Everybody in Brooklyn worth his sea salt still makes limoncello—or so I’d heard. The Carroll Gardens housewife, the Brooklyn Heights lawyer, the sax player on Flatbush, Italian or not, all steep lemon peels in liquor, then sweeten the infusion and serve it over ice. And I needed their help.
That’s because my mother made liqueur from tangerine skins each Christmas, but I never got the recipe. Maybe these still-at-it artisans have their kids stockpile citrus skins in a bowl in a corner of the kitchen, like my brothers and I did so our mother could transform them into a palate-cleansing elixir that even as a child I found delightful. I wanted to find out.
I started by calling liquor stores in the old Italian neighborhoods of Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge in search of whole-grain alcohol—which is the base for the liqueur—and ultimately the people who buy it. Sixteen calls. Some shop owners say no, they don’t have it and no, they don’t know where you can buy it. Two guys tell me they don’t know what that is—and they sell liquor! And some just hang up. I eventually found out that it’s against the law to sell whole-grain alcohol in New York, so Brooklynites have to journey over to Jersey to buy it. But once they do, so long as it’s just for home consumption, it’s perfectly legal to make liqueurs.
Somebody has got to know an alchemist macerating a brew in his basement. I try trattorias, Italian cultural centers and historical societies, and just when I’m starting to feel that nobody knows anybody making limoncello even in neighborhoods that can smell like the lemon groves of Sorrento—a restaurant owner tells me to call the judge.
Oh, sure. Excuse me, your honor, are you making moonshine in your basement? “Yes, I am,” replies the honorable Brooklyn Supreme Court justice Michael Pesce, laughing. “I make limoncello. Let me tell you a little story.”
I’m used to this—every Italian recipe has a “little story” behind it. And Pesce, with his mellifluous voice, each vowel precisely pronounced as if he were singing Verdi, is a born storyteller. He explains that long ago, when he took his fiancée to his hometown of Mola di Bari, his Aunt Rosine crowned the visit with a serving of her rosolio di limone, often called liquore di limone and better known in the States as limoncello. Pesce, who lives in Carroll Gardens, says Zia’s aromatic rosolio [literally, oil from a rose] was sunny, slightly sweet and refreshingly bright so he asked for her recipe and she began: “‘Quattro centi grammi di agua, quattro centi grammi di zucchero….’ My fiancée says, ‘There is something different in here.’ ‘Ah,’ Zia says. ‘I put in a leaf of malvarosa. It’s on the rooftop.’” She introduced them to her little plant with the look of a geranium but the aroma of straight citrus.
Back in Brooklyn, Pesce found his own culinary geranium and has added a leaf along with the lemon peels to his limoncello ever since. “It’s my secret ingredient,” he says. Serving your guests the ice-cold liqueur is a time-honored tradition in Italian households and it’s quite simple to make. Pesce’s recipe calls for equal portions of alcohol, sugar and water but you can play with it by varying amounts. Rough-skinned fruit is best, lest you gouge the zest. Avoid pith like the plague (I couldn’t count how many times I heard that admonition—evidently getting any of the peel’s bitter underbelly in your spirit is a sin worthy of confession).For more color, add the peel of half a lime.
Making limoncello is a hobby for the judge—as is cooking. Every Friday night he and a dozen friends meet in an old brownstone that belongs to someone who keeps it vacant just for them. Over the course of five hours, they prepare a bacchanalian procession of 15 to 20 dishes that would have César Ramirez begging for an invite. Whole-grain alcohol, 190-proof (95 percent) alcohol is best. Everclear is a popular brand. You could use vodka as the base but be very careful, cautions Pesce, of the strength you buy: Drink two small glasses of liqueur made from 95 percent grade and you’ll need to call the paramedics.
Recipes abound online, but the tradition is sustained by scraps of paper and transatlantic phone calls, and details are occasionally lost in translation. Lea Ganni, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, used so much alcohol—a gallon instead of half a gallon—on her first try last year that her husband “cleared his sinuses with one sip. He couldn’t even talk.” Lea blames a recipe from “this 90-year-old Italian woman who had the proportions all wrong, and I ended up calling this guy in Italy who told me how to dilute the batch.” Her description of her and her cousin peeling 20 lemons, sterilizing 4-gallon Mason jars, funneling the 40-day old brew into other Mason jars, making simple syrup in a pot big enough to boil a couple of pounds of pasta and combining the two liquids is worthy of an I Love Lucy episode. Encouraged by the thumbs up given her limoncello by friends at 101 Restaurant (“balanced, nice consistency”), Lea is sterilizing those jars again this year.
As for my mother’s tangerine liqueur, I’ve learned that the fruit is called mandarin in Italian and the cordial, liquore di mandarini, is made the same way as limoncello. Now that I have the recipe, I’ll be sterilizing my jars this winter, too.
Judge Pesce’s Limoncello
400 grams alcohol
A leaf of culinary geranium, optional
Zest from 3 organic lemons. Be careful to avoid the bitter white pith
400 grams sugar
400 grams water
1. Put the alcohol in a large, sterilized jar. Add the lemon zest and a leaf of malvarosa. Cover and let the mixture seep for at least 3 weeks in a cool, dark place. Shake the jar once or twice a week.
2. Make a simple syrup by boiling the sugar in water until crystals are completely dissolved. Let cool.
3. Strain the lemon mixture into a clean bottle, discarding the peels and leaf; add the simple syrup. Let infusion mature for another 3 weeks. Serve cold over ice.