Monday, November 7, 2016
The best gelato in Rome
Two weeks after my return from Rome I still feel slightly shy about delving into it. Perhaps all I'll ever do is nibble around the edges. And what better thing for nibbling around the edges than gelato. In the year before my wife and I's 30 day trip to Rome there was nothing I studied so thoroughly as I studied their gelaterias. But while an exhaustive, on the ground study of Rome's gelato is entirely warranted I have yet to see a proper one done. It is easy to find credible lists of the best places for gelato in Rome, but there are so many special problems to the requirements of a top notch study that no one I know of has managed it yet.
I haven't managed it either. I was on vacation. This is just one of those problems I mentioned. The most credible "best gelato" lists I have found are from people who are living in Rome. The least credible reviews are by dazzled, starry eyed, exhausted, easily swayed and alienated tourists writing their tripadvisor reviews. I fall somewhere inbetween: a tourist yes, but we were there for a month, which was deliciously enough time to slow it all down and take the long look.
So even though I was only there for a month, and only managed to get to about half of my exhaustive gelateria list, and was compelled to change up my methodology several times, and had a slew of other priorities, I do feel I can add slightly to the gelato of Rome lore. I am hoping I can advance, even if just by a small amount, the collective tourist understanding of the Roman gelaterias. I will try.
So here's the plan. I will address various aspects of my Gelato in Rome study over the course of the days to come. And though the Internet is, and I'm sorry to have to be so frank, kind of an asshole, an asshole through which my study will go spinning, lost and anonymous as number 2,367 in any search for "The best gelato in Rome" I will nevertheless update this particular post as I write subsequent posts so that it can convey the whole story to future seekers, seekers like I once was a couple months ago, dreaming of a future trip...
But because an introduction alone seems a little inadequate for day one of our study I will kick us off with a list of some of the problems facing any study of Roman Gelaterias so that we can know where we stand and have a point of reference for what we're up against.
1. Gelato is mainly flavor, sugar, and milk, frozen. These are ingredients that are actually hard to make terribly badly, and easy enough to make well, especially with the generally high level of off the shelf ingredients in Rome, so gelato in Rome can quickly become so good it is hard to parse the minor differences in quality, like deciding between very well made expensive wines.
2. Rome is the single most beautiful city in the world (at least in the generally central parts) and so it is constantly kicking off one's endorphins and clouding one's judgement about how wonderful everything is, like with a person deciding between very well made expensive wines as they become deliciously drunk on them.
3. There has got to be a thousand gelaterias in Rome. Sure it's safe to skip all the gelaterias with fluffy mounds of bright colored gelatos, but one is still left with hundreds of credible places. Gelato tends to have a reasonable price (for people on a vacation budget), but one will still need to have a solid bankroll and buy, taste, and discard a host of largely uneaten gelatos. I did this very thing on occasion, throwing out gelatos after a few bites. It felt a tad sinful, and profligate, and it still got me nowhere near the number of tastings I properly needed. Plus it could be a little sad.
4. Gelaterias have anywhere from maybe 15 to 60 (or more!) flavors each (I'm looking at you, you ridiculous Della Palma!). If one sticks to a basic set of standard flavors for comparison across gelaterias one can easily miss something like La Strega Nocciola's brilliant lavender gelato, and if one hasn't had La Strega Nocciola's lavender gelato one might as well have not gone to La Strega Nocciola!
5. Roman service ranges freely and hilariously from surly and truculent all the way to extraordinarily friendly and generous, sometimes even with the same person! For a tourist struggling in a foreign language the relief and joy of ordering correctly in an intense environment can make one's gelato taste extra good. Likewise miscommunication and ill treatment can sour the flavor of some of the tastiest gelato in the world. While these elements have meaning in an overall review of a gelateria, they must be kept in their place. It can be hard to let the gelato just be gelato.
And with those challenges facing us, we have a beginning.
Yesterday we began our study of Roman Gelato starting with an examination of the problems facing any serious researcher into the quality of the city's gelato and gelaterias. I listed five very important problems that will trip up all but an almost freakishly dedicated researcher. I was ready to move on to the next phase of my inevitably flawed study when I remembered a sixth problem. And the sixth problem concerns notes.
If a person is going to wander around Rome tasting thousands of gelato flavors at hundreds of gelaterias they are going to need to take good, clear, and copious notes on each gelato or they will forget nearly everything they found. I took notes. Or, I should say, I took precisely one note. It was about how San Crispino had supposedly fallen from grace and yet was as scrupulously perfect as ever. This was after three bites of their chocolate gelato. I stopped taking any notes after that. Because it is deranged enough to eat three bites of a gelato and throw it away, but to turn ones back on the ravishing city of Rome to scrawl a bunch of analytical observations on a gelato seems disrespectful to god.
There are so many reasons to disrespect god, but neither Rome nor gelato are ones.
Which brings us to our sixth point of problem in the study of Roman Gelato: any adequately thorough, properly researched study of the gelatos of Rome would have to be written by an unstable heretic. And we might not want to trust the judgement of an unstable heretic.
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.
The gelato overview (or, the lay of the land)
There is a lot of gelato in Rome, an avalanche of gelato, a glacier of gelato, a secret ice city of gelato, all to serve the 4 billion 2 hundred thousand gelato eating tourists cramming through the center of Rome every day. This allows for all manner of gelaterias; ones with gelato made with powder mixes and piled into fluffy clouds that appear to go untouched all day long, storied old places thronged with a crush of visitors all afternoon and deep into the evening, all taking endless pictures of themselves and their cones, impeccable shops with reverent reviews and yet mysteriously shut down, one time toasts of the town who still make exquisite gelato but no longer for crowds of any kind, newly minted champions that require steady 20 minute waits, and off the beaten path wonders that require a lengthy walk but no wait at all.
That's plenty of gelato, much of it very good. Does that mean a person can go uninformed to Rome and have excellent gelato? If one has good instincts ("that blue gelato looks suspicious, let's try somewhere else") then one's chances are about fifty-fifty. But if one is in Rome for two or three days it becomes quite likely, and five or six days of gelato eating in Rome will make it certain. And there is much to be said for the experience of stumbling into something extraordinary and having the lightning strike in that exciting way. On the other hand all time spent in Rome is precious, and one doesn't have to take quite so many chances, because the lightning is going to be striking there no matter what, every day. So one might as well bring the names of a dozen likely gelaterias if one is going for a gelato eating visit.
But all of that is just great gelato, marvelous gelato, and it's easy enough to find. What about gelato of the gods, the holy grail of gelato? What about perfect gelato? Is that in Rome?
Yes, but magic is always delicate and never absolute. Proper ingredients, craftsmanship, and creativity are essential to this gelato. But then, a person, as the gelato eater, also has to choose the right flavor at the right time in the right mood and in the right place for it to all come together to create that epiphanetic experience. Ingredients, skill, frame of mind, and luck all must come together.
That gelato ecstasy may not appear quite as one expects even when it does. With exacting standards, giving no benefit of the doubt, with no hedging in my feelings and refusing to confuse the mere extraordinary for the ecstatic, I can only say I had two total irrefutable gelato of the gods experiences in Rome. One involved lavender gelato, one involved mere whipped cream, which is odd, but I wouldn't even consider not counting it. There were probably three or four other gelaterias where it would have been possible for me to see the frozen light of the gods, but for whatever subtle reasons the pure magic didn't quite pan out.
So there were two places that cracked heaven. Three or four that knocked on heaven's door. And somewhere between five and ten that actually got within yelling distance of heaven. But then, all of Central Rome may be within yelling distance of heaven.
Tomorrow we'll name the names. Tomorrow:
The Gelateria Awards (what you've been waiting for and probably should have just skipped down to 45 minutes ago).
After 35 flavors of blog posts about Roman Gelaterias, starting way back before my trip with a discussion of my dazzlement over the sheer plenitude of raved over gelato places in Rome, running through my cracking the code of Internet gelateria reviews (even the worst gelaterias get pretty good reviews because, well, it's Rome, and it's still gelato!). I wrote imaginary posts before my trip about gelato that posted up on the Internet while I actually was eating gelato in Rome (a device that caused much confusion among my readers). I came back from Rome, heartbroken to have left, and found that all I could really write at first about Rome was gelato. I wrote about my methodology for studying the gelato of Rome. I gave an overview for the gelato of Rome. And I talked about the limitations of any comprehensive Roman gelato study.
I hinted at my favorite gelaterias, my ecstatic experiences in Roman gelato eating, and my favorite flavors of gelato. Then I promised I would finally get down to it. I would finally talk directly about the gelaterias of Rome, naming names and talking about their flavors.
And then for a few days I couldn't do it.
Was I trying to build up suspense?
No. I really don't think anyone out there cares that much.
Was there something more vital for me to discuss?
I am sure you could answer that for yourself by perusing my brief posts from the past few days concerning local county initiatives.
Was it too much of an ending? Was completing my study of Roman gelaterias a kind of closing a book on this trip and putting it sadly into history?
And I'm not happy about it. But there's nothing else to be done.
Unless maybe I can split this into two blog posts. Yes, yes, I'll split it into two blog posts!
But I won't keep you in suspense about it, and I won't split it by putting in a bunch of filler, except in the normal sense of how here on clerkmanifesto, the filler is the point.
So later I'll do my best at a complete rundown of the gelaterias I explored, but today I'll hand out my awards. If you are going to Rome for a day or two or three, my awards should be all you need to get you to the best gelato in Rome.
Best Gelateria in Rome
Come Il Latte (Silvio Spaventa, 24)
Come Il Latte is not in the very center of things so one has to make a little trip to get there, though it is at least still a walkable trip from the center of the city. They specialize in an absolute creaminess and their smooth Pistachio was a surprise and revelation to me. But there is a purity to their gelato that inched them (ever so barely) above everyone else, ever, anywhere. Oddly this best manifested in the whipped cream I got on top of my cup. I've never tasted anything like it. It sang. It was better than delicious. Did you know there was a "better than delicious"? It's a very interesting discovery to make.
One month, dozens of gelatos, and if I had to pick the best, and it turns out I do, this was it.
Best Gelato flavor in Rome
Lavender at La Strega Nocciola (V. D. Vite, 100)
It may just be me but I really took to the flower flavored gelatos in Rome. But regardless of strange flavors, normal flavors, complicated flavors, mixing flavors, or simple flavors, this, the lavender at La Strega Nocciola, was the single most enjoyable and delicious gelato I had in Rome. If taking a bit of a walk out of the very center of Rome is not going to work for you, this agreeably located gelateria, near but not too near to the Spanish Steps, will be nearly as good a one to try as Come Il Latte. Its relatively quiet street (for the area) means there's usually not too bad a line either. Grab one of their bookmarks too, they have the best gelateria logo in the world.
San Crispino (Piazza Della Maddelena 3)
Many years ago when we first went to Rome we ate gelato every chance we had at the San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain. At the time it was easily the most popular and revered gelateria in Rome. At some point this second branch opened. And at some point as well San Crispino's slightly snooty perfection alienated people at the same time as other comparably perfect places opened up in the center city. Their star fell. Now just one small lovely Piazza up from the Pantheon there is a virtually always uncrowded San Crispino that is as fantastically good and perfect as ever, outclassing all but a few Roman gelaterias, but now to a more modest acclaim.
Gelateria Del Viale (Piazza Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, 9)
My wife and I have long had a chip on our shoulders about Trastevere and on this 30 day trip we did not spend much time there until the end. Then I realized a crucial key to Trastevere: I love Trastevere, but during the day and not at all at night. It's like it's a werewolf or something. Go figure. And I'm glad we did figure because Gelateria Del Viale, just over the Ponte Garibaldi in Trastevere, is within all but meaningless inches of being as good as any of the above gelaterias. Which is to say that if you go here and to none of the others you'll be fine. I got a lot of flavors that weren't really made to go together, but it didn't matter. They were pure and smooth. The rose flavor sticks in my mind and won't leave. I would like to try it again and think about it for a long long while.
La Strega Nocciola (V. D. Vite, 100)
See above award for best flavor. Easy choice.
Bonus interruptive comments:
These were the four great gelaterias of Rome for me, the ones on the same, highest level: Come Il Latte, La Strega Nocciola, San Crispino, and Gelateria Del Viale. I am sure I missed some that were on this level, and there are also a few that I would have liked to give another chance to, feeling I might not have made the best flavor choices or gotten them at their best or remembered them quite so well. So I will continue with the neighborhood awards with the understanding that these following places are great, but on a level just a little below the highest tier above, at least pending more investigation:
Gelateria Del Teatro (Via dei Coronari, 65-66)
Super popular, watch out for those lines at peak time. They had beautifully made gelato and interesting flavors (half a dozen chocolates!). They were clearly great, but my truffle ice cream was full of stuff and not a clear enough experience and taste for me. I needed another stop here (that I didn't manage get) in order to know for sure what I really thought of them.
Gelateria Dei Gracchi (Via di Ripetta, 261)
It turns out I like my gelato distilled, pure and temple like. I want flavor but without all that texture. Dei Gracchi has the flavor, and you know its full of real fruit for instance, but you will crunch down on that pear texture when you are eating a pear gelato. But then I'm not so absolutely sure what I like because this stuff was really good, texture and all.
Campo de Fiore
Carapina (V. D. Chiavari, 37)
This choice surely best demonstrates the failure of my notes (or, more truly, the failure of my lack of notes). I know I liked Carapina a lot. It was early in the trip, I loved it but had no context for how good Carapina was in relation to other places. I have warm feelings towards them. I am happy to recommend them as the best of that area, but as to what I had there, or what it was like, well, nope, nothing. I haven't a clue.
Strangest Gelato flavor in Rome
Parmesan at Origini Gelato (V. D. Gesu 73)
I was really interested in odd gelato flavors, including savory flavors. I read about a famed gelato maker named Claudio Torce who specializes in this field. Unfortunately I did not get to the proper Claudio Torce shop, rather just to one that sold a collection of his more mundane flavors (I think that's what it was- see below). So I'm saying there are surely odder flavors out there, but this was the best of it as my encounters went, a pretty tasty, very textured organic gelato made with Parmesan cheese. It was, okay. Origini, across from the art store back behind Sopra Minerva (wander in for the Michelangelo that's just----fucking----sitting-----there!!!!) makes a very nice gelato and I appreciate their getting funky when they didn't have to.
Worst Gelato in Rome
Il Gelato Di Claudio Torce (Piazza del Risorgimento, 51)
No doubt there are hundreds of places worse than this. I was only seeking out the best in Rome. I really wanted to try Claudio Torce whose name gets bandied about a lot in Roman Gelato discussions. Unfortunately his shops have a ragged history about town. I think the main one, the real one, is near the Circo Massimo, and though I should've fairly gone there, I didn't make it. That one is probably fresh and full of his famed unique and savory flavors. But I found reference to this one near the Vatican and it turned out to be easy to track down one day and try as an alternative. It seemed more like a mildly unpleasant shop that was carrying his gelato, perhaps delivered in once or twice a week. The flavors were traditional. The gelato dense and too hard and full of icy bits. It was my worst gelato in Rome.
So, was it really bad? No, it wasn't that bad. It's gelato.