Tasting Rome: Gelato, Pasta and the Market
Whenever I go to a foreign city, within a few hours of getting oriented, I invariably find myself mentally preparing my move there. I walk around the streets, admiring all the shops and interesting people speaking beautiful languages, and looking up at the apartments with curving iron railings and linens hanging out to dry I imagine myself being a part of it all and making a new life for myself there.
It happened when I moved to San Francisco, and I remember arriving and thinking that it wasn’t quite as pretty as people said it was. No one told me that South San Francisco, near the airport, wasn’t actually San Francisco. And twenty or so years later, when I moved to Paris, I was in for another shock.
I’m not a particularly good traveler; I like being home. (And I love my pillow.) So perhaps that’s the appeal of moving somewhere and staying put for a few decades. I can really get the feel of what living in whatever city I’d like, and come home and sleep in my own bed every evening.
Italy is a special place and many of us are quite fond of it. And why not? The people are friendly, the food is great, and Italians have an easy-going, sometimes boisterous nature, that I think appeals to Americans. Initially I’m usually reluctant to jump into a local restaurant, especially if I’m alone. But in Italy, if you show the slightest interest in the food, people are very excited to explain more about it. Whenever I’ve made the effort, it seems like they can’t wait to feed you.
You might be presented with a plate of mozzarella, a soft and supple cheese completely unlike the rubbery bricks most of us are used to, when cut with a fork, ooze out a sweet, warm puddle of milk.
I might be walking home at night and pass by my favorite grattachecche stand, on the bank of the Tiber. There, the nice fellow is there late into the evening, juicing lemons for tart, unsweetened glasses of lemonade, the ideal refresher after navigating the hot cobbled streets of Rome all day. It immediately became my end-of-the-day tonic. And on my last night, in addition to getting one last icy-cold lemonade, I got a twenty minute Italian lesson—at no extra charge.
Italy does have its problems, and whenever I say that I want to live there, my friends who do call Italy home raise an eyebrow because the infrastructure perpetually seems to be crumbling like a Roman ruin.
So the fantasy of living in Italy is going to remain just that. But I do promise myself I will visit more often than I do, which I say each time that I leave. I like the casual way the Italians dress and improvise (although it’s not as interesting, say, when you’re trying to do your banking or get something done at city hall, I’m sure.) But the food, and the fresh ingredients, will always bring me back.
One of the things I miss in Paris markets are the vibrant tangle of greens one finds piled up in Italian markets, leafy and slightly bitter, they’re best cooked until completely soft and wilted with plenty of garlic, hot pepper flakes, and olive oil.
I also think it’s interesting how the Italians are adept at dealing with of food intolerances. Just about every gelateria had gluten-free cones (individually wrapped) or had signs in the window noting certain flavors were made with soy or almond milk. Biodegradable cups were the norm, and even the restaurant where I had pasta had asterisks next to the few items on the menu that noted which products used in a few dishes had been frozen.
The owners of Grom told me that all their employees are trained to be sensitive to a variety of food allergies and intolerances. (It’s said that about 30% of Italians can’t eat gluten and I was told that the government gives discount vouchers to people with gluten intolerance to offset to higher cost of gluten-free items.)
During one of my days in Rome, my friend Judy of Divina Cucina came to eat our way across the city. I was particularly excited when she suggested we start the day at the Mercato Trionfale up in Prati, behind the Vatican. Not as well known as the more showy markets in the center of Rome, this is a pretty authentic market, where one can pick up anything from a basket of tiny wild strawberries to still-warm bags bulging with soft, freshly made rounds of mozzarella di buffala.
I had followed along on one of Judy’s market tours in Florence, and was blown away by how much I learned from her about everything piled up at the market. We raced from one stall to the next, bantering with the butchers and adding big shards of Pecorino to her market basket while she providing a running commentary on all the other ingredients lavishly heaped up around us.
Unlike elsewhere, the mentality often seems to be running along the lines of, “Hey, let’s go kill a pig…then wave it under the face of vegetarians!” In Italy, salumi (charcuterie) is simply a fact of life. They celebrate the pig, and enjoy all the wonderful hams and sausages they make from it, but are naturally proud of what they do (and make). It’s just part of their heritage and you don’t see people running around making ice cream with it.
When I cooked with Judy a few year back in Tuscany, I learned three quite valuable things from her, which I think about often when I’m cooking or at the market:
1. Don’t mince garlic, but slice it thinly. That way, when it’s sautéed, it won’t burn instantly.
2. Be like an Italian, and cook vegetables twice. The first time is to ‘cook’ them, then second time is to flavor them. Broccoli or greens often get boiled or steamed, then fried in olive oil and other seasonings. Romans especially seem to cook vegetables a long time, which concentrates flavors.
3. Spend more time shopping, less time cooking. A perfect basket of wild strawberries needs little manipulation. Similarly, get to know your butcher, track down a good cut of meat, and cook it simply. Food will taste better and it’ll be less work, and more enjoyable.
While both of us are big market fans, once we finished, even though it was barely noon, we realized how close we were to Fatamorgana, where I’d had the exceptional Kentucky gelato a few days before, and was definitely addicted to the blend of chocolate and tobacco. We had to go back.
The thing I love about Judy is that we’re both on the same page. As soon as we woke up, over coffee, we brought out our maps and made lists of where we were going during the day. She immediately said that we were starting at the market, and I didn’t argue.
When right after the market, and I said that I needed gelato…did she mind having some before lunch? She looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course we have to. We have to try everything!”
So walked a few blocks to Fatamorgana (via G. Bettolo, 7).
I guess Rome isn’t all the different from Paris, because the one thing you go into a store for, they’re certain to be out of. And when we walked in, of course, an empty space stood where the bin of Kentucky was supposed to be. But since we’re adults, we took it in stride and ordered a few other scoops.
Generous with the tastes, the woman scooping helped us make our decision and we ended up with cups of pear-gorgonzola, pineapple-fresh ginger, and apple, almond and cinnamon sorbetti, as well as another cup with scoops of Greek yogurt-cocoa nib and Dobos; a mixture of spongecake and chocolate gelati. All were good, but we agreed that the pineapple and fresh ginger was truly spectacular.
Judy speaks Italian like an local, having lived in Italy for twenty-six years, and she spent the entire day bantering with waiters and cab drivers, who’d often hug her when we left. (Okay, not the cab drivers. But I think a few wanted to.)
So when we went into the much-lauded Gelateria del Teatro (via di San Simone, 70), which everyone told me had the most amazing gelato ever, we were expecting to be blown away. People I met at my book event, and comments from the previous post, Rome, Again, heralded it as the best in the city.
But when we walked in and Judy began ordering from the fellow behind the counter, who may have been the owner, he said to her, “I don’t understand your Italian accent.”
He didn’t appear to be a native Italian either, but it was odd for someone to say that to her, especially when she was understood pretty well by everyone else that day wherever else we went. I don’t speak very much Italian, but I understood what he was saying and it was a bit off-putting.
So she said, “Do you want me to speak in English?” not to be snide, but so he could understand her better.
If the gelato had been better, perhaps it would’ve made up for it. But we both found the flavors lacking. And the small square of salt-topped chocolate and caramel semifreddo was dry and crumbly, which we were expecting to be creamy and rich. Neither of us touched it after taking our first bites. We both agreed the gelato wasn’t anything special, and I’ll leave it at that, and our favorite part was the quiet little courtyard where one can sit in the shade.
We fared much better at lunch, and scored big-time at Le Mani in Pasta (via de Genovese, 37), which came recommended by the owner of the Almost Corner Bookshop (via del Moro, 45), who’d provided books for my book event and whose shop is in the neighborhood.
It’s hard to get me excited about yet another plate of melon, proscuitto, and mozzarella, since (like salad Caprese with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella), it’s a dish that’s usually done badly and really demands to be made with excellent, fresh ingredients (remember Judy saying, “Spend more time shopping, less time cooking” ?) The version we had here was textbook perfect; the melon sweet and ripe, the proscuitto salty, meaty, and tender at the same time, and the ball of chewy mozzarella tucked under it all went down easily with the bottle of Frascati, a locally made white wine (€8) that the waiter made us order.
After looking into the kitchen where the servers were serving up the pasta out of the skillets handed over to them by the harried, but careful cook (hence the name of the restaurant), we both were convinced into ordering tagiliolini alla gricia, a big pile of long, handmade al dente noodles bathed generously in olive oil, hot chile peppers, and strips of fatty guanciale (cured pigs cheek).
The waiters were incredibly friendly and when I went into the restroom after the meal, fearing I would burst in the dining room, I notices a spray can of shoe polish and a towel next to the sink, which I told Judy about.
When she returned from her visit in there, she said, “David, that’s not shoe polish. That’s stain remover!” And indeed, one thing I learned in Rome is to wear dark clothes, since there’s lots of drips, sprays, and wayward foods lurking wherever you go. I don’t quite know how so many Italians usually dress in such a dapper fashion, but lots of the folks here at lunch were dressed a bit more casually, and I was glad we weren’t wearing our Sunday finest either.
I should probably let you in on a few other good gelato addresses in Rome. On the gelato tour I led, we had a demonstration of gelato-making at Giolitti (via Uffici del Vicaro, 40), undoubtedly the most famous gelato shop in Rome. The shop began as a latteria, selling dairy products, then became a vegetarian restaurant! And a century later, they’re now gearing up for some overseas expansion. But they still make each batch of gelato and sorbetti by hand, and Signor Nazzareno Giolitti himself invited us during our Gelato Tour into their busy kitchen to see how they do it.
This is a batch of white peach sorbet. It was made from halved white peaches, pitted, but not even peeled, which got pureed with sugar then immediately frozen in one of the dishwasher-sized ice cream machines lined up against the wall. In fact, we had two young girls who were under the age of twelve on the tour who were the appointed gelato-makers, and they did every step themselves.
So the next time someone tells me, “I can’t bake” or “Making ice cream is too much work”, I’m going to show them that picture of the bin of sorbet, which took less than thirty minutes to make, including the churning time.
A few other gelaterias in Rome which I like:
Corona (Largo Arenula, 27) which is noted for its biscotti-flavored gelato. They didn’t seem to have any in the small case on my recent visit, but when I managed to get to the front of the small crowd clustered in front of the freezer, I decided to go for simplicity and had a piccolo cone of lemon and pear-pistachio sorbetti. Both were good, but if you go, try some of the more exotic flavors, like açai, mulberry, or carambola.
Il Gelato di San Crispino (via della Panetteria, 42) has been expanding, and gets a bit of flack for their higher prices and service which can be more frosty than their gelato, but you can’t argue with what’s in the cup. (No cones at San Crispino, for hygienic reasons.) Their caramel-meringue gelato will change your life.
Cremaria Monteforte (via della Rotonda, 22). This small, friendly shop just behind the Pantheon is just enough off the tourist path to keep it special. The granita of espresso with a mound of whipped cream is almost as good as the granita di caffè con panna served at the nearby Tazza d’Oro coffee shop. (So it’s a good option when they’re closed.) But the other flavors are excellent, including the chocolate sorbet and almond granita, or the creamy cioccolato fondente.
Ciampini (Piazza Trinita dei Monti) is a favorite of my friend Petulia, and it’s easy to see why. For fans of single-flavor gelato, I don’t know of any better spot in Rome. The flavors never change, which is fine with me. The chocolate gelato is some of the best I’ve ever had. Ciampini is famous for their tartufo; a mound of ice cream dipped in dark chocolate, then refrozen, to resemble a large, knobbly black truffle. Order a cone to go, or sit in the piazza and watch the posh folks of Rome go by as you enjoy your creamy dish of true Roman gelato.
Related Links and Posts
Uova, zucchero et farina: David Lebovitz (In Cucina con Zia Elle, in Italian)
A Booksigning in Rome for David Lebovitz (NYC/Caribbean Regazza)
Rome Gelato (Lonely Planet)
Gelato in Rome (Elizabeth Minchilli)
10 Tourist Mistakes When Visiting Italy (Ms. Adventures in Italy)
Salume Tour (Michael Ruhlman)