A delicious history - Gelato past to present

By Penny Mincho - Austin

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #100, Winter 2011)

Romans love their gelato! Gelato literally means “frozen” in Italian, and the term applies to a wide range of sweet frozen treats. The term includes dairy-based gelato made with milk rather than the cream which is used in the American “ice cream,” as well as fruit-based “sorbetto” which contains no dairy. Gelato can be in “semifreddo” form (a piled-high semi-frozen, mousse-like confection), or as granita (a granular, loosely-textured, non-dairy treat), and even as frozen yoghurt. Often, all of these will be offered side by side in a Roman “gelateria.”

As early as 3000 BC, Asian peoples consumed crushed ice with flavorings. Centuries later we have documentation that Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors enjoyed cups of ice sweetened with fruit juice. Sicily and southern Italy have a long tradition of blending crushed fruit and freezing it using ice and snow stored in underground caverns, while the Dolomite regions of Italy used stored snow from the nearby Alps to make confections with combinations of milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and natural flavorings. The Florentine Medici Family served frozen desserts during banquets. They introduced a sorbet-like dessert to France when Caterina de Medici had it prepared for her wedding in 1533 to the future King of France. That same Medici family employed Bernardo Buontalenti in the late 1500s to prepare a specialdessert for the visiting King of Spain. He produced the creamy, frozen dessert very close to the dairy-based gelato we enjoy today. Buontalenti is considered the father of modern gelato.

It was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a famous restaurateur from Palermo, Sicily, who made gelato famous. In 1694 he opened a café in Paris that offered the well-heeled the food novelties of the day: coffee, chocolate, and a frozen dessert served in porcelain cups. It is said that he developed the first ice cream machine. Nevertheless, the new frozen treat was an instant hit and rapidly spread throughout Europe. The Café’ Procope is still in existence as the oldest Paris restaurant in continuous operation and still serves gelato (“glace”).

At the turn of the 20th century, Romans chiefly enjoyed their gelato at cafés much like Café Procope, where coffee and pastries were sold as well and could be enjoyed at indoor or sidewalk tables. Several of those grand cafés are still in operation in Rome. You can have your gelato served to you by waiters in tailcoats at Café Greco which began operation in 1760. Giolittti, established in 1900, is another long-time Roman favorite. In the marble halls, staff in white shirts, bow ties, and brocade vests prepare intricate frozen masterpieces to patrons at tables or scoop gelato into a paper cup (“una coppa”) or cone (“un cono”) for those wishing to take it with them.

The phenomenon of walking the streets of Rome with a cup or cone of gelato in hand did not come about until the 1920s when the mobile gelato cart came into widespread use. The carts are long gone but small independent gelaterias can be found on virtually every Roman street, often several per street. Some display signs such as “Pruduzione Propria” which means it is made on site or “Artigianale” which implies that they are serving an artisanal product. Unfortunately the case may be that the shop uses powdered, freeze-dried, or concentrated mixes, and only finishes up the process of turning it into gelato. So often the results can be huge mountains of gelato, stiffly whipped, unnaturally colored, and overly sweet, as colorings, stabilizers, and preservatives have been added. There are plenty of gelaterias in Rome that offer this type of product.

In the mid-1980s, as a response to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food organization. Inspired by the call for traditional regional foods made by small artisanal businesses by traditional methods, using local seasonal ingredients, a new group of very different and now very popular gelaterias opened in the 1990s in Rome. United in philosophy and calling their product “gelato artigianale naturale,” this new breed of “gelatai” are committed to daily making small batches of gelato using only the highest quality fresh seasonal ingredients and no artificial colors or stabilizers. Seasonal fruits are bought locally, but pistachios come from Bronte in Sicily, almonds from Bari, hazelnuts from Langhe, and are roasted and ground by their own hands. No nut pastes for these purists. Sorbetto is made only of water, fruit, and sugar; dairy-based gelatos use the freshest milk and eggs from small farms. These are not fancy shops with white tablecloths and formally dressed wait staff. These gelaterias are spartan with maybe two or three tables and chairs pushed into a corner. It is all about the gelato.

From the Alto Adige came the Alongi brothers, one intending to become a doctor, the other a lawyer. Instead, they became “gelatai” and in 1993 opened the first location of Il Gelato Di San Crispino. Within a year of opening in a small shop in the suburbs south of Rome, it was being hailed by Rome’s leading gastronomic magazines as “possibly the best ice cream shop in Rome.” A wall of rave reviews greets you as you enter their location near the Trevi Fountain and a poster of a New York Times article is displayed outside the door. So focused are they on the quality of their flavors that they use 30-year-old Marsala in their zabaglione flavor, freshly brewed Jamaican blue coffee in their café flavor, Japanese tea in their té verde, and their house specialty flavor – Il Gelato- is based on a sixteenth century recipe. They will not serve their gelato in cones, as the artificial colors and flavors interfere with the integrity of their flavors. Featured in the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love, the brothers now manage three locations of San Crispino.

Alberto Manassei was a “liutaio” making lutes, guitars, and mandolins during winter months and making gelato in Sardinia in the summer, until in 2000 he decided to totally devote himself to gelato by opening Gelateria del Gracchi in the tony Rome neighborhood of Prati. Manassei is heralded for his pistachio gelato, often referred to as the best in Rome. He makes sure that gluten and lactosefree versions of his flavors are available.

Stefano Marcotulli left his job as pastry chef at the Rome Marriott Hotel to follow his mission to “create pastry ice creams.” Gelateria del Teatro ai Coronari not only is his shop, but also his laboratory. He has installed a Plexiglas window to his “laboratory” where visitors can watch as he experiments with new flavors such as sage and raspberry, lavender and peach, and so that he can “show people that I am natural.” Fresh ewe’s-milk ricotta goes into his cheesecake flavor and brewed Illy espresso into his café flavor.

There are other gelaterias in Rome sharing the philosophy espoused in the Slow Food Movement. Al Settimo Gelo, a play on “settimo cielo” (seventh heaven) was the inspiration of Pierpaolo Agostino, formerly a furniture restorer and cabinetmaker. Every ingredient is organic, natural, as is the case at Il Gelato Fior Di Luna in Trastevere where cones are frowned on, but the peanut-butter gelato in a cup is celebrated. Cremerie Monteforte, virtually next to the Pantheon, was started by Giuseppina Monteforte from Sicily, and is known for its excellent yoghurt gelato, chocolate sorbets, and café granita. Maria Agnese Spagnuolo creates unique combinations of flavors such as basil-honey-walnut, pear and Gorgonzola, white chocolate and pine nuts, mint-almond-ginseng at her Gelateria Fata Morgana.

No discussion of gelato in Rome would be complete without a discussion of the latest gelato vendor. Taking the tenets of the Slow Food movement to the next level are the founders of the gelateria chain GROM, Federico Grom and Guido Martinetti. Starting in 2002 they searched the world for the best ingredients for their gelateria, the first of which opened in Turin in 2003. Being featured on television during the Winter Olympics made them a worldwide sensation. Wishing to expand to other cities in Italy, they found that in far-flung locations they could not insure quality control, nor local sources for their fruit flavors and other organic ingredients such as milk and eggs. They came up with the idea of centralizing the first phase of production: the mixing of the raw materials. With the purchase of their own farm, Mura Mura, in Costigliole d’Asti to grow organic heirloom varieties of peaches, pears, figs, strawberries, and melons; and having one site for the importation of other ingredients, Grom and Martinetti could make liquid mixtures that are “distributed three times a week, like milk.” At each store these mixtures are “blended daily to reach their full flavor excellence.” GROM is now in 34 Italian cities, many having more than one of their gelaterias in each. There are several in Rome.

Many flavors on the GROM menu are designated as using only sustainable organic ingredients; others are designated as meeting the Slow Food standards for biodiversity. As part of the “World Loves GROM” initiative motivated by the “Respect of the environment and eco-sustainability,” all plastic items used (spoons, garbage bags, etc.) are made of Materbi, a material made of cornstarch and vegetable oils which is completely biodegradable. All paper is FSC certified ensuring that it is “produced by responsible forest management respecting the conditions of indigenous populations.” One enters a GROM gelateria to a sea of stainless steel. Towers of the sealed plastic bags of ingredients sent from Turin and waiting to be “blended” are in one corner while the huge metal machine in which to do that blending sits in another corner. One wonders if the company tag line over the entrance of each of their locations, “Il gelato come una volta” loosely translated as “Gelato the way it used to be” really fits this operation. GROM is now in five international cities outside of Italy with New York City the first, having opened in 2007. Today there are long lines at all hours of the day at all three of that city’s locations. But there are long lines at Il Gelato di San Crispino,
Cremerie Monteforte, Gelateria del Gracchi…any place in Rome where there is a delicious frozen treat being sold, because Romans love their gelato!