Lemon-motif ceramics in Positano — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
In Sorrento, on the island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, there's no escaping lemons. They hang from trees in virtually every garden. Terraced lemon orchards sidestep dramatically up coastal hillsides, just as they have for centuries. Souvenir shops sell ceramics, aprons, tablecloths and other goods emblazoned with images of the yellow fruit. There's lemon cake, lemon marmalade and lemon candy. Even tourists glide down streets wearing lemon-adorned dresses, shirts and socks.
Outside southern Italy, however, the region’s famous lemons make their way around the world mostly as a liqueur known as limoncello. Although considered an after-dinner drink, limoncello is also served in cocktails, like the limoncello spritz, which adds ice, prosecco and soda water.
Surprisingly, given its popularity, limoncello doesn’t stem from some ancient recipe. Although local lore tells of medieval monks and fishermen tippling the lemon concoction to brighten their day, there are no historical records of the liqueur prior to 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 from the early 1900s.
Sapori e Profumi di Positano makes its own limoncello — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
With lemons so plentiful, it's probably safe to say that making limoncello has been a grassroots family tradition for at least a century. Its recipe is very simple, consisting only of lemon peel, alcohol, water and sugar, although the amounts of those ingredients differ.
The most important element is the lemon itself, which is handpicked and peeled by hand. There are several varieties of the fruit to consider as well. Along the Amalfi Coast, for example, where lemons have been cultivated for at least 1,000 years, the "Sfusato Amalfitano” lemon is named for its tapered shape and is so sweet you can eat it like an orange. Southern Italy's lemons are bright yellow, like orbs of sun, and have thick, porous skins and almost no seeds. They are rich in vitamin C and essential oils and impart a heavenly perfumed smell.
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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 shopping paradise straddling a plateau atop a dramatic escarpment. The Amalfi Coast – or Costiera Amalfitana – has been a World Heritage Site since 1997, beloved for villages dating from the Middle Ages and rugged, breathtaking terrain ranging from craggy cliffs to terraced vineyards, olive orchards and citrus groves.
And throughout the region are family "factories" producing artisanal limoncello, made from self-grown organic lemons and using recipes passed down for generations. Restaurants, bars and shops sell local limoncello, many produced just down the road, making this the premier limoncello-tasting region of the world.
Profumi della Costiera in the town of Ravello makes limoncello in a factory visible from its shop — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
Where to find limoncello in Italy
Many of the limoncello factories sell their products on-site. In Sorrento, I Giardini di Cataldo was founded as a limoncello factory in 1999 but is located in a citrus grove lovingly maintained by the same family since the 19th century.
In Ravello, a ravishing 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 demonstrating 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 path and too far for most land excursions from cruise ships docked in Naples, it isn't nearly as crowded as Capri, Sorrento and Positano.
But you’d be remiss to miss Positano. Embracing two 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 beside shocking blasts of fuchsia-colored bougainvillea, accessed famously by thousands of stairs. Mercifully, tourist buses thread through the shopping streets to the upper reaches of the municipality.
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Smack dab in the middle of town, on the main road that winds down to the beach, is Sapori e Profumi di Positano, in business since 1986. Its shop occupies the main floor, while its factory one floor down uses fruit from its own 300 untreated lemon trees to produce limoncello, jams and candies, including lemon drops filled with lemon juice. The natural essence of lemon peel is also used to make handmade body products and home goods, including perfume, air freshener, lemon-scented soaps and candles, and lemon and olive oil shower gels and body lotions.
Valentini Positano is a husband-and-wife limoncello shop and factory in Positano — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
Valentini Positano opened for business five years ago, but owner Valentino Esposito said he learned how to make limoncello from his mother as far back as 1969. And 22 years ago, he was co-owner of a limoncello factory in the neighboring town of Praiano. Together with his wife, he sells not only homemade limoncello and marmalade but also food items made in conjunction with local producers, including marmalade containing mandarins or figs, chocolate made from olive oil with limoncello inside, and gluten-free almond-paste cookies with lemon.
But what sets Valentini Positano apart is the opportunity to learn firsthand how limoncello and lemon marmalade are made. "Tours" (reservations required) take place on an outdoor patio with breathtaking views of Positano or, in inclement weather, inside the factory.
In the 30-minute tour, Esposito deftly peels lemons without their pith (for novices, obtaining pith-free peels is the hardest part) and explains how he makes his products. There's also a 90-minute class that lets participants try their own hand at making the liqueur from peels and marmalade from the pulp. Yet nothing goes to waste at Valentini Positano. Pith is used for compost, while peels are subsequently turned into fire starters.
“Everyone used to make limoncello,” Esposito said, but fewer people do now because “you can easily just buy it.”
Valentino Esposito provides hands-on instruction for limoncello and marmalade against a backdrop of Positano — Photo courtesy of Beth Reiber
How to make limoncello
Although limoncello recipes vary, most recommend zesting 10 or so pesticide-free lemons, trying to avoid the bitter-tasting pith (thick-skinned lemons are easier to peel). Only the peels 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 the lemons.
The mixture is then covered and left to sit. Esposito said three days is long enough; Sapori e Profumi de Positano recommends a week. Some recipes call for letting it sit a month. In any case, the yellow liquid is then strained and the peels are discarded.
Next comes a simple syrup. It's made by combining 1.5 liters of water with anywhere from 3 cups 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-hued alcohol are then combined, and voila, you have limoncello. If all this seems ambiguous, remember that limoncello stems from family recipes, just like mamma's spaghetti recipe. Unfortunately, one thing you can’t replicate is the magical quality of southern Italy’s famous lemons, but Esposito said that shouldn’t really matter.
“The important thing," he said, "is that people enjoy it.”
In southern Italy, there are certainly many opportunities for that.