Answer: while roaming the streets of Naples & Rome, PLENTY. Avoiding, of course, the brightly-colored, factory-made junk and focusing on small-batch, produzione propria gelato, made from quality ingredients.
Pictured at left, a small cup of pistachio and milk chocolate at Gay-Odin, Naples’ noted chocolate shop. As befitting a chocolate shop, G-O offers almost a dozen chocolate flavor variations, ranging from dark chocolate, chocolate & orange, chocolate-hazelnut (gianduja in Italian), chocolate & chili, white chocolate, chocolate chip, and so on. (Gay-Odin also sells chocolate-hazelnut candies in the shape of Mt. Vesuvius…just my sort of kitschy souvenir.) While in Naples, I tried to visit La Scimmia, another legendary gelateria, but it wasn’t open while I was in the neighborhood.
In Rome, I was torn between traditional flavors (like the aforementioned chocolate and pistachio) and more unusual flavors. The traditional flavors provide a good benchmark: in two bites, a sample of pistachio can reveal a gelato maker’s entire philosophy: how much sugar, whether the nuts were roasted, was a nut paste used in place of freshly ground nuts, and so on.
But so many unusual flavors crowd the cold cases of cutting-edge shops; it would be a shame to ignore the creative bounty of meringues, passionfruit, ginger, rum, dried figs, and bitter orange.
So at gelateria San Crispino (the one on piazza della Maddelena, near the Pantheon), I opted for ginger & cinnamon paired with caramel meringue, which turned out to be stellar. Crispy-tender bits of meringue and shards of crunchy caramel studded a lightly vanilla scented gelato. Some argue that San Crispino’s quality has declined in recent years, but my taste buds don’t detect it. And San Crispino still steadfastly refuses to serve cones, claiming that they detract from the taste of gelato–which is fine by me, as I think of the cone as calories & stomach space wasted on something that’s NOT gelato.
On to another good Roman spot for deep flavors–Gelateria della Teatro. Tucked into an odd corner of piazza San Simone, just off the via Coronari, it’s easy to overlook but worth the trouble to find. Impeccably fresh ingredients are used in all of the flavors, and Teatro offers a wide range of milk-free fruit sorbettos in a small, spare shop. A looped video shown on a wall-mounted flatscreen provides a glimpse at Teatro’s small-batch production methods.
Nut flavors are standouts at Teatro. Pistachio and almond were both generously studded with finely ground nuts, shifting the gelato’s texture from smooth & slippery to substantial. I ordered the smallest size, took a tiny taste of each, and immediately regretted not choosing the larger size cup.
Which meant that I was ready for MORE gelato after a leisurely walk across the historic center of Rome, necessitating a stop at Alberto Pica. This old-fashioned place sells coffee, gelato, tobacco products, and bus tickets from a narrow but deep storefront just off the via Arenula. Proprietor Pica is a past president of the national gelato organization, and his flavors are resolutely traditional: zabaione, zuppa inglese, riso al canelle (rice with cinnamon). His pistachio is my favorite in Rome: tasting of deeply roasted nuts, utterly smooth, and lingering on the palate. (The dark chocolate is equally good.) The service is brusque, the range of flavors can be small, but Pica has been making gelato the old-fashioned way for longer than some of the new-wave producers have been alive.
Just a few blocks from Alberto Pica on via Arenula is gelateria Corona, a branch of gelateria Aracoeli (on piazza Aracoeli, near the Aracoeli church & piazza Venezia). Supplementing the excellent gelato at Corona/Aracoeli are lovely semifreddo desserts served in glasses, chocolate-covered gelato treats in the shape of the Coliseum, and “tramezzini” (sandwiches of sponge cake & gelato). Don’t ask for a sample at either of these gelateria: they don’t give out free tastes. A gruff policy, but the gelato is so good that you don’t need to taste it. Go for a vin santo gelato laced with almond biscotti chunks, or an amaretto gelato bursting with cookie bits. If you’re tired of gelato (how could you be?), opt for the excellent tiramisu. In the heavily touristed pizza Venezia/Campodoglio area, Aracoeli offers a quiet, indoor room with air conditioning (or heat, as was more necessary last week.)
No gelato tour of Rome would be complete without a stop at Giolitti, the grande dame of ice cream parlors. Steps from the Pantheon, Giolitti serves more flavors than just about any other gelateria in Rome. From amaretto to zabaione, with stops in between at ananas (pineapple), Bailey’s Irish Cream, cinnamon, dark chocolate, mandarin, and dozens more, the shop is perpetually jammed and verges on chaos. Pay first, then present your receipt to the counterman, while avoiding herds of children, flocks of nuns, and sharp-elbowed old ladies who think nothing of pushing you aside to get a good look at the flavors inside the 2o foot long glass case. One lick of the light and tangy pineapple sorbetto, filled with bits of fresh fruit, causes the noise and bustle to recede: it’s the essence of the tropics, breaking through the cold winter gloom.
Though I tried to eat as much gelato as humanly possible in 40-degree weather, I didn’t manage to make it to Fatamorgana, Gelateria Tony, or Cremeria Monteforte on this trip….