Libations Made With Love and Tradition
April 2023 Issue
Story and Photography by Edwina Hoyle
The Riccardi name in Italy goes back centuries with possible ties to the Medici’s, an art-loving family of wealthy bankers (and three popes), who helped usher in the Renaissance in Florence. Rob Riccardi of Bluffton is a proud, first-generation American who grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. His father grew up in Naples, Italy, during the hard times of WWII, and his mother was born in a small town in Calabria. Rob said five families with a total of 10 children—all aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents—lived within two miles of his home in Pennsylvania.
This close-knit family honored the customs they acquired in Italy, particularly those regarding food, wine, and sharing. Traditional wine and Italian meats top the list in Italian cuisine, so the Riccardi family made wine, while the Mancuso and Castanzo families made sausages, capocollo and other delicacies—all to share with one another.
Rob fondly remembers how each autumn his father and grandfather would go to Pittsburgh’s Strip District to buy 50 crates of grapes to make wine. The other families would buy loads of pork, veal, and casings.
Rob said his father was a mechanic and probably made their wine press. “We stacked the crates of grapes along the wall in the cold cellar. The wine press had a small motor with a perforated drum, kind of like a cheese grater. What I really remember is the smell of the grapes.” When it was all said and done, they would bottle about 100 gallons of wine.
Rob has travelled to Italy six times, but it was on one trip to Sorrento with his wife, Jane, that they were introduced to limoncello. “Jane went nuts over it. I wanted to grow a lemon tree; we always had a garden, but we couldn’t do it in Pittsburgh because of the climate.” So in 2017 when they became permanent residents of Bluffton one of the first things they did was plant a Meyer lemon tree. Now, instead of wine, the Riccardi’s make limoncello. “We had over 100 lemons last year, made a ton of limoncello and gave a lot of bottles as gifts.” They also had enough lemons for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian American Christmas Eve celebration that brings families together the same way Thanksgiving does, with traditions that span generations and an ocean. In Italy it is called La Viglia, which translates to The Eve, as in December 24th, Christmas Eve.
Regarding care for their tree, Rob said “I do a little pruning after the lemons are picked. And I use fertilizer stakes for citrus, I water regularly, and I keep an eye on the tree. Once in a while I spray fungicide on the leaves. That’s it.”
Jane Riccardi’s Recipe for Limoncello
1.75 Liter 100 proof Vodka
3½ cups Sugar
2 cups Water
Sauce pan and large bowl
Very fine mesh sieve and cheesecloth or coffee filter
12 large Lemons, unwaxed, untreated (Meyer lemons if possible. If smaller lemons, use more.)
Large glass jar with lid (must be able to hold the vodka and lemon peels)
Mason jars or swing top bottles to store the limoncello
Sharp vegetable peeler or a micro-planer (using this, however, will require much more sifting)
Wash and dry the lemons. Peel the lemon zest without getting the white pith which will turn the limoncello bitter. A microplaner will allow more lemon oil to move into the alcohol, but it makes it more difficult to strain. Pour the vodka into a large glass jar. Add lemon zest peels. Put a lid on the jar and place in a dark place with no direct sunlight. Every day for three weeks, shake the jar (the peels may lighten and become brittle by the end of three weeks).
Make sugar syrup: Combine water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Allow the syrup to simmer until it boils. Take it off the burner and let it
It’s easier to strain and filter the vodka BEFORE you add the sugar syrup. Pour the alcohol through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl. If you used a microplaner, line the sieve with a coffee filter or cheesecloth to remove all of the tiny lemon peel pieces. Once strained, slowly add the sugar syrup into the alcohol. It will taste strong, but if it’s too strong for you, just make more sugar syrup and add to the alcohol.
Now grab your Mason jars or bottles and use a funnel to decant the limoncello into each container. Cap tightly and store in the freezer. Salute!
If Life Doesn’t Give You Lemons,
Plant Your Own Meyer Lemon Tree!
The Lowcountry is a perfect environment for Meyer lemon trees. Meyer is a hybrid variety that is slightly sweeter and easy to grow at home in a container or in the ground. You can plant your Meyer Lemon Tree with confidence because they prefer slightly sandy soil and lots of sunshine. Delectable lemons fresh off the tree await you just in time for Christmas because they are a winter fruit. Enjoy homemade lemonade, or fresh out-of-the-oven lemon squares. Not only are lemons useful in cooking and baking, they can also be used to make homemade cleaners and soaps. Harvest sweet, delicious lemons and share them with your friends – or make limoncello as a popular libation.
Now is the time to plant: According to Clemson Extension, citrus trees prefer full sun in outdoor locations, or south facing indoor locations with lots of bright natural light. At least 8 hours of sunlight, as well as high humidity are required for optimum growth and development. Young trees must mature before they will flower, approximately 1-3 years, so, purchase larger specimens for quicker fruit production. Optimum temperatures for fruit production are between 65°F and 85°F. Most citrus trees can tolerate cooler temperatures, down to around 50°F; and for some, even as low as 35°F.