Giovanni's Limoncello

Twice now when we've returned to Spello, we've been fortunate to sample Giovanni's homemade limoncello. Limoncello is a kind of amaro, which means "bitter," but in this context means an after-dinner liqueur or digestive, usually made by infusing alcohol with roots, herbs, citrus peels, or other plant-based flavorings. Limoncello tends to be the most user-friendly of the group, but I have also grown to enjoy something more bitter after a long Italian meal. These are often just poured out of a repurposed bottle at somebody's table, so I often don't know what's in them, but the taste is often reminiscent of pine bark and licorice root. 

I've tried many a person's homemade limoncello and didn't like them. No aspersion on those limoncello makers—I don't enjoy most bottled limoncello either. It's usually more reminiscent of cough syrup than those true, glorious limoncellos (most of which I've had on the Amalfi coast) I've fallen in love with.

So a year ago, when Giovanni brought out a collection of amaro bottles from his freezer, I steadied my "how delicious" face. But soon I was sampling each one, growing more and more astonished. I loved every last sip...Lemon! Rosemary! Bay! Orange! Fennel! Seeing my interest, Giovanni kindly walked me through his recipe, but at that point I was distracted by the cavalcade of mesmerizing things he had been placing in front of us all evening, so truth be told, I promptly forgot everything he said.

This visit, when he presented Gabe with a bottle of homemade vinegar and then quietly slid bottles of limoncello and fennel liquor in the same bag, I vowed I would WRITE IT DOWN. And I would do it when I wasn't too mellow to properly hold a pen. That way I would get to have his limoncello not only in Virginia (there was so much, we had to bring some back, along with the fennel amaro), I could make it to replenish my stock.

Thus, during our dinner at Orlando Furioso, I asked him to walk me through his recipe.

And now I'm sharing it with you. Tell me how it turns out! Also tell me how you find 90% or 95% alcohol, because that seems to be part of the secret. Giovanni says you can make it with weaker alcohol (both are easy to find in Italy, but in Virginia at least, it's impossible to find such strong alcohol), but then you need to soak the lemon peels for much longer, and dilute it less at the end, which changes the flavor.

How to make it:

  1. Wash 10 lemons very well, and dry with a towel to get off every speck of wax and dirt.

  2. Peel the lemons, making sure to get only the peel, none of the white and foamy pith.

  3. Place the lemon peels in 1 liter of 90% or 95% (percent, not proof) alcohol.

  4. Seal and set aside for 15-20 days.

  5. At that point, boil 600-800 grams of white, granulated sugar (Paola underscores that less is better, here) with 1.3 liters of water until the sugar dissolves.

  6. Cool the sugar water.

  7. Strain the lemon peels out of the alcohol.

  8. Combine the sugar water and the alcohol.

  9. Bottle and freeze before serving.

Variations: Instead of lemons, use alternative flavorings like 10 fresh bay leaves, a few stalks of rosemary, or a cut fennel bulb (the white part plus a bit of the greens).

Want to make your own Italian liquors? Have a variation you want to tell us about? Leave a comment and share this recipe!