Standing before the counter, I meant to order a double scoop of stracciatella for one simple reason – after a week in Italy, the chocolate-flecked gelato remained the only flavor I could pronounce correctly.
The first time I bought gelato, I waited in line behind a panther of a woman, distinctly Italian among the throng of tourists. She radiated confidence in a black leather jacket and sky-high stilettos, balancing effortlessly atop the uneven Roman cobblestone. “Una paletta di stracciatella, per favore,” she trilled, the double C crackling like almond brittle between her teeth, the final syllable sung out rather than spoken, a ringing “LA.”
When the line shuffled forward, my plan to smile and point suddenly lost all appeal, and I blurted out, “Stracciatella!” As parrot-like as the word sounded in my American accent, it seemed less embarassing than blindly butchering anything else.
The gelato culture here isn’t anything like eating ice cream in the states. No matter where you are in Rome, you can probably spot a couple gelaterias from where you’re standing – across the street, inside the bakeries, even next door to one another. Gelato is denser and creamier than ice cream, with fresh flavors and prices cheaper than water.
I ate gelato twice a day while I was in Italy, for dessert and sometimes for dinner. Some shops packed scoops into chocolate-dipped cones, other topped the cup with a thin waffle cookie called a pizelle, and one store smothered the gelato with unsweetened whipped cream. Pretty soon, before lunch and after dinner, my order became a habit, the only flavor I could say with confidence: “Stracciatella.”
I stumbled upon a little gelateria one afternoon in Venice. More of a street-side counter than a shop, tucked in the south end of Campo Santa Margherita, the place didn’t advertise its fame as Venice’s best gelato with banners or framed awards. But the long line of people, all craning over each other’s shoulders to peek at the display case, wordlessly gave me the message.
Unlike some of the shops I’d visited, with counters that wrapped around the room, this place offered fewer than a dozen bins of gelato. But I was struck by the simplicity and intensity of the flavors offered, the effortless swirl of the gelato. Even though I couldn’t understand most of the Italian labels, garnishes translated for me – halved figs sparkling atop the fico, tan-edged wisps of coconut dotting the coco, a scattering of skinned hazelnuts over the nocciola.
I was tempted by the amarena, a cream based gelato swirled with sour cherry sauce, the fruit mixed in whole. In the next bin I discovered pistacchio, a flavor I’d seen almost everywhere. But the natural color, paler than the artificial neon green I sometimes saw, made this one stand out. And of course, there was my go-to stracciatella: white and perfectly smooth, aside from the streaks of rippled chocolate marbling throughout.
Before I could order the stracciatella, I discovered a wholly new flavor. Nearly black, this concoction churned dark chocolate into the creamiest-looking gelato I’d ever seen. In the afternoon sun, bits of candied orange peel studding the chocolate caught the light like jewels.
I found the label and immediately got lost in a string of C’s and vowels, still too proud to silently point. In the past few weeks I’d visited Scotland and England in the UK, English-speaking cities in the Netherlands, and Paris, which revived my high school French. But here in Italy, with no understanding of the language, I felt so invasive, so touristy, unable to blend in.
When I looked up, the man at the counter was smiling.
“Cioccolato all-arancia,” he said, the consonants soft in his deep voice.
“Cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-ah-RAHN-cha,” I repeated.
He worked a bit of gelato back and forth a few times with a flat paddle until it was soft and creamy, and topped a waffle cone with a generous smear. This gelato had the texture of silk, an elusive airiness. The chocolate melted into a bittersweet custard on my tongue, the candied orange like tiny sunbursts. It was simply the best gelato I’d ever tasted.
When I found myself in line for a scoop the next morning in Florence, I scanned the bins, anticipating the flavor I’d choose next. Gianduja? Castagna? Something mysterious called zabaione, with no garnish whatsoever?
Maybe I couldn’t speak Italian, but by the time I returned to the Netherlands, I planned to be fluent in gelato.
Click for more photos from my travels in Italy…
A highlight of Venice – getting so lost, I couldn’t find a Venetian mask or postcard stand to save my life. Instead I walked through this beautiful neighborhood of marigold and off-white apartments, with laundry connecting each building like carnival banners.
Top: A merry-go-round lit up in Florence and the view from a Venetian bridge;
Bottom: Morning and midnight views of Florentine rooftops from the hostel patio
See you on the other side of Morocco!