Sure, there are commercial brands, and some are okay. Luxardo, maker of the top maraschino liqueur, also produces a decent limoncello. But too many, like Caravella or Pallini, are just so cloyingly sweet. And others, like Danny DeVito’s ill-fated foray into celebrity-branded limoncello, are abominable. When I take a sip of some commercial limoncellos, I imagine a portrait of the Virgin Mary in a Naples cathedral, crying a tear of blood.
Italian liqueurs, made in Washington
But every once in a while, dear reader, there are exceptions.
Last spring, I wrote about making my own limoncello for the first time, with happy results. I’d been given a family recipe by Francesco Amodeo, who at the time was the general manager of Bibiana in Penn Quarter. Amodeo’s drinks list boasted an array of infused, house-made digestivi: what Americans call ’cellos and Italians call rosoli. The list went beyond limoncello to include wild fennel, mandarin orange and mirtillo berry.
So I was excited this winter when Amodeo told me he’d left Bibiana and is now producing and bottling his traditional-recipe liqueurs under the brand Don Ciccio & Figli right here in Washington. Don Ciccio is the name of Amodeo’s grandfather, who operated a small distillery on Italy’s Amalfi Coast that was destroyed in 1980 by an earthquake. “I was born in a lemon garden,” Amodeo said.
Surely there will be a demand for these absolutely delightful liqueurs. But the spirits business is notoriously brutal for small producers, particularly a one-man show like Amodeo’s.
I recently visited his “wet house,” which is inside a seemingly empty industrial complex — the very definition of “nondescript” — on the outskirts of Washington. Now, you can’t just start bottling liquor and selling it. (That would be called “moonshining.”) It took about a year to get the necessary permits.
Amodeo is not distilling. He is macerating his citrus peels and fruit and spices in grain alcohol in stainless-steel tanks, in which he must control the alcohol content every 12 hours. “Sounds easy, but there’s a lot of testing,” he says. “If the alcohol content goes a degree and a half up or down, I don’t get the results I want.”
The tanks are surrounded by boxes of fresh fruit. “Big commercial limoncellos are made with powders. They don’t use lemon peels,” Amodeo said. “I visited a commercial producer back home, and I’m looking around, and I say, ‘Where is your fruit?’ And the guy looks at me and says, ‘We don’t use lemons anymore. Are you crazy?’ ”
“Of course,” Amodeo added, “the limoncello tasted like nail polish.”
Commercial limoncello usually comes in frosted bottles, perhaps because all limoncello has sediment, no matter how well you strain it. Amodeo uses clear bottles, with a sticker that alerts the consumer that sediment is to be expected.
“We chose clear bottles because we wanted to show the true product,” he said. At that point, Amodeo stopped himself. “I don’t why I’m using the word ‘we.’ It’s me. I’m the only one bottling this.”
Limoncello isn’t the only product he’s bottling. The Finocchietto, made with local fennel, is a favorite. The Fico d’India liqueur is made from California prickly pear. The Mirtillo liqueur is made from Maine blueberries, which macerate with the berry leaves. Ibisco uses hibiscus from Egypt.
But the most romantic story — and Amodeo’s flagship flavor — belongs to Concerto and reads like a fable. Concerto is a style of liqueur made with espresso, barley and 15 spices, including star anise and juniper, and famed along the Amalfi Coast. Amodeo tells how he learned to make it, a process that involved multiple visits up a mountain on a donkey to see an old lady who cleaned the convent where the recipe was secretly guarded by monks.
I’ve said it before: All great liqueurs launch with amazing, romantic origin stories. So I’ll be interested to see how he fares. Unless you plan to ride a donkey up a mountain, you won’t be able to duplicate that delicious tipple at home.
Wilson is the editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.