South Philly’s Limoncello Economy

In one of America's most historic Italian neighborhoods, homemade limoncello is traded for favors as a symbol of southern Italian gratitude. Adam Erace on his landlady's liquid gold.

Angela Pugliese is not a rich woman.

I know this because, as a tenant in the building she owns, I balance her checkbook, do her taxes, apply for her senior-citizen utility discounts and handle all the other assorted financial matters—all things that make our relationship slightly atypical.

She gets social security, a few bucks tailoring jeans for the menswear shop down the street and a few more from the rent my small South Philly grocery store pays her each month. She subscribes to People en Español, goes on the occasional QVC binge—recent purchases include compression stockings and the BaconBowl—and ships monthly care packages to her sister, kids and grandkids in Montevideo, Uruguay. It’s not a lavish lifestyle, but she does all right for an 80-year-old with English as a third language—partly thanks to a tight-knit neighborhood network of friends with an unspoken bartering system of edibles.

Refinish the cerulean paint on Angela’s 1994 Chrysler Sundance and she might press a few links of her backyard-cured sopressata into your palm, or a bottle of French Vanilla CoffeeMate purchased in bulk from BJ’s. Change her air conditioning filters and you could be rewarded with a Ziploc of from-scratch manicotti—or one stuffed with yesterday’s donuts, vanilla and chocolate frostings mashed together in sticky yin-yangs. “Still fresh,” she’ll assure.

Having known and done Angela favors for five years, I’ve received all of these things, but my hope each time is always the same: a frosty bottle of the ubiquitous southern-Italian liqueur, limoncello—her finest culinary wampum.

Angela is blonde and built like a barrel. She was born in Vibonati, a picturesque village that originates in the mountains of Campania’s Salerno province and rambles down to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It would be nice to tell you her limoncello recipe is generations-old, but it wasn’t part of her family’s culinary routine, even though the digestivo’s origins typically converge around this part of southern Italy, where the thick-skinned lemons grow fat and perfume the air.

Limoncello, Angela’s and otherwise, probably has something to do with it. Even as this pocket of South Philly evolves into an oasis of grass-fed beef, cloth diapers and cardamom bitters, at least half the redbrick houses are still occupied by longtime residents. They trade their homemade hooch back forth, and sip out of ceramic cups on their front stoops or in their concrete backyards after dinner as the sun sets over South Philly.

Like countless other rural Italian towns in the 1900s, Vibonati emptied as families pursued better lives halfway around the world. Angela’s grandfather and aunt settled in Uruguay in 1925, and 30 years later the rest of the family—including an eight-months-pregnant Angela—followed. She left Uruguay alone in 1973, leaving her kids with her parents and telling her abusive husband she was going to America work for a year. She only told her mother that she wasn’t planning on coming back.

Knowing nothing about Philadelphia except that her Italian friend had a room to rent there, she moved and built a business as a seamstress. At the height of her freelance enterprise, she was pulling in $175 a week—close to $1000 adjusted for inflation. She sent money to her kids every month, divorced her husband (who tried, unsuccessfully to get her deported), got a boyfriend and bought the two-story rowhouse she still lives in today on East Passyunk Avenue, historically the oldest Italian-American business district in the country.

The neighborhood has changed since then. My shop specializes in local and organic foods. The last four tenants have specialized in Republican fundraising, jewelry (x 2), leather and that’s as far back as Angela can remember. It’s not an uncommon story in America’s big cities, but on Passyunk (pronounced ‘pash-unk’), contentiousness doesn’t attend the blending of old and new guards as much as you’d think.

Limoncello, Angela’s and otherwise, probably has something to do with it. Even as this pocket of South Philly evolves into an oasis of grass-fed beef, cloth diapers and cardamom bitters, at least half the redbrick houses are still occupied by longtime residents. They trade their homemade hooch back forth, and sip out of ceramic cups on their front stoops or in their concrete backyards after dinner as the sun sets over South Philly.

Two doors down from Angela’s, rapid-fire Italian peppers the night outside the Sicilian men’s club; she trades them her limoncello for cases of San Pellegrino Limonata. Across the street, an old-school restaurant run by Angela’s buddy pours complimentary shots of limoncello after dinner; “they mix with water,” Angela disparages. Three blocks down, the self-styled first licensed female distiller since Prohibition, Joan Verratti, sells ten different ‘cellos at her Pollyodd tasting room.

And it’s not just the old timers carrying on South Philly’s limoncello legacy. On Angela’s block, Top Chef Season 11 victor, Nicholas Elmi, opened his restaurant Laurel, which offers shots of house-made “bergamotcello,” a newfangled nod to the neighborhood’s heritage.

In 2009, Angela traveled to Milan to visit her mother’s last living sister, Amalia, whose son, Gino, makes several styles of liqueur. All the bottles came out during Angela’s visit, rounds of shot glasses en tow.

“I taste one, I taste another,” she remembers, ultimately declaring the creamy limoncello her favorite. (A harsher version uses water instead of milk.) The recipe, jotted down on a creased sheet of notepaper, went home in her luggage. She had barely slept off the jet-leg before she was back in her South Philly kitchen minting a big batch.

She paid me for some favor or another with one of those bottles, the viscous potion the pastel yellow of fuzzy chicks. It flowed from the bottle like a melted milkshake. I expected the sweetness, but not smooth, pleasant burn or intense citrus bouquet spun from supermarket lemons purchased on sale.

It’s hard to quantify what those well-placed bottles, and their manifold descendants have bought Angela over the last five years. Today, she unfolds the recipe carefully before placing it on my desk for appraisal. She doesn’t look at it often—by now she knows the limoncello formula by heart—but she keeps it safe nonetheless. If you had the recipe to print money, wouldn’t you? 

Related Articles

Adam Erace writes about food, drink, and travel for Fodor’s, Details, Southern Living, Men’s Journal and other publications. He loves exploring far-flung destinations and their regional specialties almost as much as his hometown, Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and two rescue pups.

FROM AROUND THE WEB