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Three Orders of Gelato

Three Orders of Gelato

San Crispino, my favorite gelato in Rome.

It's impossible to imagine the Italian summer without gelato, oral air-conditioning, the only food that Italians will eat on the street. You can spot a great, artisanal, gelateria  by the crowd of contented locals digging little, spatulate, plastic spoons into paper cups full of this lightly frozen treat.

The term gelato is now often used in Italy for any ice cream or water ice, although technically only those that are dairy based qualify. Actually, in Italy today we find three distinct types of true gelato: Sicilian (made with milk, but no egg yolks); Tuscan (from a milk-based custard) and Northern (from a cream-based custard). Italians hotly dispute which variety qualifies as the original.

Summer heat is fierce in the south of Italy, and it makes sense (both digestive and hygienic) that the Sicilians developed a formula that is lean, thickening the milk with corn or wheat starch, not yolks. Proponents of the Sicilian school of gelato-making argue that freezing sweetened, flavored milk was a natural progression from freezing fruit juice or almond milk (water turned milky by minced almonds) to make sorbetto , which probably first appeared in the south. So they claim gelato's invention for Sicily.

In Tuscany, gelato-lovers revere Bernardo Buontalenti as the dessert's creator. By 1660 this Florentine architect had invented a way to freeze a mixture of churned, sweetened milk and egg yolks, and Tuscan gelataii  (gelato makers) claim they still stick to his basic formula. Their native son is even honored with a namesake flavor: Buontalenti - rich, eggy and suffused with a secret ingredient (which is probably a delicate, fragrant Malvasia wine).

The northern school of gelato-making claims no historical precedence. But if not its originators, I think northerners may be gelato's perfecters. Cows that graze alpine meadows provide delicious cream for the richest, most elegant of Italian gelati. Giuseppe and Pasquale Alongi, quintessential gelataii  of this northern style, make what I feel is Italy's best at Gelateria San Crispino, not far from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. They use first-rate raw materials and flavor their limited, but exquisite, selection with such ingredients as superior Piedmont hazelnuts, real pistachio nuts (giving a grayish color - no Day-Glo green here), strictly seasonal fruit, fine liquors, and wild honey from Sardinia (this last for the signature San Crispino flavor). No cones are allowed, because they contain artificial flavors and colors.

Anywhere that you find a gelateria , you might try what my favorite Florentine vendor calls the "gelato cure." Recently, when my husband had a wisdom tooth extracted, I called to order a treat, and the purveyor responded with this prescription: Begin with a lemon granita to "disinfect the mouth" and follow with whichever flavor of gelato the patient desires. There's a restorative I'd recommend to anyone.

Gelateria San Crispino, via Acaia 56, Rome; tel. 39-06-704-50412.
Closed Tuesdays.

July 1, 1996


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