This home made aperitif was so popular that six gallons are being prepared for the 2011 edition of The Feast. The beverage is sold by the shot – and the shot glass used seems only half the regulation bar size – six gallons goes quite a long way. You get a lot of bang for the buck. In fact, a buck was the price per shot. And, a bang is what you get when you take a shot – a burst of extreme lemon explodes on your tongue and the alcohol heats your mouth and face. Sinuses are cleared and eyes go wide. Tastes like lemon candy; feels like rocket fuel.
I’m not sure if you can buy a bottle of the stuff, but I know for certain that even if you could, Nicky, Phil and Carmine would never consider factory made. Like so many things in this annual summer celebration of everything Italian, keeping the tradition alive means home made and hand crafted. In reality, Lemoncello has been part of The Feast for only a few years and is actually made by Nicky’s wife, Barbara, who happens to be Polish. Nonetheless, Lemoncello is an authentic Italian drink and all about the hand crafting.
Nicky, Phil and Carmine have known each since there were kids; they were all baptized at Holy Rosary Church on 6th street. They grew up in what has become known as the old Italian Village, the swatch of downtown generally around Brunswick Street. Jersey City born and bred only begins to describe why the three were peeling lemons on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. They have no memory of a summer without The Feast defining their season. Now as adults they keep their roots alive by making the event not just a successful fundraiser for their Parish but a source of renewal of Italian American culture enjoyed by succeeding generations and the Jersey City community at large.
In the back yard of Nicky’s house on Brunswick Street – which has been in his family since 1970 – these three pisans sat at the picnic table peeling Lemons. A reproduction of a vintage poster of The Feast circa 1960 was on the table to set the mood. Wine that Nicky made in his basement was served… dry red, delicious… snacks on the table… mozzarella with salami and peppers.
Chops were busted, memories were traded, compared… additional plans for The Feast were formulated, even finalized. The trio is a quasi steering committee of The Feast and in addition to peeling fruit, logistical matters were discussed. Last week the poster was approved. A face book page and website debut soon. They’re re-introducing the Ad Book for local merchants. One from 1930 was on the table. Black and White, thick pages, simple display ads... one that caught my eye was for a “Home Laundry” which is still in business, according to Carmine.
“Look at this one.” said Nicky, dangling a contiguous ribbon of lemon peel for the others to envy. “That’s how it’s done, Carmine.”
Did longer peels make a difference in the Lemoncello? No, of course not, the guys were competing with each other to see who could get the longest, uninterrupted peel. A dozen bags, a dozen lemons per – 144 lemons – had to be peeled by this trio so why not make a sport out of it. Nicky won.
The men were just there for the peeling, and the wine. Barbara does the mixing. She told me her friends in Fort Lee were making it and said they had gotten the recipe an authentic Italian source, although the exact location in Southern Italy where it originated is in dispute. Since it is just as easy to make more than it is to make less, she saw it as a perfect item for The Feast.
“People think it’s hard, but it is really easy to make Lemoncello,” said Barbara.. “It is not fermented, it is really just a big mixed drink.”
Only the peel, which has the essence of the fruit’s flavor is used. The rinds are soaked in a concoction of one part distilled water, one part sugar (about 20 lbs) and one part grain alcohol (195 Proof, did I read that right?).
Two large “industrial sized” buckets are utilized for the soaking, which takes about two weeks (due to vacations and other preparations for the Street Fair, the 2011 batch was made a little earlier than usual.
“You have to be careful about the rinds going rancid, so really no much longer than two weeks,” she said. “You don’t want it too tart because then it seems bitter. Lemoncello is smooth.” With all the other details that need to be organized for The Feast, the Lemoncello was actually being made early. After the soaking, the conction is filtered into bottles. “You don’t want grit or mealy bits of lemon.”
Like many food and beverage items so intrinsic to Italian culture, Lemoncello is simple to make, yet the combination of ingridients becomes a uniquely splendid, intensely lemon-flavored cocktail. This Peasant Liqueur is merely alcohol infused with a part of the fruit upper classes throw out, but the result is an affordable libation for the rural working class of Southern Italy and a memorable quaff for those (21 and older) attending The Feast.
So, only the peels are used, what happens to the Lemmon? “We give them to our family and friends, we make lemonade, lemon chicken, lemon pie, do you want some lemons to take home?”