[ imbibing ]
With checkered-tablecloth trattorias, cheese shops decorated with hanging globes of provolone and stores selling gilded statues of Saint Francis, Passyunk Avenue is a lovely hub of all things Italian-American. The latest ad-dition to this intersection of the old and new worlds is Pollyodd, South Philly natives Joan Verratti and Tom Cavaliere’s newly opened shop for their eponymous limoncello.
Pollyodd hit the shelves of state stores just this past September and the shop has only been open a few weeks, but the story starts seven years ago — and, much like limoncello, it’s bittersweet.
After losing her only son Thomas some 15 years ago, Verratti lost her way in life. She tried baking, making gift baskets and flea marketing, but nothing stuck until she began experimenting with an old Italian recipe for limoncello.
“I needed something,” says Verratti, “and nothing was clicking until I did this.”
With Cavaliere, a former union carpenter and Verratti’s partner in life and business, she experimented with the ratios of sugar, fruit and booze until they found the balance they were looking for. Verratti did the tasting while Cavaliere focused on the mathematical end of things, together perfecting the formula.
They were in the market for something a bit sweeter than traditional Italian limoncello. According to Verratti, “The European people, they like it tart, they like their little sourness — but I like sweet, and so do all the American people.” Cavaliere seconds the sweet sentiment: “Coca-Cola is the number-one product in America. Americans like sweet. That’s why there’s a bakery on every corner in South Philly. In Europe they like it a little bitter, a little brut. But that’s not what we like. Don’t get me wrong, we’re Italian — but we’re American.”
The bottles of ’cellos that came out of Verratti’s home kitchen in flavors like blueberry and strawberry became gifts for friends and communion favors. It didn’t take long for the pair to realize they were onto a good thing. They incorporated in 2008 and Verratti received her distiller’s license in 2009, the first awarded to a woman since Prohibition.
They rented a Point Breeze factory space and slogged their way through the never quick and hardly easy forms and processes of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The PLCB placed its first order in August, landing bottles of Pollyodd ’cellos in 32 liquor stores in the five counties closest to Philadelphia.
And if you’re wondering about the odd-sounding name for Verratti and Cavaliere’s after-dinner drinks, well, it’s a good story.
“Pollyodd” is a transliteration of an Italian term for both a whack in the head and for getting whacked with one too many. As in, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to give you a pollyodd,” or, “Oh, did I get pollyodd last night!”
Although the lemon, lime, orange and chocolate ’cellos are only 44 to 48 proof, considerably lower in alcohol than others on the market, Cavaliere refers to them as “liquid Valium,” and Verratti will have you know that after two or three shots, you’ll get all “nice and flushed.”
Now that duo has jumped through all the necessary legal hoops, they’ve set up their storefront at 1908 E. Passyunk Ave. Verratti’s niece, a native of Costa Rica, is in the process of painting the shop’s walls with big, beautiful murals representing many of the 18 flavors that Pollyodd will have on rotation later in the season, like mango, cantaloupe and peach. Plans are in the works to launch a series of Saturday-afternoon tastings at which customers can sample Pollyodd’s roster of liqueurs with a different flavor highlighted each week.
Beginning in February, they will be sampling the ’cellos straight up as well as shaking them into cocktails like margaritas made with lime-flavored ’cello and an Easter-egg-mixing chocolate-cream ’cello with coconut rum. They’re batting around ideas for boozy limoncello snow cones and vodka-spiked pineapple smoothies in the summer months.
Bottles of Pollyodd retail for $23.99. Con-sidering that Varretti and Cavaliere not only distill their product but hand-pour, -label and -cap each bottle (“Nothing is automated — it’s like we’re stuck in 1870,” says Cavaliere), it’s a bargain to say the least. The bottling and distilling happens early in the day before Varretti runs home to freshen up and man the counter at the shop.
For Varretti, it’s all a labor of love.
And Cavaliere will have you know that they’re “only looking to make a living. We’re not trying to be Jack Daniels.”
Of course, with a second and third round of orders coming in from the PLCB within two days, this mom-and-pop operation is thriving. And while the pair is busy, turning out up to eight or nine cases a day to keep up with demand, Varretti says that “these are fabulous problems to have.”
Inscribed on each bottle is “dalle mia mani al tou coure,” Italian for “from my hands to your heart.” A portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold go to a scholarship fund through Neumann Goretti High School that Varretti established in memory of her son.
What began as a hobby or even a distraction has grown into something truly beautiful, a sweet product that embodies the warm and heartfelt nature of Varretti and Cavaliere, who will surely be on hand to share their story and their lovingly crafted spirits if you stop by Pollyodd.