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South Philly’s ‘wizard of limoncello’ needed a purpose to live, and found it in the Italian spirit | We The People

“I didn’t want this liquor store or to sell limoncello. But I needed a purpose to stay alive.”

Joanie Verratti, owner of Pollyodd liquor store in South Philly, with a few of her products.
Joanie Verratti, owner of Pollyodd liquor store in South Philly, with a few of her products.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Meet Joanie Verratti, former limoncello bootlegger turned pro who owns South Philly limoncello store, Pollyodd.

• Drunk history: “The Italians developed limoncello because they had lemons up the gazoo-zoo."

• Recipe for success: “Wherever I lived if there was an Italian person I’d ask them for their recipe and let them write it in their own handwriting.”

It was before noon on a Monday and Justin Uhl was on a mission — not from God, but from his South Philly grandmother and her friends: secure a bottle of chocolate limoncello. STAT.

“I said, ‘Can’t I just go to the state store?' but my gram said ‘No! It’s got be Pollyodd’s!’" Uhl, 36, said as he walked out of the Passyunk Avenue shop with two bottles of chocolatecello in hand.

The customers run the gamut at Pollyodd — where the only thing for sale is Joanie Verratti’s 10 varieties of limoncello — but it’s the South Philly Italian ladies who don’t mess around when it comes to their favorite sauce. And we’re not talking about red gravy.

“They don’t take no sh —. They’re the frisky ones,” Verratti, 66, said. “These are nightcaps for them. Instead of taking medication, they take this and they’re out.”

In December, Verratti, who calls herself “the wizard of limoncello,” marked seven years at her limoncello shop — an enterprise she never wanted, but one that saved her life, nonetheless.

“I didn’t want this liquor store or to sell limoncello,” she said. “But I needed a purpose to stay alive.”

Verratti grew up one of eight kids in a South Philly Italian family, which is well-evidenced by her accent, her warmth, and the wildly unpredictable changes in the volume of her voice.

All Verratti ever dreamed of was getting married and raising a family. And for a while, she realized that dream.

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But her marriage ended in divorce and in 1997, her only child — Thomas Joseph Verratti III — died at 19. Verratti won’t talk about it. She can’t. Those dark days are still fresh and excruciating, decades later.

“When I lost him I actually couldn’t function,” she said. “I was a recluse for two years."

During year three, she clawed her way back by holding a fund-raiser dinner in her son’s name. Next, she created ready-to-make Italian dinner baskets using the pots, pans, and colanders she’d bought for her son whenever he left the nest.

Then came Easter baskets, Mother’s Day baskets, and golf baskets, earning her the nickname “The Basket Lady.” From there, she kept busy by making and selling cookies using old Italian recipes from folks in her neighborhood.

“I’m a hustler,” she said.

While making the cookies, Verratti stumbled upon an old Italian recipe for limoncello — an after-dinner liquor — so she started making that, too.

She fiddled and tweaked the recipe, each time trying it out on the ladies at the hairdresser’s shop on the corner, or on her girlfriends as they sat on the stoop.

“They’d drink it and spit out of their mouth," Verratti said of the stoop taste testers. “They’d say ‘Jesus Christ! This tastes like sh —! It’s burning the hell out of me!'"

It was only when Verratti’s partner in love (and later, in business), Tom Cavaliere, saw she was boiling the pure grain alcohol on the stove that she discovered the problem.

“I’ve never seen him move that fast in his whole life,” she said. “I could have exploded the freaking house!"

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Once Verratti realized her mistake, she began perfecting her recipe for “the American palette,” by making her 'cellos — as she calls them — sweeter and with less alcohol than their European cousins (though she promises it will still do the trick). She even uses the Americanized spelling — lemoncello — for her bottles.

The couple called their drink Pollyodd because it was a term Cavaliere’s dad used to mean whacked, or drunk.

After five years of bootlegging in her home, Verratti and Cavaliere opened a distillery in Point Breeze in 2008. They still peel, squeeze, and fill everything by hand, even though their hands hurt more and more these days.

Verratti makes 10 flavors, including traditional water-based and decadent cream-based 'cellos (“My creams are a damn dessert!”). Lemon, chocolate, and banana flavors are most popular, but to Verratti, “they’re all my babies.”

She’s even created a book of 'cello cocktails based on the people and places of South Philly, including The Dickinson Street and The Charlie Rucci, named after a local butcher who loved his bourbon.

The Pollyodd shop opened in December 2012, shortly after Pennsylvania authorized a new limited distillery license. While the PLCB could not confirm or deny Verratti’s claim that she was the first non-PLCB liquor store in the state, there were only seven such licenses granted in 2012. Today, there are 137.

Inside Verratti’s store hangs a painting of her son she commissioned after his death because, in a way, this is his store now, too.

“When I’m in this store, I have no pain," Verratti said. “When I’m here I’m the most happiest because this is all for him."

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