Limoncello: a short history

In a memorable scene in Under the Tuscan Sun,  Diane Lane's character, Frances Mayes, meets a ridiculously attractive Italian man named Marcello in the streets of Rome and he whisks her off to his cousin's house in Positano, on the coast. Over dinner, Marcello offers Frances some limoncello, a drink she had apparently never heard of before. She is further surprised when he says that his family makes it. Describing the production process, Marcello says, "We take the lemon, and, um, we take off the skin of the lemon, and uh, then we put in the bottle with ¾ of alcohol and ¼ of sugar. And, uh, you put the skin of the lemon in the bottle and, uh, you leave it until it’s the right color. And, uh, I forget the rest. Just try it.” Then he shyly laughs, causing the audience to lose themselves deeper within his dreamy eyes.

"Under the Tuscan Sun,"(2003)

Although Marcello's description was a bit lackluster, limoncello is not too complicated to make. Week 1: Using a grater, zest 8 organic lemons. Make sure that they are organic so you can avoid the pesticides that have been sprayed on standard lemons. This process takes a little while and is a bit boring. In a glass container, mix the zest with 3 cups of vodka. I just used the cheapest brand of vodka I could get here in Montreal. Some people use everclear. Let this mixture sit for one week.

Week 2: Strain the zest out of the mixture. In a pan dissolve 2 cups of sugar into 3 cups of water and then let the liquid cool. Add this sugar-water into the container. Try not to be a klutz like me and don't knock over your container with the lemon-zest infused vodka, forcing you to lose almost half of the contents to the floor. The plus side of my clumsiness was that it made my apartment smell quite lovely.

Now you have to wait one more month. Put your limoncello in a cool dark place for 4 weeks. I cheated and only waited 3 weeks and it was still delicious.

Final step: Enjoy your limoncello! It can be wonderful on its own, in cocktails, or even in recipes.

So based off of seeing this movie you would probably expect that limoncello is an example of traditional Italian culture, right? Especially when Marcello states that making the drink is a family endeavor, American and Canadian audiences likely imagined the beverage as part of a long tradition. However, the history of limoncello appears to be quite short.

Limocello is usually associated with Sorrento, the Amalfi coast, and the island of Capri. A few different families claim ownership to the recipe and rumors surround the liqueur. Some myths claim that fishermen in the area would take a shot of lemons to ward off the cold, leading to the invention of the drink, whereas other stories speak of friars in the region drinking it between prayers. However, the drink was not even widely consumed in that area before the twentieth century. 

British journalist, Lee Marshall, in his article entitled L’invenzione della tradizione (The Invention of Tradition) from Internazionale (October 2013),  argues that there is no historical documentation regarding the use of limoncello before the beginning of the twentieth century. Apparently less than thirty years ago, the drink was limited to the households of just people living near Capri. However in 1988, the entrepreneur Massimo Canale  of Capri registered the trademark “Limoncello di Capri” and began producing the yellow liqueur in quantities that could meet the demands of bars, restaurants, and supermarkets throughout the area, and then around the world.

my limoncello

The filmmakers probably decided to have the characters discuss limoncello, rather than grappa, perhaps due to its popularity at tourist destinations. Every time I have been in Italy, I see bottles of the booze at any major attraction and transportation hub that travelers might frequent. I even bought a souvenir bottle during my last visit to Cinque Terre.

Despite its relatively short history, limoncello is worthy of your attention.  Even if you aren't much of a drinker, it is delightful in dishes like these floating islands (iles flottantes) I made tonight. Stir 2 shots of limoncello into the custard and enjoy!


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