. Store it in bottles with a cap or cork in your bar or cellar. When you want to drink it, chill the limoncello in the refrigerator or freezer before serving.
Sourced from the TheItalianDishBlog.com
Produced by: Roberto Peveroni
Bottled in 2017 – #507 of 1090
Appearance (Color): Bright yellow
Aroma (Complexity): Freshly picked lemons
Body (Texture and Weight): Medium
Food Pairing: For after-dinner meditation
Serving Temperature: Well-chilled