When life hands you lemons, grain alcohol, and sugar, make limoncello.
It's as Italian as Ferrari and espresso—a boozy, summertime digestif that seemingly every Italian concocts at home with his or her own special twist. It is excellent not because it is the product of some kitchen wizardry, but because it lets the purity and simplicity of the ingredients do the work.
On a trip to Italy earlier this year, I made my way down to Gagliato, a tiny and incredibly welcoming town in Italy's southern region of Calabria, better known as the toe of Italy's boot. From its perch on the side of one of the many precipitous hills in the area, some of which are precariously topped with medieval towns, Gagliato looks out on descending slopes of fields, olive trees, and serpentine roads that give way abruptly to the impossibly intense blue of the Ionian Sea.
The town has one restaurant, Galatos, which doubles as an event space and hangout that hosts everything from a town meeting and a soccer awards ceremony to karaoke nights and impromptu late-night drinking sessions on the front steps.
After my companion and I feasted there on a Calabrese lunch of pasta tossed with fresh local vegetables and small plates of mushrooms, onions, stuffed peppers, and zucchini flowers, Lucia Vitale, one of Galatos's chefs, insisted that I try her own version of limoncello. She told us that we had never tried anything like it, producing chilled glasses and filling them with syrupy, whitish-yellow liqueur.
It was rich and mercifully cold on a hot day—it tasted almost like a velvety alcoholic lemon sorbet, and it smelled a bit like a Creamsicle. If it weren't for the high percentage of alcohol, you'd feel like you could drink a gallon of it. It was crema di limoncello, a creamy, nearly frozen take on limoncello that's popular in southern Italy. As with limoncello, nearly everyone has their own recipe for how to make it. "It's like a cake," Lucia said. "People will take this instead of dessert."
Lucia got her recipe from Sicily. Years ago, at the festival Madonna delle Grazia in the nearby town of Torre di Ruggiero, she was gifted a bottle of crema di limoncello by a pastry chef with a pasticceria in the Sicilian town of Sciacca. Those who tasted it found it to be exceptional, and for over a year Lucia tried to get her hands on the recipe. The pastry chef finally relented, and for the last year and a half—ever since Lucia has worked at Galatos—she's been making and serving it at the restaurant. She has made some adjustments to the recipe, such as cutting down on the amount of sugar. She had to rely on the input of others to make the tweak, as Lucia had never tried the crema di limoncello herself—she doesn't drink.
When I was back in Gagliato recently, Lucia showed me how it's made. It starts, of course, with lemons, which she sometimes snags from one of the many local lemon trees that sprout opportunistically from any vacant patch of earth throughout the cobbled town. "You don't want a perfect lemon," Lucia said as she peeled the rind from an oversized specimen with a vegetable peeler, holding it to show the irregular surface, mottled with occasional brown spots. Store-bought lemons that are waxed and treated with pesticides smell different and can throw off the flavor of the drink, as can peeling too deep and cutting into the white pith below the rind.
Lucia pours 95-proof grain alcohol on top of the lemons and stores it in the fridge, where she lets it sit for about 12 to 15 days. During that time, the alcohol extracts the lemon flavor from the peels. When the alcohol and lemons have steeped for long enough, she makes the crema with milk, cream, vanilla powder, and sugar. (Lucia thinks that vanilla beans might taste better, but the spots they would leave in the drink might turn off customers.) She then whisks the ingredients together, carefully avoiding over-whipping. The alcohol is strained into the cream before Lucia funnels the mix into bottles and places them in the freezer for storage. With all that alcohol, it won't freeze solid, and it will stay good for some time. She typically makes about 30 liters at once.
Later, Lucia poured glasses of some crema di limoncello she had in the freezer. The liqueur was a very light and delicate pastel yellow, and it was as delicious as I remembered—round with rich lemon, deeply satisfying, and quite strong. My girlfriend thought it tasted a bit like a Lemonade Girl Scout cookie.
It was heating up outside, and others present downed their glasses. For the first time ever, Lucia poured herself a glass. She took a sip, considered it, made a face, and laughed a little. "Buono," she said, before adding, "it's very strong."