Shelly Culver remembers her first taste of homemade limoncello liqueur. "We were at this tiny restaurant in San Francisco called Caffe Macaroni," she said. "We gave the chef so many compliments on his food, he broke out his stash and poured some for us. It was so clean, so crisp -- just like drinking a liquid lemon drop."
Back home in Mendota Heights, Minn., Culver decided to make a batch herself. An avid cook and a cheese specialist — she works at the gourmet shop E’s Cheese — Culver is no stranger to prepping new dishes or beverages on instinct. But her first attempt ‘‘tasted like propane,’’ she said, laughing. ‘‘I was trying to make it like I cook, just throwing in a bit of this and a handful of that, and you really have to be more precise.’’
Several batches later, she has perfected a recipe that includes just four simple ingredients — lemon zest, alcohol, sugar and water. While these are the same ingredients most limoncello recipes call for, Culver can now share some tips to lessen the possibility of error for newbies taking a crack at it themselves.
Long a favorite in its native southern Italy, limoncello (pronounced LEE-moan-chel-lo) wasn’t a household word in America until Danny DeVito made it one. In November 2006, the actor appeared on the ABC morning talk show ‘‘The View’’ still visibly feeling the effects of too many limoncellos drunk into the wee hours with George Clooney the night before. If the brand he was drinking tasted anything like Culver’s, it’s easy to see how they snuck up on him.
Because it’s made from lemon zest (the yellow peel), not fruit, limoncello isn’t sour, and goes down as easily as grappa does hard.
Culver uses all organic ingredients. She recommends using organic white cane sugar. Any white sugar will do, however. A batch she tried with brown sugar ended up an unappetizing color.
She uses a Microplane grater to make the first step of zesting the lemons go more quickly. Traditional recipes call for clear grain alcohol that’s 97 percent, but Culver’s blend of half-and-half cheap potato vodka and a more expensive brand works fine.
Although traditional recipes call for steeping up to 60 days, she does it for only five days, turning the bottles over a few times a day to loosen the peel so more flavor will be leached out of them. They should be stored in a dark, cool place such as a basement or under the kitchen sink until the zest turns white.
Culver pours her finished product into old wine bottles and affixes homemade labels printed on a computer featuring an image of lemons and the words ‘‘L’oro di Shelly — fatto in casa’’ (“Shelly’s Gold — made at home’’ in Italian).
Limoncello should be stored in the refrigerator. ‘‘This definitely has a shelf life,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s the reason commercial versions don’t taste as good.’’
Which didn’t stop DeVito from capitalizing on his notoriety and coming out with his own. But try making this perfect summer sipper at home, and you’ll probably never want to buy it. And be careful it does taste just like drinking a lemon drop.
Note: In Italy, limoncello is generally served after dinner as a digestive, often in chilled glasses. Shelly Culver uses organic lemons and the Microplane grater, a variation on a wood-working tool that is readily available in kitchen stores. Zest is finely grated peel; make sure not to grate the white pith of the lemon, which is bitter. Culver uses half cheap vodka and half more expensive for the alcohol. She recommends a full five days for flavoring the vodka with the lemon. She prefers cane sugar, which is less processed white sugar, and is available at natural foods stores.