Gelato Withdrawals

November 16, 2011 at 11:42 am 49 comments

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.

The buildings in Venice are crumbling, but the exposed brick adds even more beauty and character.

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

The loveliest door I’ve ever seen.

Last but not least… I’m so sorry. It had to be done.

See you on the other side of Morocco!

Entry filed under: Frozen Desserts, Travel. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Robbed in Rome Marrakech

49 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sara  |  November 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Wow, looks like an amazing trip! Gorgeous photos. :)

  • 2. Chef Tom Minchella  |  November 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Wonderful post! We recently changed our dessert menu to all gelato from ice cream. The triple chocolate with deep rich cocoa powder, Bitter sweet and semisweet chocolate is one of my favorite!

  • 3. Allison  |  November 16, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    The one thing I loved, loved, loved most about Venice was getting lost in the streets. I was only there a few days, but each day we would get up and just walk and see where the streets took us. One day as we were walking, we could hear singing getting louder and louder. When we rounded a corner, we saw a gondolier coming down a stream with two passengers, singing this beautiful song that echoed off all the walls. It was simply amazing.

  • 4. robertsitalia  |  November 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Hai fatto delle belle foto! Anche a me manca il gelato. Dato il fatto che parlo la lingua pero’, riesco a pronunciare qualche gusto, sebbene c’e’ ancora un accento molto Americano ;). In tanto, mi e’ molto piaciuto il tuo post! Grazie!

    • 5. Jessi  |  November 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      “You’ve taken some beautiful photos. I miss gelato, too. Given that I speak the language, though, I manage to pronounce any of the flavours, even if there’s still a very American accent. ;) Basically, I liked your post a lot! Thanks!”

      Oh, mamma, I miss Italy. Gianduja is the BEST flavour EVER… it’s basically just frozen Nutella. Crema di biscotti is also amaaazing – the Italian version of cookies ‘n cream.

      You’re beautiful, btw!

  • 6. cesanford  |  November 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Your writing inspires me over and over. Thank you for brighting my grey day.

  • 7. Amber  |  November 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I have been to that gelato place in Florence! IT’S SO GOOD. We went three days in a row.

  • 8. Caeri  |  November 16, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    The only thing I dislike about this post is: Aaah gelato cravings!!
    You write so brilliantly! Loved the description of the panther italian woman, especially how she spoke. You are a wonder-worker with words!

  • 9. Cookie  |  November 16, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Another beautifully written post! Thank you!

  • 10. Denise  |  November 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    One of the best and worst things I’ve ever done is eat Gelato in Italy. Best – because it was DELICIOUS! Worst – because there is NOTHING that even comes close in the States (although there is an ice cream/gelato parlot at The Borgata in Atlantic City that has pretty good gelato). My friend and I ate so much gelato in Italy it was obscene. In San Gimignano (a hill town in Tuscany) there is a gelateria called The Pluripremiata Gelato Shop and it has been named “World’s Best Gelato” in 2006, 2007, 2008 & 2009. It was so good, we ate it twice in 20 minutes! My favorites are Limone and Frutti di Bosco.

  • 11. marinachetner  |  November 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    lovely post and great photos! i tried the best ever gelato in Pisa!!

  • 12. wanderingeducators  |  November 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    yum yum yum yum!!!!

  • 13. Warm Vanilla Sugar  |  November 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Beautiful story. I spent some time in Italy too and couldn’t get enough gelato! One day I went back three times in Venice!

  • 14. Michelle Canfield  |  November 16, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Bravo, the last picture is the best. PS it’s pouring rain and perpetually dark out and freezing cold in Seattle.

  • 15. Carla Marrone  |  November 16, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    What a great post! I love love love gelato, my aunt lives in Rome & we would have gelato everday!! Its just not the same here!
    Glad you are enjoying Italy & all it has to offer…it is a beautiful country with amazing people. All the best & good luck :)

    • 16. Carla Marrone  |  November 16, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      Oh, & i never saw those pops u took a pic of …did u try those? They look delicious!

  • 17. Danielle  |  November 16, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Great post. Great photos, especially the final one.

  • 18. Martha  |  November 17, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I love gelato too! Great post! Thanks for the tour to Italy thru your words!

  • 19. Olena  |  November 17, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I miss Italy!!!… And gelato… and cornetos… and their coffee!!! Oh, and wine!…. Thanks for the post!

  • 20. Cousin Sharon  |  November 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Was just in Venice for the first time in May. Don’t you just love it there? HOWEVER, we have a gelato place here on las Olas Blvd that has better gelato than any I had in Venice! Gelato and it’s American cousin Ice Cream is my favorite food group!

  • 23. Kelsey  |  November 18, 2011 at 10:55 am

    anxious to hear about your morocco trip! i’m headed there on monday and would appreciate any tips for travel.

  • 24. SeattleDee  |  November 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    I’m still lost in a gelato-filled daydream, mentally savoring the sights and tastes from your post. This post was beyond yummy!

  • 25. Dawei  |  November 19, 2011 at 1:18 am

    Stracciatella… Oh how I miss real Italian gelato. I’m so glad for you and happy that you got to taste what I consider my favorite dessert!

    Have fun in morocco, let’s talk sometime

  • 26. Roberta @ I Love Cooking  |  November 19, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Hi Elissa, I’m happy you enjoyed being in Italy despite your misadventure…I was really sad when I read about the robbery and admired your mature and wise reaction.

    Gelato is one of the things that, as Italian, I am most proud of. In the whole country the quality is generally high, however you can always find exceptions.
    I am happy you could find a nice gelateria in Venice! when I went there I saw many tiny gelaterie with apparently nice looking gelato which to me seemed all but natural!

    As you cleverly guessed when picking your pistachio gelato (my fav one!), the colour is a crucial element to define whether gelato is made with natural ingredients or not. One general rule is in fact to avoid any unnatural coloured gelato, i.e.: pistachio is not bright green and strawberry in not pale pink!
    Then I have my onw rule which is to avoid tiny gelaterie (such as those that only have space for the counter, which is often open directly on the streets) since they do not have a kitchen and this often means that gelato is not prepared with fresh and ingredients.

    As for “zabaione”, it is a kind of custard that we flavour with “Marsala”, a sweet fortified wine produced in Sicily. The zabaione gelato is made pretty much with the same ingredients and has the same fantastic flavour. Next time you come to Italy give it a try! :)


  • 27. ash  |  November 19, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Gorgeous post, as usual. Makes me want to run back to Italy – the last time I was there, my gelato consumption was a mandatory two-a-day too. And now Morocco! I’m terribly envious.

  • 28. Rebecca@A Dusting of Sugar  |  November 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

    So jealous of your gelato eating. If/when I go to Italy again, I’m going to practice my gelato flavor pronunciations, haha.

  • 29. kyleen  |  November 22, 2011 at 12:12 am

    I am insanely jealous of you right now! You are so lucky that you get to study abroad and eat gelato! You’ve definitely inspired me to travel or study abroad when I go to university.

  • 30. betty  |  November 22, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    i love gelato there is one place in leidchardt in sydney i will only have it from there bar italia its just sooo delicious!

  • 31. Lexi  |  November 27, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Oh my goodness. I absolutely LOVE your travels. Your pictures make me want to cry they are so beautiful! And you are such a beautiful writer, so inspirational.

  • 32. The Fourth Broomstick  |  November 29, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I think anyone who goes to continental Europe falls in love with gelato! I rarely ate in while in Austria, because I was too busy eating pastries, but when I traveled to Germany, to a city called Tettnang, I ate the best gelato of my life! Cranberry and dark chocolate! I didn’t even see what other flavors they had, I knew that’s what I wanted.

  • 33. Food Cookture  |  November 29, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    great post! very fun to read and sooo true about the gelato experience… and the withdrawals :-)

  • 34. Franz  |  December 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I love gelato too. Last year my friend Gustave and I tried to make our own gelato. It was supposed to be strawberry flavor, but it came out tasting kind of like red peppers. Which is strange, because I’m almost positive we put in strawberries, and not red peppers. Just in case, though, here was our recipe. You’re welcome to use it or feature it on your blog if you like, just so long as you give us credit.

    DELICIOUS Strawberry Gelato
    1 gallon milk
    100 fresh strawberries (or red peppers…I really can’t recall which)
    1 tub cream
    1 basket gelato

    1. Put ingredients in blender.
    2. Mix in large blender until creamy.
    3. Air dry.
    4. Enjoy :)

    Hope you get a chance to try this treat out. Maybe you can tell us where we went wrong. Keep up the great work!

    -Your friend from Germany, Franz-

  • 35. layersuponlayers  |  December 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I am lost within your blog tonight! I can’t wait to share your blog entries of Italy with my hubby, as each one will spark memories in him as well. I enjoy your writing, as I am projected into your experience with every word!!! Also, I am sorry about the robbery( from the other post). My luggage was lost in Zurich,Germany due to an error on the part of the airlines. Thankfully, I received my luggage with all its content. You never know, they may get your belongings back! You sound like you took the experience in stride though, as it obviously had no negative affect on your writing! Thank you for sharing your experience with us! ..The photos still look amazing even with your Ipod!

  • 36. Mel  |  December 3, 2011 at 1:23 am

    Hi Elissa, each time I pop in for a visit on your blog, I feel like I live vicariously through you :-) Amazing times – the world is beautiful through your eyes and words, thank you for sharing!

    P.S. I just had some New Zealand white coffee & honey gelato this afternoon…. love gelato, can’t wait to try it in Italy one day!

  • 37. belle (tinkeringinthekitchen)  |  December 3, 2011 at 9:07 am

    what a delicious sounding (and looking!) recipe! Im going to grab a coffee and read more, so glad i found your blog :) Belle

  • 38. Jessica  |  December 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    You write beautifully! I was in the Campo santa margharita just last week, and also blogged about it. i got gelato from somewhere else, though, as you might see! hope you’re getting over your cravings alright, i’m still in severe gelato-withdrawal shock ! xxx

  • 39. Deanna  |  December 13, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    I just saw you in Food and Wine. Congratulations! Every word they said about you was true, and I can’t wait to make the key lime pie.

  • 40. greenthyme  |  December 15, 2011 at 10:48 am

    This is a great story. I loved reading about your travels. Keep it coming! :)

  • 41. Jenny  |  December 16, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Hi! I just found your blog and I love it!! I am so jealous of all of your adventures in Italy. I have been DYING to go there and I think I might be going next fall (fingers crossed!). And gelato = LOVE.

  • 42. jothetartqueen  |  December 19, 2011 at 3:06 am

    lovely photos! remind me of my own trip to Rome this year! Indeed best gelato I’ve eaten!

  • 43. Hannah@ Bake Five  |  December 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

    you have made me want to be in Italy now. Just for gelato. (:

  • 44. Chiara  |  December 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Elissa! Loving your blog :)
    I just wanted to say that zabaione is extremely good: it’s egg yolk with sugar and Marsala (typical liquor from south of Italy) and it’s reall delicious. Next time you come to Italy you have to absolutely try it!

  • 45. Jean J P  |  January 9, 2012 at 5:23 am

    Loved the photographs youve captured!

  • 46. The Hook  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    My sweet tooth is calling me…

  • 47. Janice  |  March 21, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I have never been to italy but this makes me want to go! I love gelato but I’ve always wondered what it would taste like from it’s home!

  • 48. Rebecca  |  June 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I was just in Italy last week (Florence and Rome) and also ate gelato twice a day! Gelato for lunch, and gelato for dessert after dinner. It was fantastic. There’s an amazing little gelato shop in Florence with DIVINE pistachio and hazelnut flavors… I miss it already!

  • 49. Kyoungmi  |  October 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Wowwowow, that is exactly that kind of ice cream paradise I am dreaming of! It is incredible what choice they have. I am envying you now ;)


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Elissa Bernstein

I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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