Written by Christine Galanti
In my first semester of college, I took a psychology course taught by a professor with a round face and gentle demeanor who came from a Sicilian family. His lectures in class, on warm days in particular, were known to meander from textbook topics to threads of nostalgia reaching back to his boyhood summers spent with relatives in the old country.
He seemed to forget we were there—or maybe he that he was there—and the class was transported into his daydreams about the heat of the sun in the afternoon or his uncle who had a vineyard and the quality of the soil. We loved to encourage him when he waxed poetic because the more he reminisced, the less course material he taught, and the fewer quizzes we could take. Kids as young as nine or ten, he recalled, thirsty after a game of soccer, were permitted to drink beer and could be served a small glass in public (but would likely be refused a second).
Inevitably, his remembrances and our discussion turned to lemons. Not like the hard yellow rocks we have here, the lemons in Sicily grew plump and juicy, some the size of softballs and heavy with liquid sunshine. In the years to follow, I learned that limoncello, pasta al limone, and frozen granita are a few of the many forms of lemon worship practiced in southern Italy. I don’t remember much from the psychology lessons we studied in class, but I did learn never to miss the opportunity to savor Sicilian lemons.
The subject of citrus came up recently in conversation over lemon-kissed beef carpaccio at PT with my friend, a French Culinary Institute alum who lived in Italy while growing up. She remembered certain lemons on the Amalfi coast with thin, edible skins (like kumquats) that could be eaten like an apple.
Passing the Grom gelato stand just outside of Central Park, I spotted Sicilian limone granita on the menu. The texture was light and velvety, and flavor was just right—more tart than sweet. Grom‘s lemon granita is made from the juice of the Femminello siracusano, a fruit from Siracusa with flesh low in acidity and peel high in aromatic essential oils, gently squeezed to avoid the bitterness of the pith.
Hoping to discover a mother lode of prime Sicilian lemons, I visited Grom’s storefront. It turns out that the fruity base of the granita mixture is processed in Italy and then shipped overseas, with the final product produced here in the New York kitchen. Disappointingly, there are no actual lemons in the shop, but the flavor is still like an instant vacation.
While you likely won’t be able to find Sicilian lemons at your regular old big box grocery store, any of the Italian lemon varieties will grow in citrus-friendly regions of the U.S. like California and Florida. If you know someone with a tree, it’s time to start making better friends with them, or substitute the more prevalent Eureka or Meyer lemons for your own at-home granita.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Granita is nothing more than a slimmed-down simple syrup (a 2:1 ratio of water to sugar instead of the usual 1:1 ratio) flavored with fresh fruit juice. Adjust the amount of sugar or lemon based on your preference toward sweet or tart, but for the freshest lemon flavor, don’t skip the food processor step: it brings out even more of the essential oils in the lemon zest.
Prep time:10 minutes
Total time:3 hours
Makes 4 servings
- 1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz.) granulated sugar
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 4 lemons)
Whir the sugar and lemon zest together in a food processor for about 20 seconds until the sugar is moist and fragrant.
Transfer the lemon sugar to a small saucepan and add 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely.
Remove the lemon syrup from the heat and cool to room temperature. Add the lemon juice and transfer to a freezer-safe pan.
Freeze for 2-3 hours, scraping and stirring with a fork every half hour or so to give the granita a flaky but smooth consistency. Scoop and serve.
Christine Galanti is a kangaroo-cooking, five-dollar-Polish-dinner-hunting, baby-octopus loving freelance writer in New York.