The first time I ever had gelato was about 20 years ago when it seemed to be all the rage in the 80’s, that staggeringly over-the-top era of excess, when we all seemed to be fascinated by Studio 54, record-shopping at the Gap (anyone else remember that?), Bianca Jagger, ultra-suede, and Bill Blass-designed Lincoln Continentals.
There was place around the corner from Chez Panisse in Berkeley where I would stop before work. Although it had some fancy Italian name, it was known around town as ‘The Lesbian Gelato Place’.
I don’t know if the women who made the gelato and scooped it up were lesbians, but since it was Berkeley and it was the 1980’s, they may have been a ‘womyn’s-owned collective’, if memory serves me right. It was the time when blending politics (Wendy Yoshimura, the SLA cohort of Patty Hearst, worked at the Juice Bar Collective next door), social change and gastronomy somehow becoming all linked together and made what you were going to have to eat a ‘social statement’, instead of just filling your gut.
Soon there were gelato places all over the place, but that wonderful lesbians gelato bar was a revelation to me.
(Hmmm. I wonder if I will now start getting lots of hits from lesbians looking for good gelato?…)
Anyway, they eventually they closed, as some diet probably became the rage and it perhaps was time to Stop The Insanity making it forbidden to eat delicious gelato or anything except mountains of potatoes. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that lesbians weren’t the only ones who made good gelato. In fact, gelato is the national obsession in Italy, where you’ll find everyone from sleek businessmen to groups of Vespa-driving teenagers (and lesbians) getting their licks in.
Italians just adore gelato and it’s rarely consumed sitting down. It’s gooey and soft, and meant to be licked and slurped while walking down the street, swirling your tongue around it and catching every little chocolate-y drip that begins its inevitable slide down the side of your cono.
Il Gelato di San Crispino (Via della Paneterria 42), has been dubbed the “laboratory” of gelato, since it’s gleaming and spotless. And amazingly efficient…something that you begin to appreciate the more time you spend in Italy. You take a number and they serve you in order. And this one woman happily served everyone, without flinching, in several different languages, keeping the place spotless..and with a big smile.
You can’t get an ice cream cone at Il Gelato di San Crispino, according to Maureen Fant, who’s writes about Rome who I met up with. She explained that a cone is considered unhygienic. Instead you order your gelato by the cup (which I don’t mind, since you don’t waste any when it drips.)
I was told by several Romans to be sure to taste the meringa, which baffled me until I tried it. When I ordered cioccolata along with two meringas of hazelnut and chocolate chips, the cheerful scooper told me I had made a great selection.
And…oh my God, was that good. The gelato of course was excellent, but the meringa was a frozen meringue studded with crispy bits of dark, bitter chocolate, toasted Piedmontese hazelnuts and crackly, sugary meringue. Each little mouthful revealed something new to me…a whole new world of frozen desserts had expanded right in front of me.
My other favorite gelato was at Giolitti, close to the Pantheon. The place was enormous and pandemonium ensued, as tourists tried to figure out the system (or lack of) then fight their way to the front of the counter through the bustling mob of excited Italians (in Italy, it’s common to pay in advance at the cashier before ordering your gelato or espresso at the counter…and in Italy it’s not common to line up in any particular order!)
There were lots of fruit-flavored gelati to choose from; I loved the beautiful colors and there was every flavor you could imagine, from a dark, inky blackberry to a dreamy-pink white peach. Each server, wearing a chic jacket-and-tie, would generously smear your cono with up to three flavors then top each with a blob of panna, or whipped cream.
I saw a few non-Italian women scraping theirs off once outside, into the wastebasket.
Another counter at Giolitti featured a dizzying array of granitas, flavorful, intensely-flavored ices that are ground up into
little crystals and explode in flavor when you eat them. Usually they’re topped with a flourish of panna as well: the contrast between the sweet richness of the cream and the lively flavor of the granita makes this a Roman favorite.
While they all looked delicious, I was still teetering from my granita di caffè from nearby Tazza d’Oro, which perhaps has the best espresso and was my daily stop in Rome.