Somehow, nearly always my first meal when I visit Italy is gelato. The post-arrival stroll designed to lift the fog of jet lag inevitably passes one, two, three gelato spots, and for a while I'm resistant, just too glad to be back and too curious about what's around the next corner. But then I lag, still doggedly hoofing it along, but thinking about where to go, where to go...and I end up with three scoops of gelato and a broad smile.
Gelato is everywhere, and don't think it's just a tourist thing - although there is definitely some that is made more for the, uh, unsuspecting. The quick giveaway is visible from the front door: Garish colors. Real flavors of gelato don't seem to glow in the dark. A ripe banana is not bright yellow - it's more of a cream color. No berry in existence gives an electric blue juice. And Sarah, the food tour guide of whom I wrote last week, says that billowing piles of gelato are another giveaway that this is the industrial stuff. The immense dollops looking like so much Marshmallow Fluff are, I admit, appealing, especially to an American eye accustomed to the more-is-better school. But the really good stuff is pretty subdued in color and seldom stays around long enough for the casual observer to notice mounds of it towering above the individual metal containers in the glass cases.
Gelato is not ice cream. It's lower in fat, and there is much less air beaten into the mixture than in ice creams. (Interesting side observation: Try lifting two or three different brands of ice cream that have the same size marked on them. Some will be heavier - usually the premium brands - because they have less air. This could lead to a discussion of the confusion between ounces of weight and ounces of volume, but that's for another time.) It's also softer than ice cream, as you will find with your first lick. And in Italy, it's quite acceptable to eat it as you walk. In fact, some gelaterias don't have seating room except for tables outside. There are gelateria chains; in Rome, Blue is ubiquitous and shudderingly garish. Online reviews range from "avoid at all costs" to "the best gelato in the world" - and that's just Google's first page. Not realizing it was a chain, I walked in to one, inspected the case (a common practice) and left post-haste.
But the good stuff? Ah, yes. On a side street between the Via del Corso and the Pantheon, I came across Giolitti at via degli Uffici del Vicario 40. I hear stories about lines at this place, but it's far enough from the Pantheon that it doesn't get the mobs constantly. The cone, or cono, in the picture holds blood orange, chocolate nougat and coconut. My first meal in Rome. No sidewalk tables, the street is too narrow, but indoor ones in an adjoining room.
San Crispino, near the Trevi Fountain, is Serious Gelato. But it''s far enough away that the mobs that clog the street around the surprisingly small fountain seldom make it there. Still, it's usually busy enough on its own. Two brothers make it using only seasonal ingredients and they're so serious that they don't sell cones, saying it interferes with the flavor. There's a chalkboard with a list of flavor combinations they suggest, which I ignored; if I'd had a second visit, I would have tried that. I had red currant, wonderfully tart, and caramel with bits of crunchy meringue throughout, absolutely dazzling. The muted colors of the long, narrow interior mirror the gelato colors. No seating. It's a couple of blocks east of the fountain, at via della Panetteria 42. Gelaterias don't give you spoons, but rather small plastic spades with which to eat, sort of a contemporary version of the cocktail sticks of yore. This is, I found after I got home, the gelato discussed in "Eat, Pray, Love".
Another Giolitti, not affiliated but run by a separate branch of the family, which is now in its fifth generation of making gelato, is in Testaccio at via Amerigo Vespucci 35. They offer whipped cream, panna, to top the gelato, and it comes out of a mixer that must date back to the 1930's. This is in-season gelato - they're open all year, but melon, for instance, is only made in summer, and apple in the autumn. Happily, chocolate is constantly available and so are many of the nut flavors. That's the mixer Just by the gentleman's elbow:
And not quite gelato but close is granita di cafe, coffee frozen and stirred intermittently as it's frozen to form large crystals and topped with softly whipped cream. Just off the piazza facing the Pantheon at via degli Orfani 84 (the sign says La Casa Del Caffe) is Tazza D'Oro Coffee, a coffee roaster and cafe. The espresso is excellent, but it's the granita di caffe that makes folks swoon. Pay at the register at the left and take your ticket to the hard-working guys at the bar. Tazza D'Oro smells wonderful, of course, and you can also buy beans and such. This is, by the way, the only place I found seriously pushy tourists, including three Asian women who stared at their granita di caffes for a while, reached over behind the bar when the baristas were busy elsewhere, grabbed a large container with tableware in it, and pushed off as much of the cream as they could into the container.
There are tables and chairs on the side street; otherwise, be like a real Italian and take it standing up. A don't-miss spot, and close enough to take your granita and sit on the steps of the fountain in front of the Pantheon.