04 July 2008
To slightly adjust Winston Churchill’s famous declaration, “If there is no gelato in Heaven, I will not go.” In my opinion, it just wouldn’t be Heaven without this heavenly treat.
Top quality Italian ice creams have very little air blended into them, so they have a more intense flavor. Their density gives them a richer “mouth feel” (that’s an industry term, not just something I made up), which makes them more satisfying (according to people who study such things). And the best makers are quite fussy about the quality of the foods and flavorings they use in their gelati. They shun artificial and out-of-season stuff. For these reasons alone, ice cream addicts – like myself – are just happier in Italy.
Let me make this a little more interesting for them. Here’s a tour of Venice’s most delightful gelati, organized by the sestieri (the six boroughs or counties of the city)…
Upon arrival, go straight to a chic new place in Castello called Riva Reno. The door sign just reads ‘gelato’ – small “g.” Usually you’ll find two chocolate choices (regular and dark) made with costly red cacao. You might also find saffron gelato speckled with sesame seeds. Try Contessa (hazelnut and almond with bits of amaretti and caramelized almonds), Mango Heera (fresh Indian mango with tangy yogurt), Alice Mascarpone (mascarpone with streaks of hazelnut praline called gianduja), or Leonardo (pinenut dotted with whole toasted pinenuts). I’m waiting to try Otello (chocolate zabaglione, Marsala wine, and little chunks of Barozzi torta cioccolata). I like the creative thinking here, and these pretty names, almost as much as the exceptional flavors and topnotch quality. These are stunning, memorable ice creams, velvety and dense. Those who are serious about gelato need to come here more than once or twice.
Travel a little farther east and visit il Pingouino, right on the Bacino waterfront. The house specialty is “Mamma Mia” – vanilla-fresh peach studded with bits of almond macaroons. But a word of warning… get there early because it sells out fast.
In Dorsoduro, find Gelateria Lo Squero across the rio from the squero (gondola repair yard). The choice of gelati here depends on what lovely things came to market and caught the eye of the master maker in back. Hope for pompelmo rosa (pink grapefruit ice cream, not sorbet – seems weird, tastes great) or maracuja (passion fruit). There might be chocolate flavored with something special, such as dates. Or pony up the extra half-euro for the premium Sicilian pistacchi. I guarantee you’ve never tasted a better pistachio ice cream. And you can take a nice walk on the nearby Zattere while you enjoy it.
Also drop by Gelateria il Doge in Campo Santa Margherita for their range of flavored cioccolata fondente (dark chocolate) ice creams. Con peperoncino has a fascinating hint of chile pepper, and con arancia is perfumed with Sicilian blood orange. But avoid the one with rosemary and lavender – it’s a lot like chocolate-covered potpourri, or maybe “Carpet Fresh.”
Close to my house in San Marco, on Calle della Mandorla, there’s Igloo, which offers a real gelato joy – fig & mascarpone. Yes, it tastes very much like that lovely fresh cheese, extra-creamy and not overly sweet. (I just wish they wouldn’t strain the fig seeds out before freezing, because I enjoy that little gritty crunch. But they insist it would be unpleasant to eat.) The other special treat here is their delicate, pale pink watermelon gelato. I’ve never seen this one offered anywhere else.
When you’re in Cannaregio halfway between Rialto and the railway station, stop in at il Gelatone (“the big ice cream”) and get something out-of-the-ordinary. Their honey-sesame gelato will remind you of the Middle Eastern candy called halvah. They also make a very good liquirizia (licorice) gelato – don’t be put off by its drab khaki color if you enjoy that particular taste. I’m rarely willing to forego gelato for sorbet but on a hot day, their aniseed-mint sorbetto is a strange, cooling delight.
Cross the Grand Canal to get to San Polo. While wandering the “peopled labyrinth of walls” (that’s Shelley, not me) you’re bound to pass Majer. If it’s wintertime, don’t miss their deceptively simple, elegant cinnamon gelato. You’ll wonder why this flavor isn’t in everyone’s ice cream case. In warmer months try the fragrant green apple, and in autumn there’s only one right choice – fresh pear.
For the true gelato adventurer, the best place is in Santa Croce, and it’s called Alaska. Here the very imaginative Carlo Pistacchi (“Charlie Pistachios”) makes about a dozen little batches of whatever strikes his fancy everyday. He is ultra-particular about his ingredients: for him, this is art. Go boldly, and do not fear the strange flavors. His sedano (celery) gelato is surprisingly refreshing in hot weather. His carota (carrot) flavor is somehow familiar and friendly (think ‘carrot cake’). In autumn there might be a cardamom-scented choice, which marries nicely with the pumpkin one. If you go for spiciness, there’s wasabi gelato featuring the jade green, ultra-hot Japanese horseradish. Often there is zenzero (fresh ginger), with pungent shreds to thrill the sinuses. That one pairs perfectly with his melon or pear flavor. As a purist, I usually prefer a single scoop, one taste at a time. But here it really pays to double up so you can mix and match. Oh! And Signor Pistacchi’s semi-frozen granite (thick, icy drinks like American “slushies”) are the very best around. He sprinkles fresh basil shreds on the cantaloupe one.
So, fellow freaks, I’ve covered the whole city, but if you still need a fix on your way home, the very best fior di latte (“flower of milk” or plain sweet cream with no vanilla) gelato is – surprise! – just a few steps past the security gates at the airport! You can leave Venice with a little taste of Heaven still lingering on your lips.