The first time I ever had limoncello was in mid-March, 1998. It was a Friday.
Bill and I had just signed the paperwork for our little rented house in Oakland Beach – a section of Warwick, RI. The tiny place (two rooms – one upstairs, one downstairs, and a bathroom) was a converted summer cottage. It had a huge fenced-in back yard and a front porch that was, perhaps, the very best part of the entire property. We sat out there many an evening, weather permitting, with wine, cheese and crackers, or smoked bluefish and sour cream on Ritz crackers (really – it is one of the best flavor and texture combinations in the universe)…or coffee early in the morning after coming back from a quick boat trip out to haul up the lobster pots and cast for stripers…we watched the sunset down at one end of the street…or watched the cars zip down Oakland Beach avenue at the other end. We watched a pair of bluejays build their nest in our neithbors’ eaves, and later, with binoculars, saw the baby birds before they grew up (too fast, as all babies do) and left home to begin their own adventures.
But all those front porch moments were in the future…at that moment, that March Friday, all we had were a set of keys and a few pieces of paper – and an empty little house.
And we were hungry. We got back in our car, after the leasing agent (the landlord’s cousin) drove away, and headed to the end of our new street, took a left onto Oakland Beach Avenue and then another left onto West Shore Road.
There are several restaurants and bars along that section of West Shore Road…the Inn has a mix of basic American fare and some Italian pasta dishes – and a pretty good salad bar…the Backstop is kind of a biker bar, and we just weren’t dressed right to fit in there…the Islander is a great Chinese restaurant, and there’s another one further up that wasn’t so good at first, but a few years later they renovated and hired some better cooks and things improved for them.
But we weren’t in the mood for any of that.
We were in jeans and sweatshirts and sneakers (casual day Friday at work for both of us), and pizza seemed the right choice for the night. Up just past the Islander, on the other side of the street, is a restaurant called Nonna Cherubina. A white boxy looking building that was obviously a home converted into a restaurant. There is a big sign out front for oncoming traffic in either direction to read – the biggest letters spelled out PIZZA and underneath it said “and more.” I think there’s more on the sign…perhaps something about Northern Italian cuisine – all we saw at that moment was “pizza” so we pulled in there and opened the front door.
Linen, linen everywhere….we were so clearly underdressed – we almost turned around to go somewhere else…but too late – a tall, slender gentleman with a slight stoop and longish black hair, some of which was combed over a thinning area on top, a moustache, and a warm, friendly smile greeted us with a small nod of his head and led us to a small table for two.
I counted one time – there are eleven tables in this tiny restaurant. Three are in the smoking section. The walls and flat surfaces are decorated with photographs, candle sconces, plastic flowers, and mismatched pieces of china. The prevailing color is a pale, muted pink which, with the dim lighting, renders the small rooms cozy and intimate, no matter how many other people are there.
The tall man handed us menus and a wine list and left to get us water glasses and a small loaf of Italian bread in a basket – sliced, and very hot.
I don’t remember what we had to drink that night – probably wine. We didn’t order pizza. They have pizza on the menu, which is probably fantastic. But oddly enough that’s the one thing we’ve never tried. And we’ve gone back plenty of times.
Their menu, which changes periodically, carries about 8 to 10 appetizers, a couple of salads, about half a dozen pizzas, and about half a dozen meat dishes, same number of seafood, same number of vegetarian, and about 8 pasta dishes. There are a few side dishes offered too. And later they tell you what the desserts are that day, or bring around the dessert cart.
I don’t remember what we ordered, probably some kind of appetizer to split and then an entree each. A few minutes later the same tall man brought out a little dish of something – a little stew of some kind, perhaps – to have while the appetizer was prepared. They do this for everyone. Just a little taste of something. Here, try this and let me know what you think. An unexpected little gift of food.
The appetizer might have been something like this – a small piece of pizza dough, fried, with sliced prosciutto and provolone slices on top, and some baby greens on top of that, and a drizzle of olive oil over all of it.
Dinner might have been veal marsala for Bill and their homemade gnocchi for me.
Dessert? Tiramisu, if they were offering it that night, was probably what we would have picked to share.
And with dessert – limoncello.
Tiny little glasses, icy from hours in the freezer, filled halfway with an icy cold, syrupy, yellow liquid. Gratis. Another gift.
The tall man, we discovered over time, is Luigi. He and his wife, Stefania, take turns with the cooking and the serving, although on weekend nights they usually have a waiter or waitress on the floor and the two of them work the kitchen. Every year they go home to Italy for 3 to 4 weeks in January or February. There is a big sailboat on a trailer in their yard – I think it spent one summer in the water. Bill and Luigi usually talk boats every time we visit.
They are sweet, charming, welcoming people. Instead of feeling like we were a couple of stray mutts stumbling into the Westminster dog show that first night, we were made to feel like family. Long-lost family. We don’t eat there as often as we used to, or as often as we’d like to – but whenever we do, we are long-lost family once again.
Back to the limencello. They make it themselves – grain alcohol, lemon rind, sugar and water. That’s really all it is. You can use vodka instead of the grain. A little goes a long way. This is not something you do shots with. This – you sip. It is powerful, but it is refreshing and a lovely balance of tart and sweet. Grown-up lemonade, if you will. But again – you sip it. Goes well with any of the desserts….especially (just my opinion) the bittersweet chocolate and pear tart.
Over the years we’ve said we should try to make it. And we haven’t. Bill’s made gallons of beer, and some wine (from kits – he takes no credit for how they come out) – but not the limoncello.
Until now. I’m making it. I don’t know why. Maybe the hint of spring in the air (before this week, when we had a couple of hints of winter as it reluctantly relinquishes control) – I don’t know.
But I bought lemons last week – and limes – and so now I have three batches of potent citrus brewing on the top shelf of my pantry. I’m doing two different versions of the limoncello and one of lime. One of the lemon versons consists of the rind (none of the white pith – it is nothing but bitter) of 6 large lemons soaking for about 3 weeks in 4 cups of vodka. Later I will add a simple syrup – a mixture of sugar and water, cooked just to dissolve the sugar, and then cooled – and the mixture will sit for a month. Then it will be strained and bottled. I found the recipe in a gardeners’ cookbook that I got as a wedding shower gift.
The other two batches are quicker. The lime version is an adaptation of the original limoncello recipe found here. Both recipes are similar – I think the main difference is that the recipe from the gardening cookbook uses fewer lemons per batch and therefore has to sit longer to develop the same flavor. Mario Batali’s recipe is the quicker of the two. I just want to compare them, or maybe tinker around with them and come up with my own version.
Not that I’ll be having any for a couple more months. But that’s okay – they will keep.
I plan to keep most of the stash hidden, to be saved for gatherings of our friends, or special occasions….
But also I just want to be able to break it out on warm, lazy summer evenings when Bill and I are sitting out on our deck, after a dinner of freshly-caught fish of some kind…or steamers…or mussels…or lobster…and fresh vegetables from the garden, and maybe some good cheese and sliced bread, and the kids are in bed.
I want to feel a late day summer breeze on my face, maybe catch the perfume of sea air as well, and recapture some of our then to blend with our now.