I begin with a confession: Until a few weeks ago, I’d never made limoncello.
Perhaps that doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering. But considering how many hundreds of recipes for cocktails, tinctures, infusions and garnishes are under my belt, it suddenly struck me as odd that I’d never attempted this old standby lemon liqueur.
After all, what homemade spirit is more straightforward, more ubiquitous? Some days, it seems as if everyone and their mother make the stuff. In fact, my own mother, who gave me a bottle of her homemade limoncello for Christmas, spurred me into action.
Now, I’ve had some bad ’cellos and some good ’cellos, and many more mediocre ones. Because I am a good son, I am going to say my mother’s was a very good ’cello. And because I can’t help myself, I will tell you about how I set out to make an even better one.
Knowing I’d gain an unfair competitive advantage over Mom, I sought the expert advice of Francesco Amodeo, general manager and wine director at Bibiana in Penn Quarter.
In addition to its huge selection of amari and aperitivi, the drinks menu at Bibiana impressively boasts more than a dozen of what Americans call ’cellos and Italians call “rosoli,” or infused, house-made digestivi.
The rosoli selection at Bibiana goes well beyond basic limoncello, with flavors such as mandarin, prickly pear and hibiscus with rose petals. The name rosolio is taken from an ancient recipe that calls for rose petals.
Amodeo led me through a tasting of about 13 rosoli. My favorites: the fennel-and-lemon and the gianduia, which tasted like the essence of Nutella. And Amodeo’s delicious version of nocino, the famed liqueur made from green walnuts.
“My family has been making rosoli for almost a century,” said Amodeo, a native of the Amalfi Coast (the land of limoncello). The family’s secret recipe is for something called Concerto, an infusion of barley coffee and 27 spices. “I grew up with this stuff, he said. “My dad used to drink this after lunch and dinner all the time. But he wouldn’t tell me the recipe.”
How Amodeo says he acquired the Concerto recipe seems out of a fable. When he was young, his father sent him up a mountain, on a donkey, to meet an old lady who cleaned a monastery where the monks closely guarded their Concerto recipe. The old lady sent him back down the mountain with vague directions for a concoction that took three months to make. “The first time, it turned out red, and the second time it turned out purple,” he said of his failed experiments.
He went back up to mountain. Before he could speak, the lady said, “You made it once and it came out red, and the second time it came out purple, right?” Satisfied that Amodeo was of serious purpose, she provided him with the secret to making the Concerto flawlessly.
After Amodeo’s story about the Concerto, I started to get worried about how involved his family’s limoncello recipe might be. He assured me I wouldn’t need a donkey, or more than a few weeks, to make it.
“If you follow this recipe, it comes out great,” he said. What he shared is a basic formula you can use to experiment with many fruits and herbs.
The most important thing is to use a 190-proof grain alcohol, such as Everclear, rather than vodka, which almost never tops 100-proof. “Vodka ruins everything,” he said. Also, make sure the citrus is organic and doesn’t have wax, stickers or ink on the rind, or a speck of pith.
After infusing for two to three weeks, add water and sugar to bring down the proof. Amodeo recommended using an alcohol hydrometer (available for about $30 on home-brewing sites and Amazon) to check proof; He thinks it’s not time to add the water and sugar until the infusion has dropped 3 percent in alcohol content. For the rest of us, trust me: If you’ve let it sit for two weeks, it will be fine. More important, Amodeo preached filtering the finished product through cheesecloth: “for three days, 15 times a day.”
I didn’t have the time to be hypervigilant about this, and filtered about half that number of times to wonderful effect. But I could see where further filtering would have created an even finer product.
Amodeo’s recipe took me a few tries to master. But in the end, I’m very happy with my latest batches of limoncello and orangecello.
Is my limoncello better than my mom’s? Well . . . of course not, says the good son.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Obscure, the Rare, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.