The second-most-popular liqueur in its native Italy — a sweet, zesty runner-up to bitter Campari — limoncello seems to capture the essence of sun-soaked lemon groves. It's hard to sip the electric-yellow stuff without thinking of Italy's southern coast, which, with another New England winter looming, feels all of its 4200 miles away from our cold corner of the States. And it's safe to say New Hampshire is an unlikely place to find a limoncello business.
But that's where Newton native Phil Mastroianni launched Fabrizia Limoncello with his brother Nick just four years ago. Now they're shipping bottles as far south as Virginia.
"I just started making it for fun," explains Mastroianni, a second-generation Italian-American. "When we have holidays at my house, my uncle Dominic brings his homemade wine, my uncle Tony brings his homemade wine. Everyone's trying to show theirs off."
During a visit to Calabria in 2007, he tried his cousin Angelina's limoncello, made from lemons grown on her property. "I decided when I got home I was going to make limoncello. Nobody else in my family was doing that, so I figured it would be my thing."
When his uncle Joe told him it was the best limoncello he'd ever tasted, Mastroianni was inspired to quit his accounting job in downtown Boston to start his own business. "If it weren't for Uncle Joe, this never would have happened," he says.
"If you make limoncello the correct way," he continues, "you use nothing but the lemon rind, just the zest, to both color and flavor." Fabrizia infuses pure grain alcohol with lemon zest for three months, then sweetens it with simple syrup. "Whether you make it in America or in Italy, [limoncello] is best within the first 12 months of when it is produced."
This could be the secret to Fabrizia's regional success. Compared to big-name brands produced in large batches and shipped around the world, Fabrizia is more likely to arrive in local bars before the end of a bottle's short shelf life.
And arrive in local bars it has. Near Fenway, Sweet Cheeks serves the Dollywood, featuring Fabrizia, vodka, and sparkling wine. At Papagãyo in Fort Point, bartender Anthony Nataluk says Fabrizia is the only limoncello they use. He highlights it in the Mexican Lemonade, with a smooth mix of tequila, muddled limes, simple syrup, and lemon juice.
In Cambridge, Park pours a drink called the Giant Killer, using Fabrizia and lavender-rose honey syrup to soften bourbon's warming punch. "It's kind of like a whiskey sour, but a little more grown-up," says bartender William Tomlinson. "I always find myself putting limoncello in interesting places. . . . I feel like now it's getting more popular because it's starting to get stocked in more places."
I couldn't help asking Mastroianni if he saw limoncello's use in mixed drinks as a corruption of the digestif, traditionally served chilled and sipped straight.
"Quite the opposite," he says. "It's providing an opportunity for more people to experience limoncello. . . . Hopefully, eventually, people will try it straight, but just because someone's not enjoying it the way it's traditionally enjoyed doesn't mean it's wrong."