Quench a thirst with limonata

For bicyclists emerging from an hour-long trek through the hilly farm country that extends from Snowball Cemetery in Pennsylvania's far-western Westmoreland County, coming upon the field of pavilion tents at the edge of the town of Ligonier one recent Saturday had the palliative effect of entering an oasis.

The tents shade the 90 vendors of the Ligonier Country Market - half of them farmers or food-makers (the others crafters) - who arrive from Johnstown (Sorella Sorella), Punxsutawney (Nature's Comeback Ranch, which was selling sweet-tangy barbecued bison), and Pittsburgh (well-seasoned, spit-cooked Greek gyros), an hour or so away.

Pretty pink limonata, as served at Chick's Cafe & Wine Bar in South Philadelphia. A lemonade, Sicilian style.

There was a fine, honey-sweetened smoked salmon to sample. And a new crop of long-neck garlic, and string beans, and first-of-season local tomatoes. And a surprisingly perfectly puffed-up beignet, right out of the hot fat, dusted with powdered sugar, a far cry from that doughy country cousin, the funnel cake.

There was a sweet-peppery mustard, too, made with local banana peppers, being sold by Backyard Gardens from nearby Ohiopyle, Pa.

But the showstopper - given that powerful thirsts had arisen - was Sorella Sorella's tent, where, one by one, tall cups of a Sicilian-style limonata were being freshly assembled.

Limonata is, well, basically lemonade, but with a twist: Instead of sugar, it's sweetened with fruit syrup - in this case strawberry. (Bottled Monin and Torani brands are the most common.) And instead of the same ol' still water, it's livened up with chilled seltzer.

So you get more of a lemon soda. (San Pellegrino offers a commercial limonata made from Sicilian lemons, but it is more intensely bittersweet than the fresh stuff.)

Not to knock lemonade; lemonade has been very, very good to me. But the kick of fizzy seltzer water gives the limonata a fresh, clean, quenching edge. And frankly, it's easier to assemble: The fruit syrup dissolves on contact. On one of those oppressive evenings a few weeks ago, I poured some syrup in the bottom of a tall glass, squeezed a single lemon, topped the glass off with seltzer and ice, and downed the thing in a few hungry gulps.

The flavor of lemon, I've read in reports from New York's latest Fancy Food Show, is "hot" this year, accenting all manner of imported cookies and confections. But of course, it has been hot forever in Sicily, the wellspring of the lemon water ice that blessedly began flowing into South Philadelphia about a century ago.

In fact, you can still find Italian oldtimers in the city who call water ice - whatever the flavor - by its original, Americanized name, "lemonade." (And you can find a neat example of cocktail cross-fertilization at the bar of the upscale Saloon, on Seventh near Fitzwater: The cold heart of its Limoncello Vodka Martini is a dollop of lemon ice from John's Water Ice, around the corner at Seventh and Christian.)

Not that the dining rooms of Northern Liberties are without their contenders: At Sovalo, the pitch-perfect spot on Second near Fairmount Avenue, I started another wonderful meal the other night with a "limone" - a flute of bubbly prosecco given a knife edge with muddled mint and lemon slices.

It had that taste, again, of coming upon an oasis.

Ligonier-style Limonata

Makes one serving

1. Into a tall, pint-sized glass, pour about a half-inch (or to taste) of strawberry syrup.

2. Add the juice of one lemon, seeds strained out.

3. Fill about two-thirds of the way up with chilled seltzer or fizzy mineral water.

4. Top off with generous scoops of ice, and lightly stir.

5. Garnish with a slice of lemon.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. To view Rick's columns as well as related videos, go to http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.