Lemon pattern ceramics in Positano — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
In Sorrento, on the island of Capri and on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, lemons cannot escape. They hang from trees in virtually every garden. The terraced lemon orchards dramatically avoid the coastal hills, as they have for centuries. Souvenir shops sell ceramics, aprons, tablecloths and other items emblazoned with images of the yellow fruit. There’s lemon cake, lemon marmalade, and lemon candy. Even tourists glide through the streets wearing lemon-embellished dresses, shirts, and socks.
Outside of southern Italy, however, the region’s famous lemons travel the world, mostly in the form of a liqueur known as limoncello. Although considered an after-dinner drink, limoncello is also served in cocktails, such as the limoncello spritz, which adds ice, prosecco, and sparkling water.
Surprisingly, given its popularity, limoncello does not come from an ancient recipe. Although local lore speaks of medieval monks and fishermen drinking the lemon concoction to brighten their day, there is no historical record of the liquor before the 20th century. In fact, it wasn’t until 1988 that limoncello was trademarked, based on a recipe from a family inn in Capri dating back to the early 1900s.
Sapori e Profumi di Positano makes their own limoncello — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
With lemons so abundant, it’s probably safe to say that limoncello making has been a family tradition for at least a century. Its recipe is very simple, consisting only of lemon zest, alcohol, water and sugar, although the quantities of these ingredients differ.
The most important element is the lemon itself, which is picked and peeled by hand. There are also several varieties of fruit to consider. Along the Amalfi Coast, for example, where lemons have been grown for at least 1,000 years, the “Sfusato Amalfitano” lemon gets its name from its slender shape and is so sweet it can be eaten like an orange. Southern Italian lemons are bright yellow, like orbs of sunshine, with a thick, porous skin and almost no seeds, they are rich in vitamin C and essential oils and have a heavenly fragrant smell.
Of course, visitors don’t flock to southern Italy just for the lemons. There’s Capri, rising from the sea like a formidable rock fortress (indeed, Roman Emperor Tiberius found refuge here), and Sorrento, a shopper’s paradise straddling a plateau atop a dramatic escarpment. . The Amalfi Coast – or Costiera Amalfitana – has been a World Heritage Site since 1997, beloved for its villages dating back to the Middle Ages and its rugged, breathtaking terrain ranging from rugged cliffs to terraced vineyards, olive groves and citrus orchards.
And throughout the region are family-run “factories” producing artisanal limoncello, made from organic lemons grown on site and using recipes passed down from generation to generation. Restaurants, bars and shops sell local limoncello, many of which are produced just down the road, making this the premier limoncello tasting region in the world.
Profumi della Costiera in the town of Ravello makes limoncello in a factory visible from his shop — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
Where to find limoncello in Italy
Many limoncello factories sell their products on site. In Sorrento, I Giardini di Cataldo was founded in 1999 as a limoncello factory, but is located in a citrus grove lovingly maintained by the same family since the 19th century.
In Ravello, a delightful village of just 2,500 souls located above the Tyrrhenian Sea on a 1,200-foot mountain, Profumi della Costiera has been producing artisanal limoncello for 30 years. It offers free tastings, a video showing how its liquid gold is produced, and bottles of limoncello so decorative you’ll want to keep them as souvenirs. Because Ravello is a bit off the beaten track and too far for most shore excursions from cruise ships docked in Naples, it doesn’t get as crowded as Capri, Sorrento, and Positano.
But you’d be remiss to miss Positano. Embracing both sides of a deep valley that opens onto a beach of umbrellas and sunbathers, Positano is one of the most photogenic villages on the Amalfi Coast. Its pastel-hued houses perch precariously on steep cliffs next to shocking explosions of fuchsia-colored bougainvillea, accessible by thousands of stairs. Fortunately, tourist buses crisscross the shopping streets to the heights of the town.
Right in the center of town, on the main road that leads to the beach, is Sapori e Profumi di Positano, in operation since 1986. Its store occupies the ground floor, while its factory on the lower floor uses fruit from its own 300 untreated lemon trees to produce limoncello, jams and candies, including lemon candies filled with lemon juice. The natural essence of lemon peel is also used to make handmade body and home products, including lemon-scented perfumes, air fresheners, soaps and candles, and shower gels. and lemon and olive oil body lotions.
Valentini Positano is a husband and wife limoncello shop and factory in Positano — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
Valentini Positano opened its doors five years ago, but owner Valentino Esposito says he learned how to make limoncello from his mother as far back as 1969. And 22 years ago he co-owned a limoncello factory in the nearby town of Praiano. Together with his wife, he sells not only homemade limoncello and marmalade, but also food products made in collaboration with local producers, including marmalade made from mandarins or figs, chocolate made from olive oil, olive with limoncello inside and gluten-free marzipan cookies with lemon. .
But what sets Valentini Positano apart is the opportunity to learn first-hand how limoncello and lemon marmalade are made. The “tours” (reservations required) take place on an outdoor terrace with a breathtaking view of Positano or, in case of bad weather, inside the factory.
During the 30-minute tour, Esposito skillfully peels lemons without their skins (for novices, getting skinless peels is the hardest part) and explains how he makes his products. There is also a 90-minute course that allows participants to try their hand at making liqueur from the peels and marmalade from the pulp. However, nothing is wasted at Valentini Positano. The pith is used for compost, while the peels are then made into fire starters.
“Everyone used to make limoncello,” Esposito said, but fewer people are doing it now because “you can easily buy it.”
Valentino Esposito provides hands-on limoncello and marmalade instructions on a Positano background — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
How to make Limoncello
Although limoncello recipes vary, most recommend zesting about 10 pesticide-free lemons, trying to avoid the bitter-tasting pith (thick-skinned lemons are easier to peel). Only the barks are added to 1 liter of high quality grain alcohol. Sapori e Profumi di Positano recommends Everclear to best absorb the aroma and yellow color of lemons.
The mixture is then covered and left to stand. Esposito said three days was enough; Sapori e Profumi from Positano recommends a week. Some recipes call for letting it rest for a month. Either way, the yellow liquid is then strained and the peels discarded.
Next comes a simple syrup. It is made by combining 1.5 liters of water with 3 to 6 cups of sugar and letting it simmer for 15 minutes before allowing it to cool to room temperature. Esposito, however, says it’s just as good to use cold water and stir it until the sugar dissolves.
The simple syrup and yellow colored alcohol are then combined, and voila, you have limoncello. If all this sounds ambiguous to you, remember that limoncello comes from family recipes, just like mom’s spaghetti recipe. Unfortunately, one thing you can’t replicate is the magical quality of southern Italy’s famous lemons, but Esposito says that shouldn’t really matter.
“The important thing,” he said, “is that people appreciate it.”
In southern Italy there are certainly many opportunities for this.