Gelateria Matteo, in Lancusi, outside Salerno.
I'm a gelato freak. So, when I tasted Matteo Napoli's gelato-stuffed fruit at a friend's home, I had to make the pilgrimage to Gelateria Matteo. Without a doubt, Matteo Napoli is the most creative and obsessive gelataio in Italy, making more than 100 different flavors, each with its own formula. He began his career as a helper in a Neapolitan pastry shop, but dreamed of making gelato using the best and ripest fruit, without additives. He opened a bar in Naples with his wife, Raffaella, sold his superb gelato, expanded, and eventually moved to Raffaella's hometown of Lancusi, about a 1 1/2-hour drive south of Naples, in the direction of Salerno.
Gelateria Matteo is spacious, with large freezers along one wall displaying trays of his delightful, hollowed-out fruits and nuts stuffed with gelato - lemons, tangerines, blood oranges, and chestnuts. However, there are also shelves of carrots, radishes, cucumbers, onions, and potatoes subjected to the same treatment - a bizarre collection that pushes the idea of gelato-stuffing a little too far for my taste.
Gelato bins run the length of the room and are divided into three sections. Fruit flavors are in the middle section. These include conventional berry, grape, citrus, banana, and pineapple, plus many rarer fruit flavors, such as sour cherry (amarena), loquat (nespola), persimmon (cachi), pomegranate (melograno), and prickly pear (fichi d'india). Some of the flavors are wild fruits virtually unknown in the United States: arbutus or strawberry-tree fruit (corbezzolo), service-tree fruit (sorbo), and an ancient local apple of Roman origins, annurca. All of his gelati taste true to fruit or, in many cases, actually better than their original fruits.
In the right-hand section are milk-based flavors: chocolate, custard, coffee, and Sicilian pistachio nut (sans coloring, thus appropriately dull-colored). Hazelnut (nocciola) gelato is not made from nut paste, as in most gelaterie, but from Giffoni hazelnuts, toasted by Matteo. Giffoni is a village in Campania that lends its name to these nuts from the province of Salerno. This hazelnut flavor is the best that I've ever encountered.
The section of savory gelato bins on the left is a challenging expression of Matteo's skill and creativity. "Don't think of it as gelato, but as a meal. Eat it with a piece of bread," he insisted. I began with an acceptable wild fennel, then moved on to pasta e fagioli - bean-flavored gelato studded with bits of pasta. I drew the line at pizza, popcorn, shrimp, and fish-risotto flavors. Intrepid tasters may want to explore this section more than I did!
Gelateria Matteo, via del Centenario 110, Lancusi; tel. 39-089-957-396.
Closed Sunday afternoon and Monday.
January 11, 2000