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Napolitan Limoncello: A Family Recipe

August 15, 2010

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 cocktail 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 cocktail, 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.

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46 Comments
  1. August 15, 2010 8:34 pm

    Would a “cool dark place” include the fridge? Or is that too cool/inappropriate since the fridge door DOES get opened sometimes? This sounds delicious and I’d love to try it!

  2. August 15, 2010 10:45 pm

    Hi Sierra — I think the fridge might be a little *too* cool — I keep mine in a lower kitchen cabinet out of the sun and away from the oven, and it does fine there. Let me know how it turns out if you give the recipe a try!

  3. August 17, 2010 3:59 pm

    oooh thanks for the tip on using Everclear. I made limoncello with 80-proof and it’s tasty, but doesn’t have that lovely cloudy look that yours has. Once I get rid of this batch I’ll try again!

  4. August 17, 2010 6:43 pm

    Taste-test opportunity — fun! Let me know how it goes. :)

  5. August 19, 2010 4:50 pm

    I use 80 proof vodka and it comes out really nice. Everclear (and all grain alcohol for that matter) is completely illegal in my state so it’s not an option for me to use.

  6. August 19, 2010 7:54 pm

    I’m interested to know what proportion of sugar (or simple syrup) you use with your 80 proof — do you compensate for the lower alcohol content? What’s the texture of your final product? [I wish food blogs could have a “share a sample” button!] Some limoncellos I’ve had that start with the 80-proof vodka have a nice flavor, but they lack the translucence and viscosity of the stuff I drank in Naples (and which I personally just really love in a limoncello).

  7. August 24, 2010 10:58 pm

    I never even considered making my own Limoncello. LOVE the idea! Thanks and thank you for stopping by my blog!

  8. girlinductive permalink
    September 13, 2010 6:03 pm

    Any clue how to make the Cream Lemoncello’s?

  9. September 14, 2010 9:51 am

    I’m not sure about that. I have seen recipes for a Bailey’s-style Irish Cream that uses sweetened, condensed milk. However, if you tried using that, I would recommend using less simple syrup in the second step for the limoncello — otherwise, the liqueur would end up being way too sweet. Perhaps try replacing half the quantity of simple syrup with sweetened, condensed milk, and see how that turns out?

  10. November 12, 2010 9:51 am

    This looks lovely! :D

    And I have to ask…where did you find those beautiful bottles?!

  11. November 12, 2010 10:02 am

    Thanks, Adrienne. I have bought bottles from both Sunburst Bottle (http://www.sunburstbottle.com) and E-Bottles (http://www.ebottles.com) with good luck. I believe these limoncello bottles came from Sunburst. You have to order them by the case (12 bottles), but the price breakdown per-bottle is extremely reasonable. I just checked out your post on homemade vanilla — fantastic!

  12. Melissa permalink
    November 12, 2010 9:40 pm

    I made the recipe but when I added the simple syrup I was so freaked out that it was tasting “bitter” (might have had an itty bitty bit of pith in there) that I WAY upped the sugar. BIG mistake. Should have left recipe alone. Could have added more sugar later. It really mellowed in the freezer over time but now it’s too sweet.

    I used 190 proof Everclear (that’s all liquor store had) and I think that was what the “bitter” taste was – rocket fuel! I think I can “dilute” out the sweetness with a bit of filtered water since I used such strong alcohol and not risk freezing.

    I had a highball with seltzer water and muttled basil leaves tonight – it was BEAUTIFUL! Thanks so much for posting.

  13. November 15, 2010 9:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m glad the flavor mellowed in the end (the freezer does help), and I absolutely love the idea of mixing a drink with basil — that sounds so delicious with the lemon. I will definitely be trying that. :)

  14. December 10, 2010 3:36 pm

    My simple syrup for this recipe is cooling now. I’ll be sharing the libation with my siblings at our Christmas party next weekend. I can’t wait to taste it ice cold!

  15. December 10, 2010 5:18 pm

    By the way, if you make this limoncello, don’t throw out the spent peels. Toss them with sugar and allow to dry. Tasty by themselves or as a garnish to the liqueur! (Mine aren’t even dry yet and I can’t stop eating them.)

  16. EMH permalink
    January 12, 2011 10:37 pm

    wow, this looks amazing, my only question though is how on earth are you supposed to pronounce “limoncello”

  17. January 13, 2011 9:37 am

    LOL — a reasonable question! Think of the “cello” part just like the musical instrument.

  18. July 26, 2011 3:59 pm

    oooh, yum! I must try this, I love the stuff! We have sweets in the UK called Sherbet Lemons and they taste just like this…. they’re just lacking in the alcohol!

  19. Ann W. permalink
    November 26, 2011 8:48 pm

    After a year of having this bookmarked, I’m finally trying it for the holidays. However, I used meyer lemons and noticed that they have a pretty thin rind – do you think it’ll be necessary to add lemon oil later on, or do you think they’ll still produce enough?

    Thanks!

  20. November 27, 2011 1:59 pm

    Hi Ann — oh fun, so glad you’re giving this a try for the holidays! I always try to use Meyer lemons, and I have never had a problem with a lack of lemony flavor. I hope you’ll find the same is true.

  21. valerie benvenuti permalink
    December 10, 2011 7:03 pm

    I can’t buy everclear in my state. Only 80 proof vodka. How should I alter the recipe?

  22. Aunalise permalink
    December 12, 2011 8:56 am

    Hi I have made this and it is infusing. I was curious what sized bottles you used and how many finished bottles you get when you have completed the final step is it 8oz or larger?. I assume 5 as pictured. Thanks a bunch!

  23. December 18, 2011 12:51 pm

    Valerie, that’s a tough call. There’s no way to produce a liqueur with the “right” proof for Napolitan limoncello (80-proof) if you start with 80-proof, because adding the sugar syrup will knock down the alchohol strength. You could try skipping the added water and adding the sugar directly to the alcohol, but I’m not sure how well it will dissolve, or what the result will taste like. You’ll have to play around with it until you come up with something that tastes good to you. Good luck!

  24. December 18, 2011 12:53 pm

    Hi Aunalise,

    I ended up with 5 (12-oz.) bottles, and a little left over — which I sampled immediately, so it wasn’t a problem. ;)

  25. December 29, 2011 9:26 pm

    Hi, I just tasted my first batch of Limoncello using your recipe and it is so awesome! A million times better than the bottle my mother got from the grocery. Also, much stronger. I can’t wait to try it with meyor lemons. Maybe limes too? Hmm, I wonder what will happen…

  26. Carl permalink
    January 7, 2012 11:04 am

    I just made my first batch of Limoncello using an old recipe from my grandfather and although it came out great, I still have some questions that I hope can be answered.

    Basically, my recipe said to zest, let sit, add simple syrup, let sit and THEN filter.
    After the filtering it looked clear & orange-ish; not at all yellow and opaque like your pic.
    Thoughts on this are appreciated.

    Also, I used #4 coffee filters for my 3rd & 4th filtering passes but that took several hours and barely seemed like more than a drip at a time process.
    Is cheesecloth that much better at removing the very fine particles?
    I dont know if the limoncello should be clear, but I did get a bit of particles in an otherwise clear result (not quite what you show).

    As an aside, my grandfathers recipe called for filtering the everclear.
    Do you think that is necessary?

    If helps any, I used everclear and zested the lemons
    Thanks for any help!

  27. January 15, 2012 12:12 pm

    Hi Carl, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what different reactions may be going on with your grandfather’s method of adding the simple syrup, or if that had an impact on the orange-ish color of your final product. Could it be a result of the lemons you used?

    As for the filtering, I also found that coffee filters took forever. I recommend using a sharp paring knife to cut away the zest and then cut it into strips for infusing (instead of grating the zest, which results in much smaller particulate). That way, a couple of layers of cheesecloth do the filtering just fine, and it takes just a few minutes.

    I can honestly think of no reason why the Everclear should be filtered before infusing, but if you find one, please let me know!

    My limoncello might look more opaque because the step of simmering the lemon zest in the simple syrup before adding the syrup to the alcohol infusion extracts even more yellow color (and, I would guess, flavor) from the lemon, so that could be a factor.

    Finally, do you store your limoncello in the freezer or in the refrigerator? Mine takes on a slightly more cloudy look after being in the freezer.

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I hope your grandfather’s limoncello turned out delicious and refreshing!

  28. jack permalink
    March 7, 2012 8:12 pm

    how do you know you are getting 80 proof? if u are using 151 and its a 1:1 grain alcohol to water ratio not to mention the physical change of sugar turing to a liquid when it dissolves….. just the 1:1 ratio would take it down to 75.5 proof wouldnt it? just curious for my own knowledge, not trying to call you out. Hope you can help thanks!!

  29. March 8, 2012 9:55 am

    Would it make you feel better if I said “80-ish proof”? My point is just that it should have a kick similar to vodka, and not taste like a mixed cocktail.

  30. Kim permalink
    March 13, 2012 10:49 pm

    I love lemoncello, but rarely have it due to the sugar content. Do you think it would be possible to make this with splenda or another sugar replacement like erythritol?

  31. March 14, 2012 8:47 pm

    Kim, I honestly have no idea — I haven’t experimented much with those sweeteners. If you do give it a try, please let me know how it goes!

  32. Lilian permalink
    March 31, 2012 10:38 pm

    kim I was thinking the same thing, maybe stevia and erythinol would make it taste good. And zero sugar o guilt ;) I’m so trying it ;)

  33. April 11, 2012 1:58 pm

    Found you on Pinterest. I cannot wait to try this. I have been experimenting with Skittles and Jolly Ranchers. As far as bottles and jars go, if you have an Ikea around they have a great selection for cheap.

  34. Angie permalink
    April 13, 2012 10:10 pm

    Awesome, must try. But wondering if you could do the same with orange or tangerine zest for other flavors? Hmmm… may have to experiment.

  35. April 14, 2012 12:11 pm

    Angie, all the citrus fruits work for a ‘cello — you might just want to adjust the amount of sugar syrup to taste, since orange zest is naturally a little sweeter than lemon.

  36. April 14, 2012 12:15 pm

    Thanks for the tip about bottle suppliers, Dina. Unfortunately, I live in a small town in Iowa, so the closest IKEA is over 3 hours away. But the next time I’m near one, I will check out their glass bottle selection and stock up!

    Impressive website, btw. Also impressive to transition from a lengthy career in the U.S. Navy to baking cakes — what a great story!

  37. May 25, 2012 8:33 pm

    I just made a half batch of this and it is very good (I’ve never had it before). I did have a question however. My liquor store only had Everclear 190, so that is what I used. Should I have adjusted anything in the recipe? Does it just mean that my batch is a lot stronger than if it had been Everclear 151? I still enjoyed the taste I had of mine, but I am new to all of this. Thanks for posting this!

  38. Hilde permalink
    June 22, 2012 11:27 am

    Thanks for the recipe,
    I’m going to zest those lemons tomorrow :-) and hope the 10-14 days will be over soon :-)

  39. madeleine permalink
    August 28, 2012 2:52 pm

    OMG, just tasted my Limoncello made from your recipe and it is by far the best that I’ve ever had. Perfect balance of tart lemon and sweetness. Zero white pith in my lemon peels and 150 grain alcohol is the ticket to perfect Limoncello!

  40. hilde permalink
    November 4, 2012 4:57 am

    Late update :-)
    The limoncello tasted soooo good that we have actually made a second batch already. ;-)

  41. Brianna permalink
    November 12, 2012 4:25 pm

    Hi there! I love this recipe and am going to do it for my “citrus themed” holiday gifts this year! Just wondering- how much does this yield? Thank you!!!!

  42. November 13, 2012 9:21 am

    The yield is approximately 2 L.

  43. Brianna permalink
    November 13, 2012 10:12 am

    Thank you!

  44. November 13, 2012 11:00 am

    Good luck — hope your citrus-themed presents will turn out great!

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