Friday, November 11, 2016
My methodology for researching the best gelato in Rome changed constantly. One could say this made my study highly unscientific, unfocused, and flimsy. And they would be right. But one could also say that it made my study intuitive, adaptable, and able to make use of every tool at its disposal. They would be right too! Everyone is right, and the world and everything in it is terribly complex and so could everyone please just calm down for a second?
Oh, you already were calm.
Research every shred of information on the Internet about gelaterias in Rome.
I did this! Despite the most credible studies lacking thoroughness, despite individual reviews washing out in a sea of vacationers' emotionalism, and despite the absolute deluge of raved about Roman gelaterias I was able to put together a surprisingly accurate list of the best gelato places. Of course at some point I had to leave the Internet behind and move to another methodology.
Go around to my most promising gelaterias and ask for whatever flavor they thought was best.
I believe I lasted at this methodology for the first two or three gelaterias. At Giolitti, a place we ended up going to for drinks in the evening maybe as often as ten times, on the very first night in Rome I asked for a fancy gelato with alcohol according to what they thought would be best. The result was fun but unspectacular. Other unbusy gelaterias proffered spoonfuls of their choicest flavors before I could even ask. Some people seemed too unapproachable and distant for any recommending, other places were far too busy to mess about with in this way, and finally the language barrier complicated or would have complicated this method at other places. I abandoned this methodology early, and though it occasionally came up and was employed again I rarely found specific suggestions to be satisfying or all that helpful.
Whenever possible order the ultimate test gelato: Fior di Latte.
Fior di Latte gelato is basically plain gelato. Or one could say it is the flavor of milk. Because key elements of gelato have to do with its creamy smoothness and its purity, a Fior di Latte (flower of milk!) gelato removes all the distractions of, say, chocolate or coffee or banana and lets one encounter the essentials of the gelato maker's craft in its pure form. I more or less stuck to this methodology the whole way through, for good or ill. On the down side only about a quarter of the gelaterias I went to had this flavor so it was an incomplete barometer. On the other downside as soon as I got any other flavor with Fior di Latte the other flavor was more interesting and appealing because Fior di Latte is very subtle and not terribly exciting. And on the other downside I could still tell a lot about the creaminess and quality of the gelato with more flavorful choices and often have more fun doing it. Still, a place just having Fior di Latte was often a pretty good sign they were serious about things, and ordering a Fior di Latte said that I wasn't just any old tourist, but was rather a serious researcher who should be treated with loads of respect.
Chose a basic flavor and order it everywhere as a baseline for comparison.
Great. I ordered a chocolate at San Crispino and it was smooth, rich, perfect. Great. We'll do chocolate! I'll order chocolate everywhere. I went to Gelateria del Teatro and they had seven different chocolate flavors. I'm afraid I made the mistake of choosing one, Truffle, that had stuff in it (flakes of chocolate, sponge cake). It was delicious, but not a real comparison. Pistachio was another common flavor I tried to sample multiple times, but even this could be very different one place to another (utterly smooth in one place, almost chewy and full of coarse pistachio in another, both wonderful, but oddly difficult to measure against each other).
Choose an intriguing and odd flavor.
This worked pretty good where it was possible. Not as many places as I would have liked got dangerously creative, and sometimes it didn't work, but when it did it was usually pretty exciting. I loved lavender. I liked rose. I'm glad I tried Parmesan.
As I got closer to the end of the trip I did this more and more. Get as many flavors as possible and hope for the best. If I started over I might start with this, but that might just be because I'd really like a lot of gelato right now. I'm not sure it was the ideal approach. Yes, one gets to try a wide range of the gelateria's creations, and one increases ones chances of hitting on something special (not even the best gelateria produces equally good flavors across the board), but the flavors are all jammed in together and quickly lose their individual purity, both in the cup and in ones mind. It's easy to get a general sense for that gelateria's quality, but harder to get a sense for the peak of what they're capable of.
The lay of the land.