What makes a great Lemoncello

With all the travel shows and food channels available to consumers today, the famous lemon liqueur is no longer the big secret from the Amalfi Coast of Italy. I find it amazing that wherever you eat on the Amalfi Coast, at the end of your meal lemoncello is served on the house. Each restaurant has their particular brand they swear by, in some instances it is made in house. The last time I visited Amalfi, I went to eat at a restaurant that was famous for their house made lemoncello and was told it was illegal to serve it in the restaurant. The Italian government had recently passed a law banning the sale of homemade lemoncello in restaurants. The mass produced lemoncello they gave me in its place was a complete disappointment. It tasted more like the sour mix you’d put in a margarita than the lemoncello I’d grown accustomed to.

I think my favorite lemoncello story was the time I ate in a restaurant up on the hill overlooking the town of Amalfi. I had asked the clerk at the hotel we were staying at to give me a recommendation for a good restaurant off the beaten path. I explained that I didn’t want to eat in a tourist restaurant; I wanted to eat where the locals eat. He sent me to his brother’s restaurant and promised us a great experience with food that would be mouth watering. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical at first. I asked the clerk to call a taxi for us, his response was to inform us that, his brother would send a van to pick us up and take us back when we were finished. True to his word, the van arrived on time and drove us the couple of miles to the restaurant. Upon arrival, the entire staff was outside to greet us by name, it was probably at this point I realized we were in for a treat. To say the food was amazing was an understatement; the margarita pizza his brother sent to our table on the house was just the beginning of our culinary experience. Course after course arrived, each better than the previous. What made the experience for me was how the meal ended. The owner sent over a full bottle of lemoncello, a full bottle of melon cello and a full bottle of fennel liqueur, along with a shot glass for each of us. I’m thinking, “this is amazing”, the truly amazing part was the fact that he did this for every table that dined in his restaurant. Being a restaurateur in Maine, my first thought was, “if I ever did this in the US, they’d probably arrest me for sending so many intoxicated people out onto the streets.” The funny part was that no one really abused it.

As I mentioned, every restaurant had their favorite brand or recipe for lemoncello, they all included the use of the famous lemons grown along the Amalfi Coast. I was always told to use only the skins of the lemons and make sure and remove all the pith from the skin, or it would make your lemoncello bitter. It takes about two to three months for the lemoncello to mature and be ready for consumption. One evening, after we finished our dinner, we were served lemoncello in this restaurant, served ice cold right out of the freezer; it literally took my breath away. It was like drinking a lemon martini; I immediately called over our server and asked him the secret to their amazing lemoncello. He chuckled and told me that contrary to popular belief, they used whole lemons, not just the skins. I’m sure you know the next sentence out of my mouth, “Can I have the recipe?” The waiter smiled at me and then went back to work. When he brought the check, he handed me the recipe. I’ve since made this many times and it always comes out phenomenal, I usually give it away at the holidays to my friends and family.

I consider myself to be like most people, when you discover something unique or special, it can be difficult to share. I am definitely guilty as charged, I have held onto this secret for four or five years now. The time has arrived to share the secret, I finally broke down and shared the recipe with Varano’s. In the past I’d just bring in a few bottles and let them dole it out to select rewards customers. The unveiling of the first batch was years ago.  To say the initial response was overwhelming is an understatement.  Next time you’re in for dinner, don’t forget to order a homemade lemoncello after your dinner, I think you’ll agree it’s the best you’ve ever had.

Dick Varano