Limoncello is the Italian word referring to an intensely lemon-flavored liqueur most famously associated with and produced in Sorrento, the Amalfi coast, and the island of Capri, but also very popular throughout all of Italy.
Limoncello is made from lemon zest (strictly non-treated), water, alcohol, and sugar. It is a beverage usually consumed after meals, but is a perfect drink for every occasion.
Preparation is easy but meticulous: if executed with accuracy, in a bit less than three months, the traditional yellow liquor will be ready to be enjoyed as an aperitif or a digestive, before or after a meal.
As in the best tradition of Italian hospitality, Limoncello was offered to Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s Inferno, as well as to his travel companion Sienna Brooks and Dr. Ferris, by the owner of a large boat called the Mendacium, which escorts them to Venice’s Piazza San Marco.
Limoncello: between history and legend
Limoncello’s origins shrouded in mystery and the theories are many, as always.
Sorrentini, Amalfitani, and Capresi alike claim its ancestry. In small plots of kilometres, these three populations boast of a production of limoncello passed on by various generations.
In Capri, some say that its origins are linked to the events of the family of the businessman Massimo Canale, who, in 1988, registered the first trademark “Limoncello.”
The liquor originates from the beginning of the 1900s, in a small boarding house on the island of Azzurra, where the lady Maria Antonia Farace took care of a rigorous garden of lemons and oranges. During the post-war period, her nephew opened a bar near Alex Munte’s villa. The speciality of that bar was the lemon liquor made with nonna’s old recipe.
In 1988, the nephew’s son, Massimo Canale, started a small handmade production of Limoncello, registering the trademark. However, Sorrento and Amalfi have their own legends and stories regarding the production of the traditional yellow liquor.
On the Sorrentine coast, for example, the story goes that at the beginning of the 1900s, the big families of Sorrento would always ensure that their illustrious guests get a taste of Limoncello, made according to their traditional recipe.
Moreover, In Amalfi, some believe that the liquor has even older origins, being almost linked to the cultivation of lemons.
However, as it frequently happens in these circumstances, the truth is vague and the hypothesis are many and interesting.
Some recall the peasants and fishermen’s custom of drinking a little lemon liqueur in the morning to ward off the cold.
Others speak of diligent monks intent on preserving the pleasures of life between prayers, during the Middle Ages, when the roads were hazardous and the seas populated with plundering Saracens.
According to Lee Marshall, a British journalist who has been living in Italy since 1984 and who writes for the Italian weekly publication Internazionale, Limoncello’s history is short and is not rooted in agrarian tradition, as is typically the case.
In his article entitled L’invenzione della tradizione (The Invention of Tradition) from the Internazionale (October 2013), Marshall argues that we do not have any historical documentation regarding the use of Limoncello before the beginning of the twentieth century. Moreover, Marshall writes that outside of a handful of families and social circles, few drank it before 1988, when the entrepreneur Massimo Canale of Capri registered the trademark “Limoncello di Capri” and began producing the yellow liqueur in quantities that could first satisfy bars, restaurants, and supermarkets throughout the area, and then around the world.
In other words, according to Marshall, Limoncello, as a commercial phenomenon, is the same age as the Internet.
We may never know the truth, except for the fact that the traditional yellow liquor has crossed borders for decades, conquering half the world’s markets.
The commercial phenomen of Limoncello
From Capri to Costiera, Limoncello’s fame soon reached Milan where it was called Limoncino. It then made its way down to Rome (er Limoncello), and finally reached even Naples, where downtown bars proudly started displaying the cheery bottles filled with yellow liquid gold.
The secret to its success was the unique flavor attained by the particular quality of lemons grown only in certain areas of Campania, south of Italy.
Although a highly alcoholic liqueur, the perfume and flavor of this typical variety of lemons allows this drink to be sweet and pleasing to the palate.
To appreciate Limoncello to its fullest, it should be served at a very cold temperature, which makes it more refreshing in the warmer seasons.
First it was a fad, then it was a fashion, and now it’s a solid tradition that not even its numerous contenders can imitate: no other liqueur made from a simple infusion can gratify taste buds the world over.
The first measure of success is imitation, and Limoncello was imited not only in Italy but throughout the world.
That said, to protect itself from imitations, it is assigned the denomination of Indicazione geografica tipica (IGP), which includes production with characteristic “oval” lemons from Sorrento.
Charateristics of the artisan varieties
What’s the difference between Limoncello’s artisan variety and the industrial one? The answer is simple: the lemons!
The original lemon of Sorrento must be produced in one of the town districts of the territory that spans from Vico Equense to Massa Lubrense and the island of Capri.
The cultivation system is the typical and traditionally one adopted in the area. The unique nature of these fruits depends on the microclimate, the proximity to the sea, and protection from the cold winds thanks to the use of traditional pagliarelle (straw matting) covering the groves and held up with chestnut poles (higher than three metres).
The harvest is usually carried out during the period from February to October: it is undertaken by hand because direct contact between the lemons and the ground must be prevented.
To create this liqueur from the lemon peel, we have to be certain of the origin of the citrus fruit, which is often treated with chemical pesticides.
And that’s not all. The difference also lies in the taste, which depends on the varieties used: Femminiello from Massa Lubrense (oval in shape, smooth skin, very juicy) and Sfusato from Amalfi (tapered shape, large with a thick, yellow peel and almost no seeds) are the varieties used to produce this liqueur characterized by the intense aroma of essential oils that it inherits from the environment.
The unique nature of these fruits depends on the microclimate, the proximity to the sea, and protection from the cold winds thanks to the use of traditional pagliarelle (straw matting) covering the groves and held up with chestnut poles.
Homemade recipe of Limoncello
With few ingredients, such as alcohol, sugar, and lemons, Limoncello can easily be prepared from home.
The first step of the recipe of Limoncello involves washing the fruit in warm water and with a brush to clean it from eventual residual of insecticides. Alcohol is poured in a water jug, and pieces of aromatic rind gained from the peel are then added.
The experts advise the use of high-quality alcohol to prevent the liqueur from being transformed into ice when in the freezer.
With the arrangement of the water jug covered in a dark room or in a sideboard, the first phase of production is concluded. At room temperature, the maceration of the peel will continue and the instilled liquid will slowly assume the aroma and the yellow of the lemon.
After approximately one month, the preparation continues with the adding of a small pot of water and sugar (boiled and then left to cool down) and other alcohol. The water jug is then covered and put away in the cabinet for one additional month.
After approximately forty days, the instilled liquid is filtered in bottles, discarding the peels. The bottles then go in the freezer. Due to its unique taste and aroma, the liqueur is served without additives and colouring agents.
There now exist many recipes for making homemade Limoncello. Basically, all you need to do is take the zest of organic lemons (yellow and not tinted with green) and steep them in grain alcohol for between 48 and 78 hours and then strain the liquid. You then add simple syrup (sugar water) to the alcohol and then let it sit for a few days. Simple!
The big difference really comes from the quality of lemons that you have and how much sugar you add to your concoction. The amount of sugar is really up to you and how sweet you like it. Finally, strain into decorative bottles, adding a few strips of lemon zest to each bottle.
- 10 lemons
- 1 bottle (750 ml) of grain alcohol
- 4 cups water (filtered tap or distilled water)
- 3 cups sugar
On the Amalfi coast, the lemons are, of course, incredible—you won’t be able to replicate that over here. But you can certainly make very good Limoncello!
Limoncello is an excellent digestive if served cold. Some prefer it at room temperature, even stirred in tonic water or champagne. Lately, it is in vogue to use it in gelatos and fruit salad. In Campania, in the earth prince of its production, limoncello concludes lunch or supper: at this point, it has become a social ritual whose importance is nearly the same as coffee.
Many variations of Limoncello also exist. These include Pistachiocello (flavored with pistachio nuts), Meloncello (flavored with cantaloupe), and Fragoncello (flavored with strawberry). Some less-known flavors include honey, grass, and pepper. A version made with milk instead of simple syrup also exists and is known as crema di limoncello, often containing less alcohol (at around 16% vol.)
This post was originally published on March 17, 2014, and has been updated and enriched on September 5, 2016.