Salem-Based Fabrizia Spirits and the Search for the Perfect Lemon
It has happened to all of us. Friends or family sample something whipped up in our kitchen or at our bar and say, “Wow. This is terrific. You should sell this stuff.”
We thank them, and do nothing about it.
This happened to Phil Mastroianni, too. But he did do something about it. And now the Salem, N.H.-based company he co-owns with his brother Nick, Fabrizia Spirits, is the leading limoncello producer in the United States.
Fabrizia Spirits has been around since 2008, and though limoncello is its core product, the company has branched out over the years to also offer a blood orange liquor, a creamy limoncello liquor, and a line of canned cocktails that includes Italian margaritas, hard Italian lemonade, and the new Italian Breeze with vodka and berry juices.
If passion for his products counts for anything, Mastroianni’s company should be just fine for years to come. For example, in my decades as a restaurant critic and food writer, I have never had such a long and detailed conversation about lemons … just lemons … only lemons.
But the funny thing is, it was fascinating.
Limoncello (about half the time he pronounces it LEE-mon-cello) is made with a basic recipe that includes just four ingredients: lemon zest, 190-proof alcohol, filtered water and cane sugar. According to Mastroianni, everything is natural, with no artificial colors, ingredients or preservatives.
For years, his lemons came from various sources in the United States and South America. But about five years ago, Mastroianni had an epiphany.
The lemons coming out of Mexico and Chile began showing up with a petroleum-based wax. It was legal and not harmful … but it turned his limoncello brown.
About the same time, he realized that the U.S. makes lemons “like Holiday Inns. No matter where you go in America, a Holiday Inn is a Holiday Inn.” Those standardized citrus fruits weren’t bad. He rates them “8 on a scale of 10.”
But he knew he could do better — he could make “an even more compelling product.” So now, he imports all his lemons from four regions of Italy.
That’s right, he uses only Italian lemons for his limoncello because they deliver “a zestiness, a pepperiness I’ve never tasted anywhere else.”
Mastroianni was on a roll now. “The biggest misconceptions people have about limoncello come in two categories,” he says, “and have nothing to do with each other.”
The first is that limoncello is basically like “rocket fuel” and “indigestable.” Those people, he says, sampled inferior products and have never tasted quality limoncello.
The second? “It’s too sweet … and that’s a fair assessment for some people,” he says. “It is sweet.”
Like countless other companies, Fabrizia got body slammed during the first desperate days of COVID-19. “No one was buying anything, the sky was falling, so we made a decision out of necessity and demand.” The company began making hand sanitizer in mid-March following Food and Drug Administration guidelines and regulations.
“It’s easier than making limoncello,” he says, “and it allowed us to keep our employees and not lose our business.” The hand sanitizer is, of course, lemon scented, and it became insanely popular in short order. Since many hand sanitizers smell like they came from the oil pan of a ’67 Chevy, that was no great surprise.
The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, 7-Eleven, and most major Boston hospitals were among his clients. But Mastroianni also felt “a moral obligation” to donate nearly 14,000 bottles to more than 260 hospitals, health care facilities, and fire and police departments.
The insatiable demand for hand sanitizer “ended overnight” in June, so Mastroianni and his 20 employees are back to making his precious limoncello and related beverages, including the creamy limoncello and canned cocktails.
“Our whole company is based on limoncello,” he says with the certainty of someone who believes it should never be any other way.
Still thirsty? Check out our candid interview with Phil Mastroianni on The 495 in which we discuss hand sanitizer, family and the search for the perfect lemon. Find out more at mvmag.net/podcasts.