Magdalena Borea at home, starting a new batch of limoncello with her students. Her version, she says, is
Magdalena Borea at home, starting a new batch of limoncello with her students. Her version, she says, is "very delicate and chic." (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

There is no street number on the front door. But the unmistakable aroma of lemons, lots of them, is coming from a tidy bungalow in Cheverly. Every Tuesday night, a group of six or seven adult students gathers at the home of Italian teacher Magdalena Borea. As the holidays near, her class makes limoncello -- a refreshing, intensely lemony cordial or after-dinner drink native to southern Italy.

"We cook. We talk. We study. And when stocks are low and a holiday on the way, we make limoncello together," says Borea, a language tutor. Four days a week, she coaches members of the Washington Opera. And on a regular basis, she makes limoncello -- about 25 gallons per year. "But I don't get to drink my limoncello," she says. "I give it away." Easy to make and bottle, homemade limoncello can be an attractive, cosmopolitan and utterly unexpected gift from your kitchen.

For many Italians, sharing a glass of lemon liqueur with friends, new or old, is the essence of hospitality. When dinner is done, out comes a bottle of fragrant limoncello. Prepared from grain alcohol, infused with lemon peel and sweetened with sugar, it can be sipped as is or drizzled over poundcake, fruit salad or ice cream. One nip tingles the tongue and subsequent sips pack a surprising wallop.

"It's the best alcohol I've ever had in my life, anywhere in the world," says Tommy Hanavan, a student for three years and owner of the Professional Bartending School in Arlington. "It's perfect, not too sweet or sour, and with the texture of cream." In fashion in any season, it's best served icy cold, straight from the freezer.

In Italy, commercially made limoncello accounts for 65.3 percent of all sweet liqueur sold, according to the market research firm AC Nielsen. But most Italians would likely agree that the best limoncello is made at home. And love of the home brew is true whether you live in Sorrento or Sicily or Cheverly. There is something about the pleasant pucker and astringent quality of lemon that has a universal appeal.

In Borea's crowded kitchen, students peel dozens of organic lemons, free of chemical residue, while the teacher stirs a fresh tomato sauce for the class dinner. All the while, most of the students are practicing their conversational Italian.

Imported limoncello sells for about $25 per 750-milliliter bottle. For about the same amount of money, you can easily make enough of this potent citrus concoction to fill eight 8.5-ounce bottles, ready for gift-giving.

"Last year I made three batches and put little ribbons and a label that said 'From the Kitchen of . . . ' on the bottles," says Christina Vargas, an occupational safety and health manager at the National Institutes of Health. All of the students agree that the Container Store is a reliable place to get bottles with tight-fitting rubber stoppers.

With the peeling done, out come bottles of 190 proof, Everclear brand, pure grain alcohol to finish the brew. And out of the freezer comes a frosted bottle containing Borea's creamy, yellow, limoncello, aged and ready to taste.

"My limoncello, it's very delicate and chic," says Borea, raising a glass. "And at a party, it also gives you something to talk about, especially if you made it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company