lemon splash

From ham radios to hot rods, Americans have yet to meet an innovation they won’t tinker with.

And while our hankering to hack has made the country a creative powerhouse, this same impulse doesn’t always lead to improvement.

Take limoncello.

A zesty and sweet liqueur from Italy’s Amalfi Coast (a little more than halfway down the shoelaces on the boot), limoncello has been made for several centuries from fat, thick-skinned Sorrento lemons that grow in terraced groves on the region’s many hills. This quintessential Italian drink is traditionally served ice-cold and “neat” in thimble-size glasses as an after-dinner digestive. It’s a perfumy pyrotechnic that’s both soothing and invigorating.

Limoncello is, in a word, perfect.

Judging by how fast Americans are buying the stuff, you’d think we agree.

But though we may be drinking more limoncello, we’re doing it our way.

In much the same way the classic Martini has been mauled with flavored alcohols and other ingredients, limoncello is but the newest victim of our marauding mixologists (yup, I’m one of these infidels).

Indeed, pop into any halfway trendy bar or restaurant these days, and chances are you’ll find at least one libation made with limoncello.

Among my favorites is The Leland Palmer, a nifty riff on the popular Arnold Palmer cocktail that’s half lemonade and half iced tea. The drink was invented by Damon Boelte, bar manager at Prime Meats in Brooklyn. (Bonus geek points to those of you know from what fantastic TV series the name Leland Palmer comes.)

I defy you to find a tastier hot-weather back-porch sipper.

Here’s how you make a batch of six Leland Palmers:

Ingredients:

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup hot water
3 cups freshly brewed organic jasmine tea, cooled
3/4 cup organic gin (Organic Nation or Bluecoat brands work nicely)
3/4 cup organic limoncello*
3/4 cup fresh organic lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh organic grapefruit juice
1 cup chilled club soda
Bunch of ice cubes
6 lemon slices (for garnish)

*A couple good organic limoncello brands:
Danny DeVito’s Premium Limoncello is made from the zest of organic lemons.
Napa Valley Limoncello, made with organic Meyer lemons, is available (so far) only in California.

Preparation:

Stir honey and 1/2 cup hot water in small bowl until honey dissolves. Cool completely. Combine honey water, jasmine tea, gin, limoncello, lemon juice and grapefruit juice in large pitcher. Add club soda and stir to blend.

Fill six 1-pint mason jars or 6 tall glasses with ice cubes (mason jars look cooler). Divide tea mixture among jars; top each with lemon slice.

Still, not everyone’s psyched about how Americans are embracing Italy’s signature liqueur. Gianpiero Ruggeri, an Italian-American friend and wine expert, likens what’s happening with limoncello to our alleged debasement of coffee years ago.

“We Italians perfected the cup of coffee,” he teases. “It’s called espresso. But Americans have to mess with everything. To customize everything. So they’ve got Starbucks, where they add chocolate powder and caramel and whipped cream and turn it into some bizarre coffee monster.”

Pop culture has helped introduce many Americans to limoncello. The movie “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which features a scene with limoncello, may have done for this drink what “A River Runs Through It” did for fly fishing.

What bugs folks like Silvestro Silvestori, owner and director of The Awaiting Table, a cooking school in Lecce, on Italy’s boot heel, isn’t that we’re trampling on tradition or outsourcing our taste buds to marketers, but that we’re being big Euro-dorks.

“The irony of all this is that an American will order a limoncello martini and believe himself to be Eurocentric, Continental, perhaps even in touch with his Italian-American roots, when no one here (in Italy) would ever, ever order anything of the sort,” he says.

Of course, people like Silvestori may help bring true limoncello tradition to America – if only to the sort of foodies who travel to upscale schools like his, where they can learn the history and culture of Italian foods like limoncello.

As with most things Italian, limoncello’s origins are hazy and heavily romanticized, though most legends place the drink in convents during the early 17th Century. Limoncello is but one of a large class of beverages called rosoli, spirits made from the skins of various fruits, and from aromatic herbs and nuts. With its chipper personality, limoncello became one of the more popular. That it’s absurdly easy to make probably helped, too. Italian grannies have passed down family recipes for limoncello for generations, though variations in preparations are few. A few cloves, a cinnamon stick, maybe a couple peppercorns might be added to create a haunting retrogusto.

So if you’re one of those who loathes the “Limontini” or thinks the “Sorrento Sunrise” sucks, stop stewing. Pour yourself an icy glass of limoncello. Or make yourself a nice Leland Palmer. Either way’s fine by me.