Napolitan Limoncello: A Family Recipe (2024)

Let me begin this post by confessing this is not my family’s recipe. Nearly a decade ago, I traveled to Pozzuoli, Italy (just outside of Naples) to attend the wedding of my friends Luigi and Giusy. After dinner at Giusy’s parents’ house one evening, her father, Paolo, treated me to a special digestivo — his homemade limoncello. Napolitans are very proud of their limoncello, as well they should be. In addition to the commercially available liqueur, many people make their own homemade version, and nearly every hole-in-the-wall restaurant touts its own traditional recipe. I was enchanted by limoncello’s brilliant color, its bright, lemony flavor, and its potent 80 proof kick. I was further enchanted when Giusy handed me a translation she had made, at her father’s request, of his recipe, so I could make his limoncello back home. Preparing food and drink to share with others is one of the most basic and beautiful aspects of culture. Sharing recipes is a part of that communal spirit — especially the recipes which have special significance in our personal or family histories. I was honored that Paolo shared his family recipe with me, and have continued to make limoncello nearly every summer since then.

Napolitan Limoncello: a bright yellow, viscous liqueur.

I’m a little late to the party this year. Like nocino, limoncello is traditionally made at the end of June, around the Feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24th). The lemons should ideally be picked when wet with dew, early in the morning on this feast day, in order to infuse the liqueur with mystical, medicinal properties. This year’s limoncello, alas, had to settle for being merely delicious instead of magical.

It’s important to use well-scrubbed, organic lemons for the infusion — you don’t want to spike your digestivo with pesticides. That’s not good for anyone’s digestion. You can use regular lemons, but naturally sweeter Meyer lemons are an even better choice.

*A note about the alcohol base: Critically speaking, I’ve tried some very tasty limoncello, but also a fair share of disappointing limoncello since it has grown in popularity on this side of the Atlantic. I think the latter — weak, pale batches — were the result of a misunderstanding about what strength of alcohol to start with. Some Italian recipes start with “vodka,” instead of grain alcohol, but this refers to a stronger proof vodka available in Italy. If you start with 80 proof vodka — the most commonly available here in the U.S. — then by the time you’ve added the simple syrup, you’ll end up with a sugary co*cktail instead of a proper liqueur. Paolo’s recipe calls for grain alcohol, and I use Everclear 151. The other advantage to using grain alcohol is that it is a more potent solvent than vodka, so it extracts more lemon oil from the peel, resulting in a deeper, more intense color and flavor.

Paolo Esposito’s Limoncello

10 organic lemons, washed and dried

1 L grain alcohol (Everclear)

750 grams (just shy of 3 3/4 cups) sugar

1 L water

Peel the lemons carefully with a sharp paring knife. Keep only the yellow zest, carefully cutting away any white, bitter pith. Slice the lemon peels into thin strips and place them in a large, glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Lemon Infusion on Day 1 (left) and Day 10 (right).

Pour the Everclear over the lemon peel, tighten the lid of the jar, and gently swirl its contents to distribute the peel and alcohol. Store in a cool, dark place for 10 to 14 days, swirling the jar daily.

Strained lemon peel, after infusing (note how pale it is!)

When the infusion is ready, strain out the bulk of the lemon peel using a slotted spoon. Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a large pan over high heat. When the mixture boils, remove from heat, stir in the lemon peel, and let cool to room temperature. When the simple syrup has cooled, strain out and discard the lemon peel. Carefully mix the syrup with the lemon-infused alcohol, and filter the entire mixture through a funnel lined with several layers of cheesecloth into clean bottles.

Filtering limoncello through a cheesecloth-lined funnel.

As soon as the limoncello is chilled, it is ready to drink. The flavor and texture will be best ice-cold from the freezer. It’s delicious served straight, or in dark chocolate thimbles. Mix it with sparkling water for a refreshing summer co*cktail, pour it over vanilla ice cream (and if there’s a brownie under the ice cream, so much the better), toss a spoonful into fruit salad, or flavor cheesecake with it. Whatever you do, don’t forget to raise a small, ice-cold glass on a hot summer day and drink a toast to Paolo Esposito.

Serve ice-cold from the freezer.

Napolitan Limoncello: A Family Recipe (2024)
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