Limoncello is the name of an intensely lemon-flavored liqueur produced in the Italian region of Campania, in the area of Sorrento, by the Amalfi coast, and on the island of Capri. It is the most traditional digestive or after-dinner drink in almost all regions of Italy, where having a glass of this lemon liqueur is a great way to end a Sunday or a festive meal. It is a social ritual, very much like the “espresso” coffee break.
The history of limoncello
The history of its origins is rather vague and winds through a series of anecdotes and hypotheses. On the Sorrento Coast, for example, the story is that some local families, at the beginning of 1900, would always ensure that their illustrious guests would get a taste of limoncello, made according to the traditional recipe. In Amalfi, the liquor is said to have older origins, linked to the cultivation of lemons. One of the accounts is that limoncello was drank in the chilly mornings by fishermen and countrymen to fight the cold, since the Saracens’ invasion period. Others, instead, claim that the recipe was born in a monastic convent to delight the monks from prayer to prayer.
On the website of Federvini, the Italian Association of Wine/Liqueur Producers, it is reported that limoncello was created at the beginning of the 20th century, in a small boarding house in Capri, where a lady called Maria Antonia Farace took care of a fruitful garden of lemons and oranges. Her nephew, during the post-war period, opened a bar near Alex Munte’s villa, whose speciality was the lemon liquor made by following his nonna’s old recipe. In 1988, the grandson’s son, Massimo Canale, started a small handmade production of limoncello and registered the first trademark.
What makes an authentic limoncello
Setting aside limoncello’s origins, it is certain that what makes it special is the type of lemons used for preparing it. An authentic limoncello requires lemons from the Amalfi Coast, (the so called Sfusato Amalfitano) precisely in the area between the towns of Vico Equense and Massa Lubrense, and on the island of Capri. It is only there that, thanks to the Mediterranean climate, lemons grow with a thick and light-coloured skin that is rich with essential oils, fragrant and with an intense aroma.
There are many variations of limoncello: pistachiocello (flavoured with pistachio nuts), meloncello (flavoured with cantaloupe), arancello (flavoured with oranges), and fragoncello (flavoured with strawberries). A version made with milk instead of simple syrup also exists, known as crema di limoncello (limoncello cream) and is often sweeter, thicker and less alcoholic.
The fame of limoncello
Limoncello is very popular also in literature: in the best tradition of Italian hospitality, it was offered to Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s “Inferno”, as well as to his travel companions Sienna Brooks and Dr Ferris, by the owner of a large boat called “Mendacium”, which escorts them to Venice’s Piazza San Marco.
Nowadays, this liqueur has reached worldwide fame, like Bitter or Amaretto. In order to defend it from the imitations, the production of the characteristic “oval” Sorrentino lemon has been awarded the denomination of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
How to make limoncello
The traditional recipe of limoncello is handed down from a generation to the following one. It includes only a few ingredients:
- 1 / 2 litre of pure alcohol (at 90%)
- 4-5 large lemons from the Amalfi coast (those with a thick skin)
- 1 l water
- 500 gr sugar
Making limoncello is simple but not fast. First, the peels of the lemons need be left to soak in spirit, then the sugar syrup is filtered and added, and in the end, everything is put into the bottles where it must rest for at least a month before drinking it. Cheers!
Neapolitan families treat the consumption of limoncello almost like religion with precise rituals that is sacrilegious not to follow by the book. They say that there is at least one Neapolitan in every country of the world. If this is even a little bit true, the tradition of drinking limoncello is so important for Neapolitan culture that, very likely, you will find a bottle of limoncello in the pantry of every emigrated Neapolitan.
ITALY Magazine. 2021. So, Who Invented Limoncello? And What Makes It So Special?. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.italymagazine.com/dual-language/so-who-invented-limoncello-and-what-makes-it-so-special. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
Sorrento Italy Guide. 2021. History, origin, recipe of Limoncello. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.sorrentoinfo.com/recipe-of-limoncello-sorrento. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
Florence Inferno. 2021. Limoncello. The True Story Of The Italian Liqueur. [Online] Available At: Https://Www.Florenceinferno.Com/True-Story-Italian-Limoncello/. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
Arte Cibo. 2021. Limoncello. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.artecibo.com/limoncello. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
Rick Steves. 2021. Limoncello: When Life Gives You Lemons. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/limoncello-when-life-gives-you-lemons. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
Buyourtour. 2021. The Limoncello of Sorrento: the original recipe. [ONLINE] Available at: https://buyourtour.it/the-limoncello-of-sorrento-the-recipe-of-the-most-known-liqueur-in-the-world. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
TheFoodellers. 2021. Traditional Italian Limoncello Recipe: How To Make it + Tips and Advice. [ONLINE] Available at: https://thefoodellers.com/en/italian-limoncello-recipe. [Accessed 30 July 2021].
Written by Carolina Iazzetta, PhD student in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” at the University of Naples “Parthenope”.