Sunday, June 23 2024

The history of limoncello goes back a long way and is lost over the centuries.

Today limoncello is the king of liqueurs in Campania.

Yellow as the sun, it brings with it all the joy of the Sorrento and Amalfi Coasts.

With a sharp, sweetish taste, it is a very old digestive even though it was “codified” only in 1900 and virtually unknown outside the regional borders until the 1980s.

Today it is world-famous, and every tourist who touches the wonderful coasts of Campania enjoys a shot of this golden-colored liqueur with an old-fashioned history.



Limoncello, the story starts in Pompeii

Technically, limoncello was “discovered” in the early 1900s in a little boarding house on Capri, near the villa of Axel Munthe, one of the fathers of modern psychiatry.

There the scholar and his many intellectual friends on the Blue Island would go to Mrs. Maria Antonia Farace’s after lunch to enjoy this famous digestive made according to a grandmother’s recipe.

According to Federvini, it is thanks to Mrs. Farace that today we have the recipe for limoncello: but there are so many legends that touch the towns of Sorrento and Amalfi.

Tracing the history of limoncello is impossible because, according to some, it was even born in Roman times, along with the development of lemon cultivation in the area, as evidenced by frescoes found in Pompeii: this is why we speak of the “discovery” of 900 and not the invention of limoncello.


Some legends place limoncello at the time of the Saracen invasions, long before the year 1000, and, according to some, it is precisely to the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula that we owe this drink, because they would have been the first to cultivate lemons.

What is certain on the basis of written records is that in the 14th century there was already talk of “limoncello,” but the term was used in Sorrento to refer to common lemons, almost as if it were a pet name, since Sorrento lemons are much larger than “classic” ones.

In 1600 the Accademia della Crusca reports for the first time the term “Limoncello” with the meaning of drink: even Francesco Redi, an academic and writer, reports in his book Bacco in Toscana that “L’acqua cedrata di limoncello sia sbandeggiata nel nostro ostello.”

In the 1700s there is evidence of the use of limoncello in some convents, but many believe it is a recipe “imported” by a monk and that in fact fishermen have always used limoncello over the centuries to keep warm on long nights in the weather.

As is often the case in these circumstances, the history is very nebulous and full of suggestive hypotheses; in all likelihood, the maceration of lemon peels could be a practice that has always been used and needed modernity to place it in the market.

In the 1980s, partly because of the garish color so fashionable in those years, partly because of the very low cost of preparation, it literally invaded the tables of taverns throughout Italy, and often still today trattorias offer limoncello at the end of the meal.

The history of limoncello may not be precisely known, but it is certainly not over: today the liqueur is on the list of Traditional Italian Agri-food Products; a later recognition with DOC status cannot be ruled out.


Limoncello in the United States with Clooney and De Vito

Today limoncello is a world-famous liqueur; much of this notoriety is due to two actors-George Clooney and Danny De Vito.

But what have the two artists been up to?

It is 2006 and De Vito is a guest on The View, one of the most watched programs in the United States, hosted at the time by Rosie O’Donnel.

The Italian-American actor shows up visibly drunk and justifies himself by saying that the “last seven limoncellis” he drank at Clooney’s house the day before must have hurt him.


Sales of the Italian liqueur skyrocketed after this statement, and De Vito, partly for business, partly because he is a big fan, began making his own limoncello, becoming the first major artist to turn into a liquor producer.

He would be followed closely by Clooney himself and then over the years by many others such as Ryan Reynolds, Jay-Z, Drake, Dan Akroyd, Francis Ford Coppola.

De Vito’s limoncello, Danny Devito’s Premium Original Limoncello Liqueur, is virtually unobtainable online, because production was supposed to resume in February but, because of the pandemic, the actor stopped everything.

In American supermarkets the product is much more expensive than its Italian cousin: about $25 for a 70 cl bottle compared to the 12 euros with which some of Campania’s best limoncellos can be found.



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