Eating dinner in Italy is a religious experience that lasts longer than most church services, sometimes as much as four hours. You need all that time to consume your antipasto, pasta, a main course, salad, and maybe, if there’s still room in your bloated belly, some fruit or small dessert.
But even after all these, there’s still one final choice left to face: that of an after-dinner liquor.
Choice one is a shot of grappa, a pungent, bitter brandy distilled from the remains of pressed grapes used for making wine. To me, it tastes like gasoline. Choice two is a frozen thimble full of limoncello, a sweet cloudy yellow lemon burst of sunshine that cleans the roof of your palate, then leaves a pleasant burn at the back of your throat.
Lemon freak that I am and always have been, I go for the limoncello.
I first encountered the stuff a few years back on a sunny afternoon in a hill town near Rome called Tivoli, a convenient access point to see the ancient villa of the Emperor Hadrian, where a friend and I had gone on a visit earlier that morning.
Against our guidebook’s warnings and our better judgment, we followed one of the hawkers handing out flyers in the town’s central square to an outdoor restaurant shaded by grape vines growing along a wooden trellis. There we had the lemony meal of our lives. It began with a simple salad doused in a refreshing sour-sweet lemon dressing, followed by a vivid, citrusy risotto punctuated with shrimp, and then for dessert, a tender sponge cake split into two layers and filled with a creamy golden custard, spiked with limoncello. Naturally, to end our meal, we each received a shot of the sweet stuff, in tiny frozen glass goblets.
Compared with grappa, which dates back to the early Middle Ages, limoncello is a fairly recent invention, roughly a mere hundred years old. Stories of its origin vary, but all of them are set in and around the cliffs of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where the lemon fruit (which is native to Asia) made its European debut around the first century. Some legends say local fishermen developed limoncello as a morning health tonic. Others give the credit to Italian nuns who made a similar lemon-based alcoholic drink called “rosoli.”
Today, according to EU law, a liquor can only be labeled limoncello if it is made from Sorrento lemons, named for the coastal resort town south of Naples. For a month, the thick, mildly sour rinds are macerated in a container of high-proof alcohol such as vodka or grain alcohol. During that time, the liquid turns its characteristic fluorescent yellow color. A simple sugar syrup is added for sweetness before the mixture rests for another full month. Sweet and tart, limoncello is generally served chilled and neat. However, a drizzle or two of this versatile, sunny liquor can also be used to perk up a fruit salad or ice cream, or even in savory applications, such as salad dressings or marinades.
Back in the States, I’ve fooled around in my kitchen and come up with my own limoncello-inspired recipe, in honor of that memorable meal I had back in Tivoli. It’s a rich yet light dessert that balances a light, sweet creamy filling with the tart lemony flavor, finished with a subtle kick from the liquor.
Recipe: Limoncello tiramisu
Tip: If you feel like being very Italian, you could swap out the cream cheese for marscapone, which is more difficult to find and more expensive.
- 24 dried Italian ladyfingers (often labeled as “savoiardi”)
Lemon syrup to dip ladyfingers
- 1/2 cup limoncello
- ¾ cup lemon juice, from 5-6 lemons
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 ½ cups lemon curd (homemade or a good store-bought brand like Wilkinson’s)
- 2-3 tbsp limoncello, to taste
- 8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 tbsp lemon zest
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Make the lemon syrup. Combine limoncello, lemon juice, and sugar in saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer for 5 minutes, then let syrup cool completely.
- Make the filling. In a large mixing bowl, beat 1½ cup limoncello, curd, cream cheese, sugar, and lemon zest, just to combine. Add cream, then beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes.
- Assemble the tiramisu. Spread ¼ cup lemon filling on bottom of a 2-quart serving dish. Dip ladyfingers quickly in lemon syrup then arrange in layer. Cover with 1 cup lemon filling. Repeat steps, ending with filling. Cover and fridge at least 2 hours, or better overnight. Garnish with lemon zest.
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Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his short story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Random House), also nominated for a Violet Quill Award. His next book, a novel titled FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (Random House), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Poets and Writers, Tin House, Details, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, and the Village Voice. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, as well as residencies from Yaddo and Djerassi. He has also taught writing at Columbia University, NYU, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.
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