The first time I tasted limoncello I realized I’d been wrong to think God made lemons so we might enjoy lemon curd. Tart, sweet, chilly on the tongue but warm in the throat, limoncello is the adult version of every happy lemonade stand you’ve ever visited, ever.
It’s possible that the adventure associated with my first limoncello enhanced its natural delight. I was in Rome on a business trip, early October 1996, five weeks after I buried my father and a year before Buenos Aires would replace Rome as my favorite sunny, cosmopolitan city.
I was traveling with seven others: three work colleagues, one of whom brought his wife, our New York-based banker, a PR consultant from LA, and a Lake Tahoe-based lobbyist who was from California when it was convenient and Nevada when it wasn’t.
We were enjoying a late lunch at a quaint restaurant a good 30 minutes from the Cavalieri Hilton (now the Rome Cavalieri) where we were staying. I have no idea what the restaurant was called or where, exactly, it was located. We were chauffeured there by two cars at the direction of a slick-looking guide whom my PR consultant, Melinda, met in the lobby while we were waiting in line to talk to the concierge. “Lunch? Ah, we take you!” he said, and we went like lemmings into the cars. It was a complete leap of faith.
The six course, prix fixe lunch was memorable on its own, without the limoncello or the subsequent adventure of getting lost in Rome, for two reasons:
First and foremost, the food was simply prepared and astonishingly good: fresh asparagus with olive oil on tiny toasts, clams in white wine, spaghetti with pancetta, radicchio and citrus, flank steak, and tiny cannoli and lemon cake, all accompanied by crisp, cold Pinot Grigio.
Second, but really right up there with the first, was the odd company of strangers and how the meal brought us together. We didn’t know each other well – some of us hadn’t even met before that trip. Eight can be a large group when the dynamics are untested, particularly when wandering far from the standard tourist path in a foreign city.
Randy, the banker, had dietary restrictions we didn’t think to ask about when we hopped into strange cars, destination unknown. Only two courses into the meal, when everyone except he had almost licked each plate clean, a tiny silver-haired woman came storming from the kitchen ranting furiously in Italian and holding one of Randy’s untouched plates. “Nueva Yorka! He’s from Nueva Yorka!” Melinda, the PR consultant, exclaimed as she jumped up and tried to settle the situation. “NuEVA YORKa!” the woman hissed, threw her hands in the air and marched back into the kitchen.
For the remaining courses our waiter brought seven plates of whatever his nonna has prepared and one plate of plain spaghetti for Randy, delighted to have something to eat. Before that point we were eight independent contestants sharing one table; after, we were a pack.
With the dessert course the waiter brought tall, thin, frosted glass bottles of pale yellow liquid which he poured into small glasses for us. Everything I love about Rome, Italian food, good company and sunshine was in that first sip. Even Randy liked it. Full, laughing, bathed in late afternoon light, we all might have stayed there forever, swimming in limoncello, if given half a chance.
Then the waiter cleared his throat. The whole family, in fact, was standing close to our table as we, last seated for lunch, were the only remaining guests. They brought the bill, Randy collected our money (the equivalent of $40 each), we said our grazie milles, and they ushered us out the door. Well-served with food, wine and lemon liqueur, we were slow to realize our predicament. We had no idea where we were, spoke no Italian, and had made no arrangements for return passage to the hotel. We were standing in the middle of a quiet, remote, beautiful residential neighborhood, utterly lost.
We turned back, intending to ask the restaurateurs for help, only to find the doors and windows shuttered. We did the only logical thing to do in those pre-mobile phone days: we started walking, hoping we’d wander near a busy street with taxis. A couple of blocks later, we spied a bus that read “Vatican” across the front. We raced to it and piled on, uncertain if it headed to or from the Vatican but comforted to see a word we recognized.
The sales guy started to tell the driver that we were lost, that we were Americans trying to get back to our hotel. A swift kick from Randy cut him off. The one thing you know when you’re from Nueva Yorka is that boarding a bus full of strangers in a strange neighborhood means shut the hell up until you get someplace you recognize.
We rode in silence for what seemed an eternity, searching out the windows, exchanging occasional glances. In my head I heard the voice of Ms. Willet, my 8th grade Latin teacher who chaperoned my first trip to Rome, warning me that Rome was full of nothing but pickpockets and ne’er-do-wells.
Then, there is was, the dome of St. Peter’s. The bus stopped at the busy plaza, we got off, hailed taxis, and headed back to the hotel.
“How was it?” the concierge asked, as we wandered back into the lobby.
“Perfect, absolutely perfect,” we all replied in unison.
An hour or so later we reconvened on the hotel rooftop, an unparalleled view of the city stretching out below us.
“I wonder where we were?” someone asked, as we peered at the horizon. And for a little while we just stood there, we eight no longer strangers, searching in vain for the place where life handed us limoncello as the sun set over Rome.
I have always loved lemons, maybe because I was raised by a woman who lettered in turning life’s sour fruits into something sweet and sublime. This week for one of our dinners we’ll have my favorite lemon-based pasta dish: linguini with baby clams and parsley. I’ll also make a pot of avgolemono, though I’ll probably have to eat all of it on my own; my people don’t like soup. Easy favorites Ina Garten’s fish & chips and a vegetable plate will make two of the weeknights manageable, and we’ll round it out with a new twist on carnitas with salsa verde from Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food.
Linguini with lemon, baby clams & fresh parsley
This is an easy and delicious dish, one that tastes as good cold the next day as when it’s hot and fresh. Cook linguini per package directions. While pasta is boiling combine in a glass bowl: 1 can baby clams, mostly drained; juice of one large lemon; ½ bunch (or more, to taste) fresh parsley, chopped; 1 clove garlic, pressed or very finely minced; olive oil and salt. Drain pasta, put it back in the pot; pour the clam/ lemon/ parsley mix over the hot pasta and toss well. Top with grated parmesan cheese. Serve with steamed broccoli
This is one of the easiest meals to prepare, and my family always enjoys it. The recipe, available here at Food Network, is from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Family Style, a cookbook I couldn’t recommend more highly. Serve with tart fresh fruit.
Many, many years ago I cut out a recipe for Avgolemono (Greek chicken and rice soup with lemon) and made it every week during the winter. It’s lighter than chicken & dumplings, but only a bit, and the tang of fresh lemon brightens any cold day. This recipe from Serious Eats is close to mine, although I do add shredded poached chicken. Now if only my Meyer lemon tree would produce fruit so I could make this more often…. Serve with spinach salad (red onion and mandarin oranges).
While reading Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food (another cookbook I highly recommend), I had to pause on page 45: “Salsa Verde, the classic green sauce of Italy, is a sauce of olive oil and chopped parsley flavored with lemon zest, garlic, and capers.” Really? I thought it was tomatillos and green chile! So I did a bit of research. Note: do not second guess Alice Waters. Anyway, we’re going to try the carnitas (p. 359) and the classic Italian salsa verde (p.45) and see what my TexMex crowd has to say. Will serve with buttered cabbage (p. 297). There are equivalents to all of these recipes online, but none of Waters’s originals. Buy the book; you’ll like it.
Brussels sprouts| Butternut squash | Polenta | Salad
There was a small but mighty crowd at the neighborhood farmers market this morning. I found Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, beets, and pretty green onions. I’ll roast the butternut squash (peeled, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt) and the Brussels sprouts (olive oil, salt and a bit of balsamic vinegar), though not in the same pan. I’ll serve with either grits or polenta and either salad or leftover cabbage.