How do I love thee?
“They never have your favorite,” I say to my wife.
She’s lying on the sofa reading a book entitled Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity. Usually when she reads she pauses and gives me updates, sometimes lengthy ones. With this book, however, her glosses have been terse. Yesterday when I asked what was happening, she said simply, “Cicero.”
“Flavor,” I say now.
“Just a minute.”
I mean favorite gelato flavor. We’ve just come from a sprawling Italian market in Shelby Township called Vince and Joes, where we stood a full fifteen minutes in front of the gelato case and she looked and looked and, well, pined just a little. She said the sight of all that gelato made her homesick. She chose three flavors, three pints, café, pistachio, and nutella. They’re in the freezer right now, getting frozen.
I tell her I found something she might be interested in.
She sets her book aside, finally.
“In Riccione,” a town on the Adriatic a half hour from her village in San Marino, “a festival,” I say, “dedicated to gelato. It’s called GelatiAmo.” When I tell her it’s written all one word, (making “gelato” into a verb, meaning roughly “Let’s gelato!” or “I love gelato”), with that odd Capital A, she squints, as if picturing the word, smiles a little, and turns back to her book.
I have a defective sweet tooth. Unlike my wife, I am only mildly crazy about gelato.
I first glimpsed the larger possibilities of ice cream when I was in college. There was a Baskin Robbins on the edge of campus (for some reason, I called it Baskin and Robbins.) Up to then, for me ice cream was something you bought by the half gallon, either vanilla or chocolate, at the supermarket. Occasionally my mother got a little wild and went black walnut on us. But for the most part, our family stuck to the two bedrock flavors.
Thursday nights after class my junior year, I began stopping for ice cream. I gravitated to French vanilla. So many choices, though. On any given night you would find a variety chewy, rich, dairy fat sugar bombs, flavors (the word hardly seems apt) like Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Cotton Candy, Made with Snickers, Mom’s Making Cookies, and Reeses Peanutbutter Cup. In their cardboard buckets they looked like ice creams, but to me, a flavor like Carmel Praline Cheesecake just sounded like a grotesque mistake.
The Thursday night ice cream girl behind the counter had a round face and short blond milkmaid hair. She smiled at me as she handed me the miniature purple plastic tasting spoons. I tried to make conversation.
“So how long have you worked at Baskin and Robbins?”
“Baskin Robbins,” she said. “There’s no ‘and.’”
“Is it cold back there?”
“Have you tried all these?”
“Which one do you like?”
“Do your arms get tired, you know, scooping?”
I sensed we were slowly moving in the right direction. One night I thought I would show her I was capable of being adventurous. I said I’d like to taste Ambrosia.
“That’s new, isn’t it?”
“What’s in it?”
She handed me the little spoon and said she didn’t know.
I tasted it. “Ambrosia,” I said, “nectar the gods.”
“There’s only one God,” she answered.
Well, never mind. I said I liked it and asked for two scoops, just to make a point.
I had my first gelato a few months after I got married. My wife took me back to Italy with her. A few blocks down the street from her Aunt Angela’s was the lungomare, Rimini’s segment of the Adriatic Riviera, an almost continuous strip of beaches and umbrellas, hotels and pensione, bars and discotheques, restaurants and gelaterie extending from Ravenna south to Fano and beyond. Back then the newest and greatest gelato was made by Nuovo Fiore (new flower).
The old Zia was a terrific cook, an encyclopedia of gluttonous delights she had learned from the nuns she lived with, in cloister, when she was a school girl. One night, after sea snails and clams and a hand-made pasta called strozzopreti (priest chokers), we walked down Via Pascoli, crossed the railroad tracks, and came to Nuovo Fiore, a gleaming establishment on the corner. No cardboard buckets. There were shiny stainless steel basins of velvety gelati, a riot of bright colors, labels above each flavor with names like mirtilli, fragola, mora, liquirizia, nocciola, and stracciatella. We tasted a number of gusti with small purple plastic tasting spoons. Gelato, I discovered, was softer than ice cream, smoother, not as cold. Delicious.
My wife elbowed me. “What do you want?”
A small cup, I said. Crema.
“That’s vanilla,” she said. “Really?”
“Okay, I’ll try one of the chocolate.”
“Let me order for you.”
She did. I don’t remember what I flavor I tried that night. What I do recall is panna montata, a small, weightless swirl of whipped cream resting on top of the gelato. The gelato was good, really good. The panna was heaven. We were in Italy seven days. We had gelato every day, sometimes twice.
The fat’s the thing, and air, and temperature, that makes gelato gelato, and makes it different from ice cream. Gelato has less butterfat than ice cream, 4-9 percent as opposed to 15-25 percent. Gelato is churned slower, which means less air is worked into it, yielding greater density. And gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream. (Note to self: Take the gelato out of the freezer a half hour before we want to eat them.) You get a creamy, silky structure you can plunge a spoon into; on your tongue and palate it melts and spreads out. And there is flavor.
Flavor? I honestly don’t know that gelato tastes better than ice cream. (Of course it does, my wife would say.) It’s just different. It feels different in your mouth. Also, you’re eating it and, if you’re lucky, there’s the sea over there, or a piazza, a cathedral and bell tower. Never underestimate the impact of place on taste.
Occasionally I follow my wife to new flavors, fichismo (fresh ricotta with carmelized figs), pesca al forno (baked peaches with chocolate and amaretti), but I tend to default to vanilla and chocolate. Boring, she says. Crema, nutella, nocciolo, gianduia, bacio–that’s boring I can live with.
Whereas her favorite gelato is zuppa inglese, the Italian version of English trifle: a dessert of sponge cake soaked in cherry liquor with layers of custard and chocolate. She would go back to Orvieto any day, not to see the magnificent duomo again so much as to revisit the gelateria right next to cathedral where she remembers the best zuppe inglese she’s ever had. There are varieties of religious experience.
Gelato, to paraphrase James Joyce, is general all over Italy. When we hit a new town over there and feel the need, we ask 2-3 people where the best gelato is. Usually the response is immediate. There’s the smile, the widening eyes, the look of rapture.
Life is short. Don’t forget to gelato.