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‘When you eat a cone it is love’: Five favorite gelaterie in Rome

American writer John Henderson tasted his first Italian gelato 40 years ago, and he's been eating it ever since. Now a Rome resident, he shares his guide to finding a good gelateria – along with five of his favourites.

'When you eat a cone it is love': Five favorite gelaterie in Rome
Traditionally made gelato in Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

I turned 62 last month. But as I licked my way across Rome, I felt the same as I did when I first came to Italy and had my first gelato in front of the Duomo in Milan. I was 22. I’m firmly convinced if I keep eating gelato in Rome I’ll be young forever.

Like everything else in Italy, gelato is all natural, as pure as the olives in olive oil and grapes in wine. It is Italy’s lunch break, its afternoon snack, its nightcap. Strolling the cobblestone passageways snaking off Piazza Navona or in front of the 2nd-century Pantheon, romantic Romans can’t seem to hold their lover’s hand without holding a gelato in their other one.

“When you eat a cone, it is love,” said Nazzareno Giolittli, owner of Giolitti, the hugely popular gelateria near the Pantheon.

“It’s not possible for American people to walk along the street because it’s too frantic. Rome, it’s more slow. It’s a tradition to walk around the city. When old people look at ice cream, they become young again.”

READ ALSO: 'A gelato artist is an emotion-maker'


Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

The key is finding the right gelateria. Gelateria owners — or gelato jockeys as I call them — I talked to and my own mouth-watering wanderings over the years estimate that only about 20 percent of the gelaterias are natural. The rest are industrialized frauds using artificial ingredients and colouring to make the flavours look more inviting. 

Want a tip? It’s easy. If the gelato is big and puffy and bright, it probably has more artificial ingredients than a small jet engine. Air creates that puffiness. And if the banana flavour is bright yellow and the pistachio bright green, keep walking. Think about it. Both fruits are kind of grayish.

READ ALSO: How to spot good quality gelato in Italy – and how to suss out the fakes

Real gelaterias present their gelato flattened in tubs. The ingredients are concentrated, real, natural.

Cream flavours consist of egg yolks, milk or cream, sugar plus whatever flavour, be it chocolate or hazelnut or whatever. Fruit flavours consist of water or milk, sugar and fresh fruit.

The real gelaterias change flavours with the season. You won’t find mango in January; you won’t find pear in July. It’s spring and fragole (strawberries) and lamponi (raspberries) are starting to return.


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Here are John's top five gelaterias in Rome, based partly on recommendations and mostly his own taste.

1. Brivido, Via Giovanni Battista Bodoni 62

Living five minutes away, I’ve made Brivido my nightcap. It’s cheaper than another glass of wine and much healthier.

Although purists can argue that getting the free dip into big vats of white and dark chocolate isn’t healthy or traditional, I’m not traditional, either. Biting into a hard, white-chocolate coating and sinking your tongue into soft, creamy flavours of all natural ingredients is my idea of ending the day.

My favorite flavour, amarena (black cherry), is especially good here as they use raw cherries. I loved the new flavour I tried this week, arachide (peanut). Brivido also has a whole line of vegan flavours.

2. Old Bridge, Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo

This is extraordinarily biased as I’ve been going here for 17 years. I’ve always liked Old Bridge because of its portions. They’re the largest in Rome but do not sacrifice their natural ingredients.

“Since we opened 30 years ago, we try to use two components: the quality and the quantity of the product,” said owner Gianluciano Mereu. “We always thought that these two things together are fundamental for the success of our work. So we prefer to earn a little less but we give something more to our clients. It’s our philosophy to thank them.”


Photo: Marina Pascucci

Like many gelaterias, Old Bridge goes to great lengths for its natural products. For its most popular flavour, pistachio, Mereu gets pistachios from Sicily near a volcano where the earth is richest. “They’re the best pistachios in the world,” he said.

3. Grezzo, Via Urbana 130

Grezzo opened four years ago in an inconspicuous shop in Monti, arguably Rome’s hippest, liveliest neighborhood today. Matteo Mercolini took a job here slingin’ gelato a few weeks ago.

“After I taste this my conception of gelato totally changed,” he told me. “I can not go to any other ice cream shops.”

Mine changed here, too. Grezzo is famous for its raw chocolate, and its display case is filled with tantalizing little chocolate chunks filled with everything from pralines to various nuts. Gelato has become Grezzo’s side venture, along with its cakes and cookies.


Photo: John Henderson

But the raw chocolate gelato was the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had. The chocolate beans are sun-dried, not toasted like most places. So concentrated, the chocolate exploded in my mouth. I paired it with nocciola (hazelnut) which is 40 percent nuts compared to the usual 20 percent, Mercolini said.

“Keeping the process under 42 degrees, it allows us to maintain all the nutritional values and, of course, the flavour is more powerful,” he explained. “It’s more concentrated in the mouth.”

I look forward to this summer when they break out their mango, raspberry, blueberry and passion fruit, which match the chocolate in popularity.

4. Neve di Latte, Via Luigi Poletti 6

Sitting on a side street behind the MAXXI modern art museum in northern Rome, Neve di Latte looks anything but touristy. Its bland grey and white interior makes it look older than its eight years and there’s nothing fancy about the flavours.

But the gelato I had — pistachio and variegato (cocoa, hazelnut, cream) — was spectacular. You could actually taste the cream separate from the cocoa and hazelnut.

How serious do gelaterias take their ingredients? Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from a biodynamic producer in Germany where the cows graze at about 4,600 feet. Its Amadei chocolate and Parisi eggs are from Tuscany. 

Underneath it all, the pistachio was as good as any I’ve ever had and I’ve tried it all over Italy.


Photo: Marina Pascucci

5. Fatamorgana, Via Roma Libera 11 and other locations 

This one makes the list purely by its adventurous nature. Fatamorgana, although part of a chain that’s always a red flag, has the most interesting flavours in Rome.

On my visit I saw carrot cake, baklava, Lapsang Souchong, chocolate, blackberry and grapes. I’ve read about such flavours here as cinnamon-apple-nut, tiramisu and blueberry cheesecake. One called Bacio del Principe (Kiss of the Prince) is made of gianduja (a chocolate paste made from ground hazelnuts). Panacea is almond milk, ginseng and mint.

I had its famous banana cream with sesame brittle and the sesame’s salt adds an intoxicating flair to the sweet banana. I combined that with seadas: pecorino cheese from Sardinia, chestnuts, honey and orange peel. You could taste every ingredient, kind of like a fine wine.

The mastermind behind all this is Maria Agnese, a country girl who made gelato as a child but never followed a recipe. She once used leaves from a local orchard’s almond tree and invented almond flowers gelato cream.

READ ALSO: How to make the perfect gelato


Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

John Henderson is a writer and expat living in Rome. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on his blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Find more of his stories here.

Want to write a guest blog for The Local Italy? Get in touch at [email protected]

DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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