Pride of Sorrento

story and photos by Fred Minnick

Nobody knows when limoncello was first made. Ask any family in Sorrento, Italy, and they’re likely to say their ancestors were mixing sugar, water, Sorrento lemon peels and pure alcohol centuries ago.
It remained an at-home Italian pleasure until 1990, when Sergio and Stefano Massa created Villa Massa to sell in Italian markets.

Since then, Villa Massa has grown into an international company, exporting to 48 countries, and Sorrento lemons have received the designation PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). 

Limoncello has become popular in champagne cocktails, as an after-dinner chilled digestif and in desserts, like lemon tarts. But Stefano worries about consumer confusion. Limoncello is not a protected term, and despite not following the traditional formula of only four ingredients, generic limoncello brands are popping up all over the world. Many use thin-skinned lemons, some lemon juice, coloring and non-natural additives. Villa Massa and other Sorrento producers, on the other hand, use only sugar, water, Sorrento PGI lemon peels and pure alcohol.
Mirko Mogavero, the director of the lemon gardens at Villa Massa, takes in the aroma of a Sorrento lemon.

  The Sorrento lemons are more than twice as big, lumpier and less tart than the regular citrus fruit. For Villa Massa, those lemons are picked and peeled within 24 hours. This separates Villa Massa from the imitators, Stefano says. “Real limoncello comes from here, made with the Sorrento lemons.”

As for those Italian grandmas still making limoncello at home, Stefano says he likes the fact they still follow their family tradition. He is especially thrilled when they say Villa Massa reminds them of their family recipe.

“That means we’re doing it right,” he says.

Villa Massa Limoncello is imported by  W. J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd.

Stefano Massa, CEO of Villa Massa, is poised to make sure the U.S. market understands the difference between Villa Massa and limoncellos made outside of Sorrento, Italy. 

Tourism Strategy

Villa Massa does more than just promote its brand. It promotes Sorrento.

In 2003, Villa Massa created the Villa Massa Award, inviting trade and journalists, to celebrate the accomplishments of chefs who pay tribute to food and wine. Every year, the award kicks off the Gastronomic Days of Sorrento.

“For many years, we were a seasonal tourism destination,” Stefano says. “We have 12 Michelin stars in a 50-kilometer radius.”

In celebration of the area’s renowned cooking, Villa Massa hosted a cook off featuring top chefs from Campania and Sicily. There was no official winner. 

Villa Massa’s efforts to sell Sorrento have not gone unnoticed. During this past Christmas season, the only image getting more exposure than Santa Claus in shop windows was Villa Massa posters encouraging tourists and locals to enjoy Gastronomic Days through December 20. Thousands of locals purchased tickets to see the Villa Massa Award recipients, who signed autographs for locals and included chef Bob Waggoner, host of PBS show Ucook!; Carlo Cracco, chef and owner of Michelin two-star Cracco in Milan; and Gianfranco Sorrentino, Naples native and owner of Michelin-starred Il Gattopardo in New York.

The chefs hosted a cookoff against Sicilian and Campanian chefs and showcased new work of an Italian and a Moroccan designer. 

While the exposure for Villa Massa was great, the real reward for Stefano was that during the award ceremony, several hundred regional culinary students watched in awe. “We want to show the students what is possible in the hospitality industry,” Stefano says. “They are our future.”   

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