Rome is a hot city. And if I might add without annoying my Roman friends also not the coolest. Luckily for the Romans their ancestors were very clever in adopting and developing the great invention of ice cream, so if you get to the city in the right season - and every season is the right season for ice cream - you're definitely going to enjoy the most fun invention ever invented for cooling down. And that is, ladies and gentlemen, almost scientific!
Another semi-scientific fact will be that gelaterias, not like restaurants that have a price range, different sets of rules and dress codes, are the Italian melting pot. Even if the temperatures rise much higher over the 30° (Celsius, about 90° Fahrenheit, the common temperatures in Rome during summer), you will find next to the always-wrongly-dressed tourists sharp suited businessmen and common people who have common sense and remembered they didn't eat ice cream for some days. Sometimes also a couple of police officers that parked their car outside in double parking will enter wiping their sweat off their foreheads, and a couple of minutes later will get outside with a huge cone topped with whipped cream and a wafer, because there's no better way of staying sane in this heat.
Now, almost everyone knows already how to avoid tourist restaurants traps: menus in 8 languages? You can actually see on the menu photos of the dishes? Does the restaurant's name is brought you by an international beverage company? Beware! When entering to a Roman gelateria there are clear signs you can check in order not to fall into those traps, and it's even easier since it's all out in the open:
Does the place offer more than 20 flavors? There's no way it's "handmade", no matter how many signs are there to tell you that.
The gelato - or at least how it's presented - is filling the gastronome way over the edge? It's definitely not a gelato which has a lower to almost none air percentage which makes it more dense.
Are the colors bright or even shiny? Remember that what doesn’t look natural won't taste natural and naturally is unnatural.
After you found a true gelateria (in a while some good ones will be named) how will you blend in? Well, pay the cashier and pick the desired size of a cup (coppetta) or cone (cono), which was actually invented in the US more than hundred years ago. It's true that the patent was registered by the Italian immigrant Italo Marchiony, but the more interesting story belongs to the Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi who operated a Zalabiya, the far-eastern-middle-eastern fried and sugar syrup coated treat, stand at the 1904 International Fair of St. Louis. When he had seen his neighbors' ice cream stand trouble of not having glasses for the ice cream, he thought about rolling the Zalabiya (photo by Soumyadeep Paul) to a cone shape and created a whole new market of ice cream accessories. Being such a good story cannot leave Hamwi without contenders, therefore more immigrants from Syria and Turkey are competing for the cup of inventing the cone (not like how it appears on this website there are photos of Hamwi on other websites - so you can just guess the interests behind).
Whether you chose a cone or a cup try to impose as locals and get the ultimate Roman combo that is still a mystery to me - coconut-pistachio. At least someone around you will pick it, and probably more than on. Strange people…
One more thing: when you walk around Rome you'll see people eating. What you won't see are people eating while walking. The Bulgarian artist Yanko Tsvetkov dismantled Europe in many forms - even before the Brexit, and my favorite is the 'Eating while sitting Europe' and 'Eating while walking Europe. It's a rough cut but one that has a core of truth - Romans will try hard not to be in a hurry, a kind of a weird concept, and if the gelateria doesn't have places to sit they won't walk around with the gelato but will lick it calmly at the place itself. Try for yourself, you might like it.
No need to run
What else besides advices? Here are some excellent Roman gelaterias:
One of the acclaimed chocolatiers in Israel once told me that when he's being asked "What is the best chocolate?" he answers honestly: "The best chocolate is the one that you like". Being a different kind of a chocolatier, the type who likes very much to eat it, I came to the conclusion that the gelateria's quality is measured by its bittersweet chocolate quality. For sure you can flirt around with seasonal fruit flavors or yoghurt combinations or sorbets (if you must), but it all comes to the bittersweet, hence - cioccolato fondente.
During the day San Lorenzo neighborhood which is located next to La Sapienza University is an ordinary residential and commercial neighborhood which tourists use to skip, but at night - especially during the summer - it becomes a hip zone with dozens of places to eat, drink and listen to music. And these are only the piazzas. On one of the neighborhood's main streets resides Stragelato ('Beyond frozen') that serves, as far as I can tell - the best cioccolato fondente gelato in Rome, and trust me - I try it everywhere. Everywhere.
According to the owner Gianni Tirabassi who's a fan of Lazio football team - not so simple in a zone which leans on the left side of politics - he uses Peruvian chocolate beans from the Cusco region and the gelato is of at least 70% cocoa contains. For me it feels like 85% and even 88%. The chocolate has a thick and deep flavor which will draw you down, layer after layer, like sinking in a heavy leather armchair in an English mansion's library. Even if you sit on a plastic chair on the sidewalk outside of a gelateria in Rome.
It's a known fact that you must avoid ordering only one flavor since it's a waste with all the great flavors around, so also the fruity flavors of Stragelato won't disappoint you, so for me the best companion to the chocolate is the banana, grey-ish as to prove that it's natural and packed with condensed bananity flavor. My guests along the years recommend also on the Sicilian pistachio as one of the best. I'll take their word for it.
Before or after take a sneak peak at the alley right next Stragelato where you can find since 1923 Rome's oldest chocolate factory - S.A.I.D (an abbreviation for 'A sweets' factory'). Inside you will find a chocolate shop, a café with great desserts of course and also a 'ordinary' restaurants, for the fans of beef tartar and chocolate shavings or polenta with crushed cocoa.
Maria Agnese Spagnuolo found interest in gelato since she was a child, not only in eating it but also in the preparation process. Only after she turned 30 and after her acting career got stuck she made her dream come true and opened the first branch of Fatamorgana that has today 6 branches around Rome. A year before that Spagnuolo was diagnosed with a celiac disease, a diagnose that urged her to create all natural gelato. And she made it! All of Fatamorgana's flavors, the classic and the crazier ones, are gluten free, and such are also the place's wafers. Here you could find also sugar free flavors and sorbets for the lactose intolerant.
Chocolate, remember? When getting to Fatamorgana look for the "Kentucky" flavor - chocolate and tobacco. This is not a mistake. A very good bittersweet chocolate in the scent and flavor of tobacco. I'm not a smoker so I cannot compare it to the real thing, but I can say that the tobacco gives the chocolate intriguing depth and weight, and maybe can be a part of a nicotine cessation process. As a chaser you can choose a lighter flavor as Gorgonzola-pears, 'Snow White' (goes without saying for Spagnuolo's nickname - 'The gelato fairy') - Tahitian vanilla and apples, or 'Thought' ('Pensiero') - red grapefruit, lemon zest, fresh ginger and wasabi. Any choice whatsoever will make you open your eyes wide and you'll think 'I don't know how she does it but she just shouldn't stop doing it!'.
I'm trying to quit, I'm down to two cups a week
Punto Gelato ('Ice cream point') is a different place, since… pay attention! My recommendation for it is not the chocolate! Günther Rohregger comes from Caldaro sulla Strada del Vino, a small village with a big name near Bolzano, at the far north of Italy, and is very proud of his origins. I completely understand its pride and choose always the mountain pine (pino mugo) gelato which should remind, according to Rohregger, the snowy Dolomites. The flavor is very unique (and they will always offer you to taste it before since it's so unique), but right after you'll be thrown back to the last time you wandered through a woodland of pines, a fresh and little sticky scent fills your nostrils. Maybe it was in your childhood, maybe in the Dolomites.
For the complete South Tyrolean experience Rohregger recommend to combine the pines with his version of apple-cinnamon cake or the Grand Marnier chocolate, a little peculiar choice as it's so far from the North Italians pines, geographically and conceptually. Instead of that you can choose the stingy pineapple and peperoncino or the strawberry sorbet. Don't hesitate to take also more neutral chocolate; the ingredients which are used here are the best of the best. Punto Gelato has two branches in the city center so don't miss the opportunity.
Dolomites' pines and Venezuelan chocolate
A monster, but the tasty kind. La Romana chain that celebrates this year 70 since its first branch in the center of Rimini counts already 40 branches around Europe. Although its little off-center locations you'll meet inside many tourists, and enjoy more a creamy textured gelato that will absorb in your tongue and palate.
There are no crazy stuff here like pines or Snow Whites but more classic flavors like Zabaione 'like back then', as the brothers Ivano and Massimiliano Zucchi remember the beginning at grandfather Vito's place in Rimini, or 'Crema of 1947' with lemony hints. Two points worth of mention:
If you choose to have your gelato in a cone you'll be asked to pick the inner coating of bittersweet or white chocolate which are running constantly from the faucets - nothing you've never seen before but not an ordinary sight in Rome.
Usually I prefer my gelato without supplements, but La Romana offers you to cover your serving with some excellent whipped creams: 'mountain classic', chocolate and espresso. The latter is just fantastic.
I try hard not to speak bad at places but prefer to ignore those I like less, and yet two personal warnings - and everyone can do whatever they wishes:
Giolitti family operates its gelateria since 1900 in the same place right next to the Italian parliament. Being the oldest gelateria in Rome it appears in all the tourist guides urging to try it. So I did. I have nothing special to write about Giolitti and especially about its bittersweet chocolate flavor. As you've already guessed from my other posts, I usually have something to say about places.
Remember the warning signs from the beginning of the post? Gelateria della Palma is located at one minute walking distance from the Pantheon and 30 seconds walking distance from Giolitti and is very proud of producing more than 150 flavors a day. Please, Rome offers much more for much less than that.
A quick jump to winter: if by any chance you get to Rome during the cold season you won't have a problem finding one of branches of Grom which has dozens around the world and was sold on 2015 to Unilever company for a couple of tenth of millions of Euros. Here you can get a good dense hot chocolate which will make you calmer and warmer. What about the ice creams? You know what, let's continue.
Back to the summer and the difference between north and south. As in the cold European north frying is carried using butter and fat, in the hot Mediterranean south people use olive oil for the same purpose. A similar distinction is found in the cups: in the north there will be creamy and heavy gelato while in the south the base will be icier, very well according to the Muslim conquer of Sicily at the end of the first millennium. This would be the sorbet or sherbet which is derived from the Arabic root sha-ri-ba which means 'drinking'.
Until the 16th century the method of cooling down was pouring fruit juices and syrups over crushed ice and snow that were picked from mountain Etna, but in a brilliant process (or was it a total mistake?) sea water was added to the snow and dropped its freezing temperature. One of the results was the possibility to use this super-snow as a cover for the Pozzetto, a device which is used to crush ice and mix it smoothly with the fruit juice, creating a homogenous grained mix - the granita. The best granita is said to come from Catania from the east side of Sicily, but the bar Mizzica!, that means something like 'Damn!' in the southern dialect is a true representative at the area of Piazza Bologna. Not on the tourist path but worth the ride.
Well informed locals considers the granita of Mizzica! - Which offers also a full Sicilian menu, sweet and sour - as the best and most authentic around Rome. you can pick one of the classic flavors: lemon, almonds or pistachio (pistachio again!) from the Bronte region, or go with Mezza con Panna ('A half with whipped cream'). You will get a plastic cup stuffed with a smooth but dense espresso granita, I assume there are at least three servings of coffee, soft whipped cream and… a round sweet brioche. The thick texture doesn't allow drinking the granita with a straw, so the spoon you'll get is necessary to get some of it and the cream on the brioche and stuff it all together inside the mouth. A bread with sweet ice and cream? That should work…
A bread with cream
The Roman version of granita is much simpler. The literal meaning of Grattachecca is 'grated ice' and specifically the ice block that used as the ancestor of the refrigerator. The tasty meaning is crushed ice - the purists will carve it by hand from a big block, but most of places will use a special machine to keep the homogenous texture - in a cup and syrup which will be poured on top together with some surprises.
Alla fonte d'Oro ('At the golden fountain') is the oldest grattachecca stand in Rome which was built on 1913 by Giovanni Crescenzi on the way to Trastevere neighborhood. The Crescenzis still operate the stand which is closed during the autumn and winter - there's a lot of ice around anyway - and my favorite flavor is watermelon (I challenge you to find something to beat that!). In the cup you'll be surprised with sweet Amarena cherries of Fabbri and pieces of fresh coconut. Absolutely brilliant.
Across the street and right in front of the island on the Tiber you'll find the stand of Sora Mirella ('Sister Mirella') which was established two years after Alla Fonte d'Oro, and for more than 50 years was managed by Mirella Mancini, the daughter of the carpenter and partisan Enrico Mancini. The stand keeps on working also after Mirella's death on 2013 and his specialty is lemon and coconut.
Not so far from there around the Vatican there's the stand of another sister, much younger. Sora Maria was established on 1933 and today it's operated by Gabriella Sciarrone, the daughter of Maria who died many years ago, and the younger family members. In 2011 the stand was involved undeliberately in a mini scandal when in a general knowledge test candidates for medicine studies at La Sapienza University were asked what are the ingredients of the place's specialty, yet none of the questions were right… So what is the actual recipe of La Golosina? Sweet Amarena cherries, Tamarind and orange syrup, pieces of fresh lemon and coconut and a handful of berries. Now you can also pass the test.
Ice ice baby
There are many ways to fight with such a scorching heat as the one of Roman summers, but even after they will set up air conditioning in all public places and public transportation - and maybe even turn it on - I don't think there's a better way than gelato and cream, granita or crushed ice and fruit.