When you think of the tastes of Italy, your mind probably zooms to world famous pasta dishes like pasta Bolognese. Yet Italy is also famous for its lemons, and for the sweet and zesty limoncello or limoncino made from them. Never had limoncello? Now’s your chance!
Limoncello – referred to in northern Italy more often as limoncino – is a lemon liqueur that originated in southern Italy, especially along the coast of Amalfi. A liqueur combines alcohol (usually a grain or neutral, i.e. tasteless, spirit) with flavorings such as fruits, herbs or other aromatics. It’s also often sweetened, usually with sugar, and limoncello is no different.
The traditional limoncello recipe call for nothing more than lemon zest, neutral spirits and a simple syrup. Uncomplicated enough to make at home, delicious enough to serve to guests.
Origin tales differ greatly as to how limoncello came about, but there is no doubt that it emerged from southern Italy and surrounding regions about one hundred years ago. It’s traditionally made strictly from the Sorrento lemons that grow exclusively along the Amalfi coast. Of course you can use any lemons available to you, and Meyer lemons especially provide an excellent substitution.
Limoncello is actually quite easy to make from home. And you only need four ingredients: lemons, alcohol, water and sugar. Tradition calls, of course, for those Sorrento lemons first and foremost, but if you are in the US you can replace them with Meyer lemons. You’ll also need to find a strong grain alcohol, such as Everclear, which you’ll later dilute with the simple syrup.
Simple syrup is just equal parts sugar and water heated until the sugar dissolves. Diluting the alcohol is an important step. The alcohol content needs to be high enough to prevent your limoncello from freezing (the drink is traditionally stored in the freezer and served in ice-cold glasses), but not so high you fall over!
The lemons are steeped in the alcohol, generally for at least two weeks, though longer is also fine. The alcohol is then strained to remove the peels and diluted with the simple syrup. After a little more resting time, the limoncello is ready to be enjoyed on its own, in a cocktail or added to another recipe.
Because limocello is so easy and popular to make at home, there are many versions and treasured family recipes that each have slight variations or substitutions. Some adapt the recipe to use cantaloupes, strawberries or milk.
Cloudy is natural! It comes from the lemon peels releasing their “zest,” which is actually essential citrus oils. Those turn cloudy when the sugar from the simple syrup meets these oils. This is called emulsification, or “the ouzo effect.” It doesn’t affect the taste of your beverage at all.
Limoncello is traditionally served as a digestive after a meal because citrus is an aid to digestion. What’s more, the bright lemony flavor cuts through the heaviness of a large meal and leaves you feeling a little more refreshed.
Limoncello is traditionally enjoyed in a small chilled glass, sipped slowly and leisurely after a long or heavy meal. However it can also serve as a lovely building block for a variety of cocktails, among these light and creamy crema di limoncello, which uses milk instead of water.
It can also be added to desserts like our chocolate and almond limoncello cake. Limoncello is a light and fruity addition to tiramisu, cookies and even ricotta cake. Try adding it to any recipe that could use a bright dash of this lemony flavor like a lemon semifreddo recipe.
Because limoncello is traditionally stored in the freezer, and has a high alcohol content to boot, it can last almost indefinitely. The alcohol will lose its punch over time, but the sweet and cheerful taste should remain unchanged.
Other Italian drinks recipes: