Joe LaGuardia pulls out a chair for me at his Richfield home and offers a choice of red wines he and his extended family make at his brother Lou’s Northfield abode. I decline and ask to sample Joe’s own house specialty: limoncello. The smiling co-founder of Community Energy Advisors, a Medina-based energy-management company, retrieves a repurposed Royal Crown bottle from the freezer and fills a tiny fluted glass with its opaque pale-yellow contents.
I take a careful sip. The sunny lemon liqueur reminds me of a very tart, very concentrated lemonade with a surprisingly potent kick.
“That’s probably about 40 percent [alcohol], or 80 proof, you’re drinking there,” Joe warns. “So, you’ll start to feel it a little bit.”
He’s right — I cut myself off after two glasses.
Joe began making limoncello some 25 years ago, while he was still vice president of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield’s northern Ohio region. A first cousin arrived from Italy’s boot-heel state of Puglia for a visit one fall and offered to show him and his brother how to make the libation. The hardest part of the process, they discovered, was sourcing the 190-proof grain alcohol in Ohio.
“You can order it [from certain liquor stores] and have it shipped in,” Joe explains. “But you have to sign a paper that says how you’re going to use it.”
The rest was easy: Remove the zest from 12 to 14 fragrant lemons, taking care to cull only the bright yellow zest; add the zest to a large glass container filled with 2 liters of grain alcohol; and allow the tightly covered contents to sit four to eight weeks, shaking regularly every few days.
“The alcohol takes the color and the oils out of the zest,” Joe says.
Joe and his wife, Ginny, demonstrate the final steps at the kitchen table with a same-sized batch of arancello, a variant made with orange zest. He pours a clear, burnt-orange liquid from an oversized glass jar through the mesh strainer she holds over a stainless-steel bowl. She then adds just over 2 liters of distilled water boiled with 6 cups of sugar and allowed to cool.
Ginny tastes a spoonful of the finished product, which now resembles orange juice, then adds a liberal splash of distilled water from a plastic gallon jug. Joe laughingly remembers a time when he’d finish a batch of limoncello at 5:30 a.m., before he left on a business trip.
“Sometimes you’d make it a lot stronger than you should have,” he admits. “You’d give it to somebody, and they were like, ‘Man, this is like broken glass!’ You could feel it burn all the way down to your stomach.”
Joe typically puts his limoncello and arancello in 8.5-ounce bottles, complete with a label bearing an artful illustration of the respective namesake fruit. Some end up with close friends and family. But making spirits is about more than gift-giving.
“You’re just carrying a tradition on,” Joe says. “That’s what it is — it’s about tradition.”