May 20, 2004
Take a lemon seed. Plant it in a toxic dump and fertilize with Crystal Drano. Douse the ground liberally and regularly with kerosene and cat urine. Watch the lemon tree grow. Pluck the ripe lemons off the tree, inject with nitroglycerine, press the juice out of the lemons, rinse the pulp with unleaded gasoline and a dash of diesel, strain through a fine mesh sewer grate, add several drops of ear wax remover, shake, pour, and serve.
There. You’ve made your first batch of limoncello.
In many Italian restaurants – at least the ones Diane and I went to while in Positano for a week – waiters will cap off the meal with a free shot of limoncello, acting as though they’re being generous. Gratis. No charge. It’s on us. Aren’t we kind to the American tourists?
After a particularly wonderful dinner one evening, as the pasta and wine lingered on our palates, we were approached by our friendly waiter, who placed down two small glasses of a cloudy yellow fluid.
“Limoncello,” he announced with pride. “For you.”
“Grazie,” I said, as it appeared as though the waiter’s gesture was a kind one. “This is that stuff Kathy bought when she was over here,” I said to Di, referring to a friend who had brought back a bottle of the lemon-derived after-dinner liquor from Italy a month earlier. Figuring it was safe, we sipped.
It was as though someone pulled my ears a foot away from the side of my head and sprayed Lysol up my nose. It wasn’t pleasant. My eyes rolled. My brain spun. My lips quivered and my tongue rolled up like a cheap window shade. I took a very famous man’s name in vain and returned the glass to the top of the table. From my wife’s expression, I could tell her limoncello-tasting days were over.
Yet I kept at it. Sip after sip, I lowered the level of the limoncello glass.
“What are you doing?” asked Diane. “It’s vile.”
“I know,” I said, grimacing. “But I can’t spill it. That’d be too obvious.”
“Here’s an idea: don’t drink it.”
“But I have to. He gave it to us.”
I consumed half of it, and was soon treated to a mild case of the DTs. The effect it had on my nervous system was not a positive one, as may be inferred by the limoncello-making process, which I described in the first paragraph.
We soon learned the evil drink was served only where we hadn’t eaten before. Di’s theory was that it was intended to instill warm feelings in the diners and make them want to return. My theory, after seeing it ladled out time and time again, was that they had a mountainside crammed with lemon trees and they had neither the time nor the inclination to make lemon cream pies.
Another night, at a new restaurant, we saw the waiter bring out two glasses of limoncello to a neighboring couple. As they smiled and thanked him, I turned to my spouse and whispered, “Crap, we’re next. What do we do?”
“Just say no.”
“I can’t do that.”
“But we’re not going to drink it.”
“So hold your stomach, act like you’re full, and say no thank you.”
“But…but they seem to get so much joy out of giving this stuff away. I don’t want to insult him.”
“It’ll just be wasted. Or if you drink it, you will.”
“Fine. I’ll say no thank you.”
The smiling waiter soon approached with the ubiquitous shots of limoncello. He looked so…happy. I couldn’t do it.
Di reminded me of my previous reaction to the nefarious beverage, yet I sipped away, and she might have called me an idiot, but I was too woozy to notice.
Our last limoncello-related experience took place in Montepertuso, a tiny village tucked up against the mountain behind Positano. The meal was ending, and out came the waitress with six shot glasses – three apiece. One held a pink gooey fluid, another a clear oily drink, and the third…sigh…yes, limoncello.
Sniffing and sipping determined that the two new after-dinner drinks were strawberry and fennel. I was determined to avoid the dreaded limoncello. There was no way I was going to make myself sick just to appease the waitress. No, sir. I had learned my lesson. No more limoncello for this tourist.
So I downed the other two instead. Diane just observed me and smiled.
Post-script: A reader with a sense of humor responded to this column by sending me a bottle of limoncello. I still have the attractive bottle; the contents were used to strip paint off my garage door.