February is far and away the dreariest month of the year in Italy. Yes, for incurable optimists, there’s a faint promise of spring in the air, but that promise is dashed over and over by chilly winds and unrelenting gray rain that too often turns to snow — not happy, light flakes that dance in the air, but the kind of heavy wet snow that falls down the back of your jacket if you decide, willy-nilly, to go out for a walk.
But there is a bright side: This is also the time when citrus comes into its own, just when we need a healthy dose of vitamin C to revive flagging spirits. Blood oranges, called moro or sanguinello, from Sicily, and lemons (sfusato, feminello) from the Amalfi Coast are among the stars of the season, often sold with their fragrant leaves still attached (more on that below). But wherever they come from, whatever their variety, the penetrating citrus aromas lift the heart and perfume the dreariness of northern markets.
The sfusato amalfitano, a lemon cultivated on steep terraces rising up above the Amalfi Coast, is particularly noted for the intensity of the fragrance concentrated in its oily skin. Which is why both thrifty housewives and resourceful entrepreneurs rush to take advantage of the season by making limoncello, the appealingly tart-sweet lemony beverage that can be served as an aperitif, an after-dinner drink, or, mixed, perhaps, with bubbly Prosecco, as a midafternoon pick-me-up. My own first taste of limoncello took place a good many years ago in Sorrento, a small city not far from Amalfi, and it won me over instantly.
Concetta Cantoro’s recipe
I had never heard of limoncello until then, but suddenly it was everywhere, even in distant Venice, where the Texas-born proprietress of one of Venice’s top restaurants asked me plaintively, “What is this limoncello all the Americans are asking for?” (Typically, she had never heard of it, and isn’t that one of the reasons we love Italy? Because one region’s knockout food or wine or sauce or bread is utterly unknown anywhere else?)
But it took a fine Pugliese cook, Concetta Cantoro, to show me how to make it — and it’s dead easy, requiring more time than anything else. (The time is spent patiently waiting for the lemon fragrance to infuse the spirits.) Three weeks ago, when a friend stopped by with a bushel of unsprayed lemons, I rushed to bring out Concetta’s recipe.
We lifted the zest off the lemons and buried it in a jar with several bottles of 100-proof vodka, then waited 20 days, strained the vodka, discarded the zest and mixed the vodka with an equal quantity of simple sugar syrup. The result is sitting in my refrigerator (and that of my friend) and it is mighty tasty — after dinner, before dinner, or used to douse one of those Greek semolina cakes that call for syrup to be poured over them while the cake is still warm.
Limoncello is actually one of a whole class of liqueurs that were, and sometimes still are, made by thrifty Italian home cooks in order to have something strong, sweet and reinforcing to offer guests after a meal. Called rosoli (the plural of rosolio), they are served at weddings, baptisms and especially funeral receptions when this kind of pick-me-up (tiramisu) seems particularly called for. Fragrant with mint, bay leaves, basil, coffee, citrus or green walnuts (called nocino), these liqueurs are the pride of the country wife’s larder, displayed in crystal decanters handed down from mother to daughter, along with the recipes to fill them. Concetta often served her own limoncello in her home-style restaurant in the lovely town of Lecce, deep in the Salento region of southern Puglia. The restaurant no longer exists, but I published her recipe in my book “Flavors of Puglia” (Broadway Books, 1997), sadly now out of print. If you feel timid about the alcohol, be advised that once 100-proof vodka has been mixed with an equal quantity of simple syrup, the proof drops to 50, meaning it’s about 25 percent alcohol, stronger than wine but nowhere near as strong as most spirits.
Serve limoncello well chilled, preferably in tiny glasses. Makes about 1½ quarts.
- If you can’t find unsprayed lemons, scrub the lemons with soap and water to rid them of any pesticide or wax residue, then rinse and dry them thoroughly.
- Carefully peel the yellow zest from the lemons in thin strips, leaving the white part behind. (You won’t need the lemon juice for this recipe. If you don’t have any immediate use for it, squeeze the peeled lemons and freeze the juice in ice cube tray so that you have a tablespoon of lemon juice available whenever you need it.)
- Put the lemon rinds in a large glass jar with the vodka, screw the lid on tightly, and set aside in a cool (but not refrigerated) place for two to three weeks.
- Strain the vodka, discarding the lemon rinds. Bring water to a boil and add the sugar, dissolving it completely. Set aside to cool to room temperature, then mix with the strained vodka. Bottle the limoncello in glass bottles or jars (canning jars are fine), cap them and set aside for 24 hours, then refrigerate.
Note: I mentioned above that lemon leaves are intensely fragrant. In Sicily, cooks often wrap savory veal meatballs in lemon leaves before grilling them. The perfumed oils in the leaves penetrate the meatballs most deliciously. If you have a lemon tree in your backyard, try it!
Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean.”
Photo of limoncello and lemon rinds in jar by Nancy Harmon Jenkins