Experiences in different places are not always the same, and ice cream experiences are no exception. American and Italian ice cream are vastly different, but both offer a delicious relief from the heat or just a cool treat for fun. Unless you go to a local ice cream parlor in America, the best ice cream you’ll get will most likely come in the form of a carton from the grocery store that’ll cost you a pretty penny and can be full of unnecessary amounts of sugar and other bad things for you. Going to an ice cream parlor that makes their own ice cream, while it may be fresher and likely without additives, can still be just as expensive, if not more, than cartons from the store. The only other alternative, aside from simply not eating ice cream, is making it yourself, but who has the time for that hassle anyway? The last time I tried to make ice cream was at a camp when I was fourteen, and it was barely a step above milky-soup. It tasted well enough but was nowhere near my expectations of ice cream.
What I’ve learned after traveling for a course in food and travel writing to Italy for the first time in my twenty years of life, is that their version of ice cream is gelato. The key, however, is to not fall for any of the touristy “fake” gelatos, as I was repeatedly told by the professor. If the colors looked too outlandish, whipped and piled high with fruit exposed to the air, then it’s not authentic gelato. During my time in Italy, I discovered just how amazing real gelato is compared to what I grew used to in America. Where else would I find the cold treat that was freshly made that morning, with fresh ingredients, and won’t be super expensive? So far, the only answer is: Italy.
My gelato experience began with a line far out the door of Giolitti’s gelato parlor, fast-paced workers yelling out to be prepared when you reach the counter, more flavor combinations than you could imagine, and a sugary-sweet aroma wafting down the narrow street of Rome. Just a hop and a skip away from the Pantheon, my first gelato experience started off with annoying, yellow-hat wearing, Italian children and another couple cutting in front of us and taking their grand-ole time ordering. The tiramisu, Oreo, and amaretto gelato with fresh crème was wonderful, but for someone who has severe anxiety, this chaos made my first time getting gelato a little bit too much to handle. The large crowd of people waiting outside the door and shoved together by the counter waiting their turn is a good representation of how popular this place is, and even when faced with the long wait time, natives and tourists alike deem it worthy of their patience. The plethora of flavors did not help either. Instead, it made me feel overwhelmed with all the possible choices and combinations. It was hard for me to decide if I wanted to pick a safe flavor, something I would be familiar with, or do if I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. In the end, I picked three flavors that would not be as common back in the States, but interesting enough so that I could feel like it was truly experiencing the authentic Italian gelato.
Nestled near the University of Rome, my second try with gelato at San Lorenzo’s was the exact opposite of Giolitti’s; it was a lot calmer and offered a variety of flavors, but at a lesser scale than the first parlor. What they lacked in options, however, they made up for in taste and experience. The parlor didn’t feel like it was in the busy center of Rome, though it was just outside the Roman walls. My first time going to San Lorenzo’s I played it safe and ordered mango and raspberry cheesecake in a cone – in clunky Italian, much to the amusement of the two workers. The gelato was so good, I had to go back the next night to get more, this time spicing things up with lemon, raspberry basil, and mango on a brioche bun. It didn’t matter what time I went there, mid-day or late at night, both times offered a relaxed feeling and a comfortable place to sit and eat my cold treat. This place was the closest of the two Rome gelato parlors that I felt could be compared to the experiences I’ve had with ice cream shops in America.
In Florence, I tried out two gelato parlors during my week stay in the city. The first place, located across the Arno, was called La Strega Nocciola, which translates to “The Nutty Witch”. This female-run gelato parlor didn’t have more than two dozen flavors, but the dark chocolate, coconut, and cream gelato I had made me want to just sit there for hours. The second place I visited, close to the Duomo and near our apartment, was the more touristy gelato parlor I went to, but it still felt more authentic than most. The strawberry gelato tasted more like frozen pureed strawberries than ice cream, and the vanilla tasted like fresh custard. Both places offered a handful of flavors, a welcoming smile, and a relaxed atmosphere. I found, in my time in Italy, that it is more in Italian’s nature to be laidback and chill rather than it is of Americans. In Italy, time is much more fluid, where 2 o’clock p.m. more closely resembles 2:11 p.m. That in America would be considered late and people would not be pleased. The same could be said for gelato. Going to get a cup or cone of this creation could also include stopping no less than four times to admire your surroundings, be it the architecture, a landmark, or graffiti. That would not go over well in America, I’ve found. Even wandering up and down a street in Bologna multiple times in search of a gelato place, only to meander off to take photos of graffiti with a cup of half-melted gelato in hand is something that I could only see myself doing in Italy.
Location really matters, at least when it comes to a gelato experience. Going out for ice cream will never have the same weight it once did to me now that I’ve been exposed to these new ways of living and a better version of ice cream. Though, when I try to be upset about that, I can’t bring myself to be mad at the experiences I’ve had in my short time in another country for the first time. If anything, it has allowed me to be more appreciative of what I learned and saw and heard and tasted, and that’s something that will always be with me, even after I’ve arrived back in the States. Sure, my taste buds will never quite forgive me for giving them Friendly’s Forbidden Dark Chocolate or Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food instead of made-that-morning fresh gelato, but at least I can say that I had the good stuff at least once in my life.