Our Third Featured Libation of the World comes from the Sorrentine Peninsula and Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy
Cover Photo by Roberto Patti on Unsplash
“When life hands you lemons….make……limoncello”Unknown
Limoncello is a sweet and tangy Italian Lemon Liqueur mainly produced in Southern Italy, along the Amalfi coast, and in the region known as the Sorrentine Peninsula. This region stands at the heart of the lemon agricultural community.
This delightful burst of lemon with a punch is made from the zest of lemons and is traditionally served chilled as an end-of-the-meal digestive. It can be enjoyed on its own but also with desserts. Limoncello pairs well with any chocolate-type dessert (citrus and chocolate always go well), a pear tart, or drizzled-over vanilla ice cream. It beautifully compliments classic Italian tiramisu. That said, you will often observe people enjoying a chilled glass of limoncello midafternoon as it makes a lovely aperitif. There is no wrong time to enjoy this intriguing drink.
Another version, called limoncino found in Cinque Terre and other areas of Northern Italy. It differs slightly, and the article will focus on Limoncello only.
History of Limoncello
Historical documents date lemons in the Sorrento area to 1500 AD, but the current Sorrento oval ancestors date back to the Roman era. Excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum revealed numerous paintings depicting lemons similar to those of today served on the tables of ancient Romans.
Lemons are thought to have originated in India and were introduced to southern Italy around 200 AD. Arabs spread lemons throughout the Mediterranean region during their sea travels. The ship crews were especially susceptible to scurvy during their long voyages, and the Vitamin C in lemons could prevent it. Even Christopher Columbus had lemon seeds on his ships when he came to America.
That, though, is not the origin of Limoncello. The origin is entirely disputed. There are stories of monks enjoying Limoncello between prayers during the Middle ages. Some speak of fishermen ages ago drinking this lemon liquor in the morning to ward off the morning chill.
The most accepted story originated in a small boarding house on the island of Capri in the early 1900s. A woman, Maria Antonia Farace, who tended a large garden of Sorrento lemons, created the fragrant and intense liqueur with a unique flavor thanks to the mixing with sugar, alcohol, and water. Her nephew opened a bar, and the specialty was the lemon liquor made with his aunt’s recipe. Interestingly it was not registered for a trademark until 1988, though it was by the son of Maria’s nephew. From the nineteenth century to today, Limoncello has become one of the region’s most significant products and a worldwide commercial phenomenon.
Lemons are exceptionally high in vitamin C. The Amalfi Coast lemon has more vitamin C than other lemon varieties. Vitamin C protects cells from damage and strengthens the immune system. The skin of lemons contains additional phytochemicals that are important in preventing disease.
The lemons in this region are a masterpiece born thanks to the nature surrounding them. This is due to the influence of the sea and the sun that shines on the coast for most of the year. Sorento and the Amalfi Coast are two distinct areas that are very close, but there is a significant difference between the Sorento lemon and the Amalfi Coast lemon. They share the Sorrento and Amalfi lemon groves, often called “lemon gardens.”
Most lemons used in limoncello production are cultivated by training the trees to climb along a framework made of poles about twelve feet high, forming an arbor. The lemons ripen between February and October, then are hand-picked based on their size, color, and shape. They are harvested throughout the year on steep terraces accessed by stone stairs. There are many celebrations around the lemons, mainly in spring and summer.
The best-known citrus of the Sorrento Peninsula is the Sorrentino lemon called ‘Femminello,’ It differs from the lemons of the nearby Amalfi coast for its different cultivation methods and organoleptic properties.
The Sorrento femminiello, also known as “Massa lemon” or “Sorrento Oval” (referring to the oval shape of the fruit), has medium-large dimensions. Each lemon weighs no more than 2.5 ounces grams, and its pulp is straw yellow with a highly acidic juice (which differentiates it from the Amalfitano lemon, which is moderately acidic).
The peel is of medium thickness, rough, and fragrant due to the rich presence of essential oils and is citrine yellow.
The P.G.I. Sorrento lemon has particular production techniques based on cultivation under “straw mats.” The mats rest on wooden support poles to cover the foliage of the trees. This protects citrus fruits from adverse weather conditions and regulates ripening.
Amalfi Coast Lemons
Amalfi lemons belong to a different category known in Italian as the ‘sfusato,’ which refers to the fruit’s tapered shape, entirely different from the rounder varieties of lemons grown elsewhere in Italy. This variety was developed by crossing small, local lemons and bitter oranges. These lemons are significantly larger, with each fruit weighing at least 3 ounces. The medium to thick skin is a light yellow color. The rind has an exceptionally intense lemon aroma because of the essential oils in its skin. Inside, the flesh is acidic, semi-sweet, and very juicy. Amalfi Coast lemons contain few seeds and grow year-round.
The local lemons are traditionally what they use to make Limoncello. They are perfect for cooking because of their flavor and lack of seeds. Lemons are excellent in salad dressings. Of course, they are always wonderful with fish. The zest and flesh are useful in baking and are in several regional desserts.
The first step in the limoncello production process begins with fresh lemon peels and removing the bitter white pith that covers the fruit. The oil in the peels infuses the alcohol with flavor, so thicker peels are preferred for making lemon liqueur. The pulp can go into lemon pastries and other lemon-based products as it is generally unnecessary for making Limoncello.
The peels soak in pure, high-quality alcohol. Each producer will use different neutral spirits derived from grain, grapes, sugar beets, sugar cane, and even wine or vodka. These spirits act as a solvent to extract the oils and flavor from the lemon rinds because they have up to ninety-five percent alcohol. For a minimum of forty days, the lemon rinds will marinate in the alcohol in a dark place. The alcohol will develop a more intense lemon flavor the longer they steep and become richer in color.
The mixture is then strained after marinating for the desired time. The resulting liquid is then combined with a syrup of sugar dissolved in boiling water. It will rest for another month, covered in a cool, dark place. Finally, the whole Limoncello brew is filtered, bottled, and corked.
Check out our Italian Tomato Balsamic Bruschetta recipe
Letting it Sit
Those fresh lemons can take 28-80 days to become Limoncello. The process is relatively simple, but each producer boasts their limoncello secrets. For example, some use only the rinds, while others marinate the pulp and seeds. Some experiments with different sugar-to-water ratios in the syrup. The location where the limoncello steeps can also play a role because of varying temperatures and humidity.
Ultimately, these factors affect the final product’s flavor, opacity, and texture. Taste can vary dramatically from lovely and refreshing to a taste similar to a cleaning substance.
How Best to Experience Limoncello
The preferred way to serve Limoncello is cold (without ice), usually kept in the freezer before serving. The glass should be chilled as well. A serving size is 45 ml or 1.5 ounces.
It is 30% alcohol, so it does pack a punch and is deceiving due to its sweetness.
Always drink responsibly.
Beyond the “Digestivo“
Digestivo refers to helping you digest after a meal. That is why Limoncello is most commonly enjoyed as an after-dinner drink, but there are many other ways to enjoy it:
Drizzle it over gelato or ice cream or
Pour over some fresh fruit
Swirl it into champagne or sparkling water
Stir it into pastry cream or drizzle it over pound cake
Add to homemade cocktails.
The Seal of the Real Limoncello, avoiding Tourist Knock Offs
In Italy, prized agricultural products are strictly regulated. Lemons grown in certain designated regions of Capri and the Sorrentine Peninsula fall under the legal protection afforded by an I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), a protected geographic area. The consortia protect the two main lemons cultivated there based on their cultural, historical, and culinary importance. These certified areas are under protection by the laws of the European Union.
Most limoncellos you will see for sale in tourist trap stores are not authentic. They are aromatics, not true Limoncello. Avoid those and seek the “real” product.
Limoncello of Sorrento has the Consortium for the Promotion of the Sorrento Lemon, which regulates the cultivation of Sorrento lemons.
The Consortium for the Promotion of the Amalfi Coast Lemon preserves this variety’s heritage label for the Amalfi Coast.
With lemons being the agricultural focus in this region, it goes way beyond just Limoncello. It is pretty much lemon everything. Along with Limoncello are lemon-flavored candy, cookies, pastries, and limoncello chocolate. If that wasn’t enough, you could find lemons in or on almost anything, including lemon soaps, trinkets, clothing, ceramics, artwork, etc.
One of our favorite treats is a cone of lemon sorbet, which is refreshing and delicious. We also enjoyed mouth-watering lemon pastries and desserts. If you are not a lemon, you are in the wrong place.
Taking Limoncello Home
Our favorite was from Sorrento. The Labadia Distillates group was founded in 1884. It was born in the center of Naples and established itself throughout Italy during the early 1900s. It produces an incredible limoncello. They have an artisan shop in Sorrento’s historic center so that you can sample it. We brought several bottles home with us. Look out for Limoncello di Sorrento or click here on their website.
If you have a limoncello that you love while trying different brands, buy it at the location. If you don’t have a favorite, you can wait until your flight home and buy it duty-free at Naples airport. The prices at the airport were great, and there were extensive choices.
Planning a trip to Italy? Check out our Italy Travel Guide here
Purchasing Limoncello at Home
Once home, finding Italian Limoncello in our local liquor/wine stores is easy. Depending on the location, large-scale stores like Total Wine can have an excellent selection. If you don’t see a brand in the store, check what they have online; you may be able to special order it. Drizly.com is an online company that delivers to your door and would serve best those living in bigger cities. This is a new site, and it has a pretty impressive inventory. To our surprise, we found Amazon.com had great choices as well.
Other options Wine-Search.com will search online sources worldwide for any wine, beer, and spirits. They ship to your home if your state allows it. There seemed to be a wide variety, but we have not ordered any.
It is also worth contacting your local specialty liquor store to see what they can order for you.
If there is a brand you especially were fond of in Italy, some producers ship to the U.S. and other countries, so check out their site.
Here is the fun part, it is easy to make your own Limoncello for yourself or the perfect gift
Oh, those lemons!
May we suggest a few cocktail recipes
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Our Limoncello and Southern Italy Photo Gallery
Learn more about the Amalfi Coast, Italy. Check out the Amalfis Coast Official Tourism Site
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