Searching for Italy's favorite digestivo in Central Ohio

New Albany resident Lynda Vergits has a treasure: a crumpled-up piece of paper containing a 220-year-old recipe from her family in the Abruzzo region of Italy. The recipe, passed down for generations, is for the lemon liqueur known as limoncello. Vergits and her husband, George, have turned that relic into Tessora Liqueurs, an almost decade-old brand built around its signature digestivo, Tessora Crema al Limone.

Limoncello is ubiquitous in Italy. Much like traditional recipes in the United States (think:chili), each family has its own, often secret, recipe and way of preparing it. The bright liqueur packs a kick and is commonly served after meals to help with digestion. And to the benefit of Central Ohio’s palates, some of those age-old recipes have made their way across the Atlantic and into the hands of creative craftspeople.

Limoncello’s core ingredients are high-proof liquor, lemon peels, simple syrup and sometimes dairy. And while this recipe seems simple, the ingredients, the proportions and the time that go into the product can greatly vary the outcome.

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No one knows this better than Tim Mackness, a bartender at Due Amici who spent two years getting his recipe and technique right. He developed his limoncello recipe with the help of Italian winemaker and importer Nicola Biscardo. Twelve years ago, Mackness took a stab at making the liqueur and shared his progress with Biscardo, who critiqued the product on his twice-yearly trips to the U.S. Mackness remembers when he finally got it right. “[Biscardo] said, ‘You need the spark, the alcohol burn on the end. If it’s too smooth, and you don’t have the hit, it’s not right. It’s not the Italian way.’”

Mackness uses Everclear 190-proof, lemon peels and a special mixture of simple syrup; he peels the lemons by hand and lets his limoncello age for 100 days in a food-safe Cambro container. The drink is a draw for Due Amici patrons, even attracting some from out of state. Jeff Mathes, Due Amici’s owner, considers limoncello a signature product of the Downtown restaurant. “There’s a pride with being associated with [Mackness’ limoncello]. Our customers know Tim makes it. We even have him sign the bottles.”

Ingredients are key to making a good limoncello, says George Vergits of Tessora. The company, which has expanded its New Albany operations four times, special-orders its lemons (they’re not like grocery-store lemons, he says) by the truckload. You can find Tessora limoncellos, which are available in 15 states, at The Wine Bistro, Barcelona, Giant Eagle and Hills Market, to name a few.

While there’s classic limoncello, there’s also room for creativity.

Abby Cottongim, the beverage and events director at Delaware’s Speck Italian Eatery, has been experimenting with her Everclear-based limoncello by adding cream and making seasonal flavors, such as peach and cherry. Cottongim was gifted her recipe from a first-generation Italian-American customer. And in true 2020 style, she’s been selling the house-made limoncello in shot-size portions for carryout at Speck.