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Mellow Yellow

Danny DeVito isn't the only one high on limoncello. More and more restaurants are making their own lemony liqueur.

June 17, 2007|David Lansing | Freelance writer David Lansing covers wine and spirits for The Times.

You must have seen it. The clip of Danny DeVito, loopy as Charo, burping and slurring his way through an interview with a less-than-amused Barbara Walters and her colleagues on "The View." Obviously the guy was a little lit up. In fact, more than a little. He'd been up all night, he admitted, drinking with his buddy George Clooney. "I knew it was the last seven limoncellos that was gonna get me," he told the girls.

Not one to let a little bad publicity go for naught, last month DeVito announced that he was launching his own brand of limoncello, which, he said, would be the "best limoncello you ever tasted."

If, in fact, you've ever tasted limoncello, a traditional Italian digestivo that was created somewhere along the Italian coast (some say Sorrento or Amalfi, others the isle of Capri) about 100 years ago, you probably wonder how the heck anyone could down seven of those suckers. Made of lemon peel macerated in grain alcohol, or sometimes vodka, and lots of sugar, it's pretty potent stuff, as DeVito discovered. It's something you have a shot of, served icy cold after a big meal to settle your stomach. Not something you sip all night long.

For years, about the only place you'd find it in Southern California was at a traditional Italian restaurant where, in all likelihood, the proprietor made his own from a closely guarded family recipe (though the paucity of ingredients usually meant there weren't a lot of variations). At Ristorante Max in Newport Beach, chef/owner Massimo "Max" Carro learned to make limoncello while working at the family restaurant in Positano.

"Making limoncello is easy," says Carro, pouring us shots in frosted glasses. "I make it the way my mom does." Which means picking eight to 10 lemons from the tree in his backyard and adding the carefully washed peel (no pith) to about five cups of water, 1 1/4 cups sugar and a bottle of 151-proof Everclear, a pure-grain alcohol that is probably about as close to moonshine as you ever want to get.

Carro usually makes six or seven bottles a week and uses it not only behind the bar, but also in the kitchen to bring out citrus elements in his chicken and seafood dishes. He also mixes it into custard cream for his profiteroles.

"For me, I'd rather cook with it than drink it," he says.

The same appears to be true for Karen Hatfield, a pastry chef who, with her husband, Quinn, owns Hatfield's on Beverly Boulevard. Last summer she made her own lemony liqueur for the restaurant's signature summer cocktail, Limoncello Collins. This year she's ramping things up by adding herbs during the last week or so of the infusion process. "It's sitting in our wine cellar right now," she says a little nervously, "and I have no idea what it's going to taste like, so we'll just have to wait and see." But don't be surprised if it shows up in her citrus chamomile sorbet or paired with her sugary beignets.

David Wideman, general manager at Punch Grill in Santa Monica, also just started making his own limoncello, primarily to blend into the restaurant's gelato. But my favorite treatment comes from Jesse Rodriguez, formerly of the French Laundry and currently the sommelier at Addison in San Diego. Rodriguez and chef William Bradley serve a touch of house-made limoncello in a glass of sparkling wine to accompany an amuse bouche. But that's not all. When I spoke to Rodriguez recently he was up in Napa, working with a winery to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon grappa that the restaurant plans to use instead of grain alcohol for an as-yet-unnamed limoncello-based cocktail.

"The Cabernet Sauvignon grappa is very floral and, I think, will really bring out the pure flavors of the organic Meyer lemons we use to make our limoncello. I think it's something that will be very, very easy to drink."

Just don't tell that to Danny DeVito.

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