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From Sorrento, The Land Of The Lemon

The brightly yellow, intensely citrus flavored, sweet and tart liqueur, easy to sip and to enjoy as an after dinner “digestivo,” is inextricably linked with the thick-skinned Sorrento Lemons, which are grown under a strict protocol and receive their own IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or geographic designation

By Alan Kratish

If you’re ever fortunate enough to visit the town of Sorrento, on the Costiera Amalfitana, Italy’s southwestern coast, there’s one thing you’ll notice immediately. Lemons. They’re everywhere. In backyards, the town square and hotel courtyards. You can hardly take a few steps without coming face to face with a tree brimming with the bright yellow oval shaped fruits.

Sorrento is so closely identified with the fruit that visitors to this popular tourist destination are more than likely to leave with some lemony souvenirs as keepsakes. Local handicrafts - beautiful linens, intricate inlaid wood marquetry, and even the famous Capodimonte porcelain sculptures depict lemons in all their glory, on trees, in bunches and in geometric patterns. Fragrant lemon scented soaps, tart lemon candies and flaky lemon cookies line the stores and stalls of merchants catering to the tourist trade, vying for attention.

Where do the lemons go?

Mostly into Lemoncello, which can be found in any restaurant and liquor store

Whether spelled Limoncello or Lemoncello, this brightly yellow, intensely citrus flavored liqueur, simultaneously sweet and tart is easy to sip any time and to enjoy as an after dinner “digestivo.” So much so that recently on the popular ABC TV The View actor Danny DeVito attributed his “uninhibited” behavior to having a few too many Lemoncellos the night before with pal George Clooney.

The formula for making lemoncello is well known. Grain alcohol is infused with lemon peel over a period of several days or weeks. Sugar is added and the resulting mixture is then filtered and diluted with purified water to reach the desired level of alcohol. While the length of the infusion and exact proportion of the ingredients may differ, all lemoncello is a variation of this basic recipe.

In Sorrento, many families concoct their own lemoncello for personal use and the enjoyment of their friends, while numerous small, commercial producers labor to supply the local market.

One of the first companies to produce lemoncello commercially, Gioia Luisa, founded in 1986 by Francesco Maresca and family, started exporting its own distinctive version to the US in 1995, followed by a handful of competitors.

Don’t get stuck with a lemon

Like other agricultural products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Prosciutto di Parma, whose authenticity are inextricably linked with their place of origin, the thick-skinned Sorrento Lemons are grown under a strict protocol and receive their own geographic designation or IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) to distinguish them from lemons grown elsewhere. To understand why this is so, one need only look across the bay to Mount Vesuvius, whose deadly eruption in 79AD blanketed surrounding areas, including Sorrento, with volcanic ash, and looms as a constant reminder of the enriched soil that makes Sorrento Lemons so special.

A visit to the Il Pizzo (literally “the coast”) orchard explains the reasons for these lemons’ unique qualities.

Perched high atop the Sorrento coast on a cliff formed from volcanic rock, overlooking boaters and sunbathers at the Piano de Sorrento Beach, this orchard owned by a consortium of farmers, is one of the largest in Sorrento and its entire output is sold to Gioia Luisa.

Sturdy oak trees at the perimeter and olive trees as the next barrier insulate lemon orchards --some of the lemon trees here are four hundred years old.-- against the harsh winds coming off the coast and screened canopies provide additional shelter from winter hailstorms.

It’s a surprise to see that lemons don’t hold a monopoly. Oranges also dot the landscape. A family member, Pepe Gioia, explains that the lemon trees are delicate and disease prone when young, so the branches are grafted onto those of the sturdier orange trees. This technique helps to prevent the fruit from dropping to the ground prematurely and results in the unexpected sight of lemons and oranges growing on the same tree!

The lemons are hand-picked when they achieve proper size and ripeness. The smaller fruits are left on the branches until they, too, are ready, allowing for continuous harvesting of fruit throughout the year.

Since lemoncello production utilizes the peel of the lemons rather than the juice, these fruits are prized for their thick skins. No chemical pesticides are sprayed and only minimal organic methods of pest control are used.

Next stop is the chaotic drive uphill with drivers honking their horns and flashing their headlights on the narrow one vehicle at a time winding road leading to the Gioia Luisa factory. There, in the modern facility constructed in 1998 to meet surging demand, with a capacity to produce upwards of 275,000 cases (12X750ml) annually, “alchemists" magically transform lemons into lemoncello.

The first step is peeling the lemons. Formerly performed laboriously by hand, the process is now done entirely by machine, insuring speed and consistency. Only the outermost layer of the peel is utilized, while the bitter white pith is avoided. Immediately after peeling, so as not to lose any flavor, the peels drop through a chute into tanks of pure grain alcohol, where they remain for four days. During this period of infusion, the flavor transfers from the peels to the alcohol. The peels from one kilogram, approximately 7-9 lemons, produces 2.5 liters of lemoncello. The addition of pure water and sugar is formulated electronically before the lemoncello is bottled.

How to keep and how to use lemoncello Lemoncello is best stored in the freezer, as you would a bottle of vodka. You can drink it following a meal, as they do in Italy, straight up, in small, chilled glasses. Many Americans, though, enjoy a more creative approach, using Lemoncello in mixed cocktails such as a Lemon Drop Martini, easily mixed using Lemoncello shaken with vodka and ice (3 parts vodka to one part Lemoncello) and served in a martini glass.

A few ounces of Lemoncello in a tall glass of iced tea eliminates the need for adding sugar and lemon and results in a delightful Arnold Palmer with a kick!

Creative chefs also utilize Lemoncello as a flavoring agent in frozen desserts such as lemon sorbet, baked goods such as lemon biscotti, and delicious sauces for topping vegetables or fish. Recipes can be found at

Alan Kratish is Vice President of Halby Marketing, Inc., an importer of fine wines and spirits. He is also “Keeper of the Cork” for LaBORatory Night, a monthly gathering of South Florida wine aficionados.

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