Desperately seeking gelato

by Janice Nigro

Irrational thoughts take over right before international travel. Of the “leaving your cocoon” sort. The kind that compel you to clean your home thoroughly before you leave. 

Such thoughts were unavoidable as the pandemic surges on around the world before my trip to Italy last month. Weird ideas, like did I get the vaccine or did they inject me with a placebo? What happens if I’m COVID positive?

Or how about, I’ve tasted all the gelato I need to taste in my life.

I wasn’t COVID positive so the airlines allowed me to board my international flight to Europe. And within 24 hours of stepping onto Italian soil, I was in search of my first gelato. 

“In search of” sounds like gelato is hard to find in Italian cities. It isn’t. Even gelato “artigianale” is not a rarity. It’s a word game meaning “we make our gelato here” which any food establishment can do today through the tricks of industrialization. 

I’m no longer fooled by gimmicky tactics. No, I rely on taxi drivers, friends living locally, Google and a couple of observations I’ve made over the years to select my gelaterias.

No gelateria displaying heaping piles of brightly colored gelato. That’s a lot of them. No blue gelato. That’s also a lot of them.

No, I go for the gelateria with a limited selection of flavors in natural colors housed in discreet steel bins lowered into a refrigerated counter at a constant temperature of around -14°C. And when I think about it, the better gelaterias are often located near, but not in the main tourist thoroughfares. 

Google led me to a boutique gelateria in Bologna, Cremeria Santo Stefano. I slipped the gelateria into our first improvised walking tour through the kilometers of porticos away from the main piazza of the city on Via Santo Stefano.

With a map of the city in my hand, we were off. A mistake was to leave the hotel without the street number. But there’s only one Via Santo Stefano and you can walk the entire street in about 10 minutes. I couldn’t miss the gelateria. 

I missed it. 

I turned around at the end of the street, retracing my steps under the terracotta painted portico. Not much was open. Businesses were shuttered, chiuso is the word in Italian, hiding any clues as to what goes on inside them. The next person I came across I asked in Italian, “Do you know the area?”

“Yes?” she replied wondering what I could want from her.

“Do you know Cremeria Santo Stefano?”

Must have been the magic word. She broke into a smile. “It’s just 200 meters down the street,” she said pointing in the direction we had just come from.

She apologized for not speaking English and said, “Lo consiglio.” And there it was, my first lesson of the day in Italian. “I recommend it” she had said using words I knew but in a new context. 

The woman made my day because I was dragging my mother around to find Cremeria Santo Stefano with the promise of finding the best gelato in Bologna. Not that we had any serious plans for the day, other than to indulge our taste buds, until we had the good sense to quit. I rushed us back down Via Santo Stefano, and yet, we ended up at the end of the street again, without the gelato. 

I was over the pain of asking Italians on the street for directions. I even asked a couple of teenagers waiting for a bus, who suggested the obvious solution, “Google it.” Ah, the inconvenience of traveling without the internet at your fingertips. They didn’t have time to complete a search for us. In the end, it was a woman inside a closet-sized textile boutique who got us to the gelateria.

She said in English, either I wasn’t fooling her with my Italian, or she wanted me to find the gelateria, “You have gone too far.” On my map, she pointed to the intersection of Via Santo Stefano with Via Remorsella. “It’s right there.”

Embarrassing how many times we had passed by it once we found it. The gelateria was closed, shutter closed. Not a single sign that it was Cremeria Santo Stefano, except for the street number. 

A disappointment, one worth mentioning to a woman running an art gallery that was open, “Cremeria Santo Stefano was closed!” 

A wrinkle formed in her forehead. “But today is Tuesday, it should be open.” Everyone, except the teenagers, knew the gelateria, which meant I was onto something.

The next day, we arrived soon after Cremeria Santo Stefano opened at noon. The shutter had been raised, like a curtain on a stage, revealing the scene for the daily events taking place in the gelateria. 

The selection of flavors erased my ridiculous thought that I’ve had all the gelato I should have in this life. I added two more flavors to my lifetime checklist of gelatos, pistacchio di Bronte and gianduiotto fondente. My mother wanted only a taste, and then took two. I exited the gelateria with the cold treasures and joined the small crowd outside celebrating the day’s highlight, the best gelato in Bologna.

I tried another gelateria (on another day) on my Google list, Cremeria San Francesco. Cremeria San Francesco had some of the critical attributes; it was a small shop with a limited selection. The shop keeper humored me by speaking only in Italian. Even though no other customers were waiting, she said, “No, no, no, you pay first,” when I began to order. The gelatos were delicious, but they were, if you can imagine it, a bit too sweet.  

In the small city of Modena, home of the late opera star Pavarotti, one of the best restaurants in the world and balsamico aceto, you can also find Gelateria La Romana. It’s a franchise now, developed from a family business established in 1947 in Rimini. I discovered it from a taxi driver who while speeding down a freeway towards Roma city center, took both his hands off the steering wheel to describe the gelato he bought twice a day, first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. “They even drop liquid chocolate into the cone first,” he told me. In that moment, I thought if I survived the taxi ride, I had to try the gelato.

I did a test run during daylight hours so I could lead us directly there after dinner in the dark. Somehow when the sun went down, things looked different. Some locals at a stoplight rescued me. 

“Yes, you are going in the right direction. The name of the street changes once you cross over to the next block.”  

Light radiated from the gelateria, a replica of the shops I knew in Roma, on an otherwise dark street. Gelaterias are open late, sometimes until 1 in the morning. While I’ve never been out for a gelato that late, it was already 22:30 on a Sunday night, and yet, a lot of people were still out breaking the fundamental rule of intermittent fasting.

Even my mother. She’s the barometer for how good the gelato is. She somehow resists the temptation. I’m not sure then the reason for traveling all the way to Italy (well, there is shopping and friends). I took a new flavor, salted caramel with pecans, and some of my La Romana favorites, bacio di dama con mandorle tostate (literally, woman’s kiss with toasted almonds), and cioccolato fondente.

I tried another gelateria in Modena, Gelateria Diecigusti. I chose it because the name means ten flavors, and they claim to use mineral spring water when needed in their gelato.

I chose three flavors, a mistake as they were three of the largest scoops (scoop isn’t the right word) of gelato I think I’ve ever had. I liked it but regretted it later when I followed that up with an apple soufflé at dinner. 

I confessed my day of dessert double dipping to a friend in an email, only 4 days into the trip. “I’m not doing this anymore.” 

She responded, “Save the gelato restrictions until after you get back to the US.” 

So I was right back at it in Verona. This time at the suggestion of my beautiful Italian friend living in the city. “You have to try this place called Zeno Gelato. It looks like nothing. You would not notice it, but it is the best gelato in Verona.” 

I never would have found it on my own. The gelateria, Zeno Gelato e Cioccolato, is painted a subtle color of pink, like a color of gelato, and sits in a humble row of shops along the riverfront across the Adige River, near the Teatro Romano. 

I arrived right at 16:00, opening time for the gelateria. I didn’t have to wait, although COVID restrictions limited two adults in the shop at a time. Only a few rays of the late afternoon fall sun lit the interior decorated with awards for the best gelato in Italy and signs with the name and contents of each gelato recipe available that day. 

A habit now, I automatically asked for three flavors without even having considered the choices. I took two nut flavors, nocciola (hazelnut) and mandorla (almond), and after some deliberation over dark chocolate flavors, I decided on cioccolato agrumi, dark chocolate with bits of sweetened orange peel in a waffle cone. The server stuck a small plastic spoon in the gelato and handed the cold treat over.

A line was already beginning to form outside the gelateria when I left. I took a seat on the steps of a church nearby to savor my gelato. A church is always nearby in Verona. Some kind of perverse intersection in the universe reminding you of your sins, reminding you of how much gelato you have eaten in this life. 

The woman who had come into the gelateria after me joined me on the church steps with her toddler granddaughter. I could have said nothing, but the easiest conversation to have in Italian is one about gelato. So I asked her which flavors she took. 

“Zeno Gelato e Cioccolato is the best gelato in the city,” she said. “I recommend this flavor, sacher cioccolato.” 

And then we began to speak about the shared experience of everyone worldwide, COVID. She was happy to be out after their lockdowns, but was reaching her limit on the regulations. Each day she took her grandchild to school, and each day she had to show her green pass (vaccination status) to pick the child up. “Each day,” she exclaimed in Italian.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Los Angeles.” 

It sparked the memory of her honeymoon, a drive across the USA many years ago. 

“Where did you learn to speak Italian?” she asked after a while.

“In Italian class,” I said, but the real business of learning a language happens out in the wild with Italians willing to suffer through a conversation with a novice. 

I was done fooling myself about gelato by the time we reached Firenze. A mere line of Italians waiting in front of Gelateria della Passera on the south side of the Arno River lured me in. The gelateria is a corner shop with a chalkboard sign out front advertising the flavors available. Those that are done for the day have a white chalk line crossing them out. It was cruel, I think, to see flavors scratched off the list (ricotta with dried figs). I deviated a bit and took a cone with a gelato and a sorbetto this time, one of my favorite unusual combinations, pompelmo (red grapefruit), which had real fruit pieces in it, and fondente. 

I always have to go back to visit Vivoli, a gelateria I discovered in Firenze over a decade ago. I feel though I have to rediscover it every time I go back to the city because it’s hard to find. I’m not sure why I go back, except to prove to myself that I can find it, because the people in there come off as a little grouchy. I suppose when the gelateria is packed with non-Italian speaking tourists, you have the right to be rude. On the other hand, if you’re unhappy working in a gelateria, I have to wonder what does make you happy.

I’m never sorry to dedicate some of the day’s calories to Vivoli, although they don’t serve gelato in cones. However, when I asked how many flavors I could get in the medium sized cup, the server shrugged and waved her hands as if to say, “As many as you want.” 

My trips to Italy always end with a spectacular finish in Roma. Roma, like most big cities is a dynamic place, losing and gaining businesses as trends and the global economy fluctuate. But I can always count on the Roman ruins, the Colosseum, and I hope, the Gelateria La Romana on the other side of the Tevere near the Piazza del Popolo. 

I’d already been to La Romana in Modena, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little anxious about finding a sign with the words “Affittasi (for rent)” in the window of the space where Gelateria La Romana once served up their original gelato recipes. I’d already suffered the disappointment of the permanent closure of one of my favorite chocolate shops in Roma, probably a result of the pandemic.

Gelateria La Romana was still there. And there was no line. 

The prices and sizes offered are listed on a menu posted at eye level in front of the cash register, and the flavors are in huge print high up on the wall behind the counter. Any chance to escape is over. 

I handed over my euros for three flavors in a cone and then watched as the server slowly rotated the cone laying each of the three flavors of gelato onto it. A skill worthy of including in your CV.

I had so far remained healthy as a tourist overseas during a pandemic. European countries have a high rate of vaccination (coupled with natural immunity) and we were outdoors most of the time. The prospect of jumping onto the crowded metro in Roma made me uncomfortable, but we took the risk to meet my distant cousin from Sicily who texted, “I will take you to the best gelateria.” 

A bright orange Venetian glass chandelier hangs over the entrance to Gelarmony, a Sicilian run gelateria located within a formulaic strip mall in the EUR district. Two classic Sicilian ceramic Moor heads sit high up in the corners of the shop, like guides into the nether world of gelato. Such décor reminds me that no matter how hard we try in the USA, we can never capture the ambience of Italian establishments, even in a jewelry box sized space. 

I took the three flavors my cousin recommended, pistacchio di Bronte, cannolo, and cioccolato di Modica. The chocolate was unique.

Modica, a city in Sicily, is famous for chocolate made in a process that goes back to the Aztecs and was brought to the island when it was under Spanish rule. It’s a basic chocolate, made almost entirely of two ingredients, cocoa and sugar. A distinguishing feature is its grittiness, which is in contrast to the melt in your mouth chocolate from the north. It’s due to the centuries old chocolate making process. The temperature never reaches above 45°C. So the crunchiness is a result of the sugar crystals not melting. 

All that gelato is made up of is milk and sugar, and nuts, fruit, or chocolate. Yet somehow it always turns out to be something of an adventure to get it.

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