Some twenty-five years ago, I was traveling alone in Italy, just sort of wandering and making my way down to Basilicata to visit my relatives there. Hanging out for a few days in Naples, I met some locals who encouraged me to take the Circumvesuviana Railway to Sorrento, and then get some sort of transportation – boat, bus, scooter, or cab -down the coast to Praiano, a little fishing village just south of the jetsetter’s paradise, Positano. I bought a ticket for the train, and when I got to Sorrento, I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Praiano-several miles but an inexpensive cab ride south. We started driving and suddenly we pulled out onto the coastal road. My jaw literally dropped and I must have gasped because the driver laughed and slowed down so I could take a picture.
The utter drama of it all- cliffs and outcroppings literally hanging in mid-air over sheer drops down thousands of feet to a shimmering Mediterranean Sea. You could see miles down the coast, which wove in and out, proffering rocks here and there, just wide enough to be someone’s private beach. And beaches they were, since Italians will literally set up a beach chair and umbrella anywhere they can. You could be sure a little stand selling Peronis and Campari-Sodas was not far behind. The weather seemed to add to the drama, since you could actually see it change as you looked down the coast.
The sun rules this land, even more than anywhere else in Italy. And almost anywhere you look- lemon and orange groves! Citrus is king here and it graces everything- from simply grilled fish to gelato to scamorza wrapped in fragrant lemon leaves, drizzled with olive oil, and tossed onto a grill. Limoncello, poured from delicate bottles, is what you drink after dinner- a lovely but bracing digestif.
I ended up staying in Praiano, forgoing my plans to visit my relatives in Basilicata. My new friends came down to the coast and days of sun, sea, music and wine followed. When I finally went back up to Rome, I was so enchanted with the carefree life on the Amalfi Coast; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That place was like heaven to me, and all these years later it still is. I’ve been back many times, and each time my senses are overwhelmed by everything around me.
If there’s any one that can add a sense of romance to a discussion of lemons, I guess it’s me. Lemon is my favorite flavor, and I always associate it with this beautiful area of Campania, from the Amalfi coast to Capri, Sorrento, or the enchanting island of Ischia. Amalfi lemons are big, sweet, and fragrant and have a look all their own – a bumpy surface with a very thick rind.
We go through a lot of lemons here at L’Arte – we make a Torta Caprese al Limone, which is a flourless almond and white chocolate cake scented with lemons. We have our “L’Amalfitana”, a white lemon cake filled with lemon curd and covered with a thin layer of lemon buttercream. We make sweet Lemon Taralli, Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins, and Delizia di Limone gelato in the summer. We also make candied lemon zest, which we use in all manner of recipes as a bittersweet component.
Meyer lemons are a favorite of mine- they’re a cross between lemons and tangerines, so they’re sweet and have a shiny, herbal-scented rind. I like to make Meyer lemon curd. I fill delicate tart shells with the curd, then top each tart with a dollop of toasted silky meringue. Lemon curd can be easily made in a home kitchen and kept in the fridge for up to 10 days. It can be used as a tart or cake filling, but is also yummy as an alternative to jam or marmalade.
Meyer Lemon Curd
150 g. sugar
grated zest of 2 Meyer lemons
¾ cup Meyer lemon juice
112 g. butter, cut into pieces
- In a medium bowl, combine the sugar with the lemon zest, rubbing the zest into the sugar with your fingertips.
- Add the eggs and whisk together until well combined.
- Whisk in the lemon juice, then add the butter pieces to the mixture.
- Place the bowl over a pot of gently simmering water, preferably with the bowl fitting snugly over the pot.
- Cook the curd, stirring frequently but not constantly, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of lightly whipped cream. The temperature of the curd should be about 150F., although judging by consistency alone is fine.
- Strain the curd into a bowl or container. Let cool to room temperature in an ice bath, then refrigerate until ready to use.
Lemons add a note of freshness to anything that you’re cooking. Because they’re acidic, they balance out salt, make a counterpoint to richness and eggs, and enhance flavors like vanilla, almond, berries, and even chocolate. Of course, they are a formidable flavor component on their own, a bold taste that comes through strong in even something like mousse or a souffle.
I spent my birthday one summer in a lovely rented house on the island of Ischia, which is about a forty-minute hydrofoil ride off the coast of Naples. Twelve of us had rented this large home built into the side of the mountain. The roof of the house was a beautiful swimmming pool and patio that overlooked the Bay of Naples. There were, of course, lemon groves and a small vineyard on the grounds, and the house even had a wood-burning oven where pizza could be made.
Days were spent riding around the island on scooters and motorcycles, searching out new beaches, picturesque villages and restaurants. Lunch was often had directly on the beach, as restaurants close to the shore will literally set up a table and chairs on the sand for you, then bring you a chilled ice bucket with a bottle of white wine and plates of steaming linguini with clams and mussels.
Omnipresent on menus in the restaurants of Ischia is the dish Pasta al Limone. I became absolutely addicted to this dish, and so I created my own version of it when I got back to the States. We can’t really get access to Amalfi lemons here, but I make the dish with lots of lemon juice, Limoncello, and mascarpone, and I prefer fettucini as it seems to work well with this type of sauce.
Fettucini Al Limone
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons brandy
½ cup Limoncello
½ cup fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
½ cup mascarpone
1 cup lightly packed grated Pecorino Romano
½ lb. fettucini
- Heat the oil over low flame in a large saute pan.
- Saute the garlic in the oil until it just starts to color. Add the lemon zest and saute for another thirty seconds or so.
- Add the brandy and the Limoncello and bring to a boil. Let the liquid reduce somewhat, then add the juice.
- Season this mixture with salt and pepper and then let it reduce by half.
- Turn the flame down to low and whisk in the mascarpone. Let the mixture cook very slowly for a few minutes, while you boil the pasta.
- Cook the fettucini in boiling salted water until al dente.
- Turn the flame off of the sauce and whisk in the Pecorino Romano. Drain the pasta, saving a few tablespoons of pasta water.
- Toss the fettucini in the sauce along with the hot pasta water.
- Serve immediately with a slice of lemon for garnish and a little more cracked black pepper and grated cheese, if desired.