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Iced gems: chef Jacob Kenedy’s guide to the best gelato in Rome


This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to Rome

Rome. There cannot be a destination more romantic, esoteric or delicious. Even if Romans no longer live la dolce vita in quite the same way, it is still visible and tangible to the visitor. My mother grew up in Rome in the 1950s and early 1960s; Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was based in part on her family, and a party my grandmother once threw. Seeking to follow their footsteps, I lived there for six months before heading to Bologna to study gelato-making under maestro Giovanni Figliomeni (study that later spawned Gelupo, the London gelateria I opened in 2010). 

Gelato in Rome has roots in the city’s earliest history. Ancient Romans stored ice and compressed snow in frigidaria (insulated cellars) to cool wine or to mix with fruit juices and honey. What was once Emperor Nero’s treat can still be found on the banks of the Tiber today, where grattachecche, or ice shavers, scrape shavings from blocks of ice with a hand plane, pile it in cups and douse it with fruit tinctures and almond or tamarind syrups. 

A selection of gelati at Giolitti Tubs of different-coloured gelati in two rows at Giolitti, a gelateria in Rome
A selection of gelati at Giolitti
 Jacob Kennedy standing by the Art Nouveau Alla Fonte d’Oro kiosk
Jacob Kenedy at the Alla Fonte d’Oro kiosk in Rome’s Trastevere district

Over the millennia, iced desserts have evolved into various forms including granita and cremolati (slushies), semifreddi (iced parfaits) and, perhaps best of all, gelato.

Rome is not only Italy’s capital, but its gelato capital too, home to more than 1,400 gelaterie. That said, much gelato in Rome, like anywhere, is abysmal. Avoid like the plague any places with lurid shades of gelato piled high above the top of their container. Instead, here are the places that have remained reliably excellent ever since I can remember, as well as a few more recent discoveries. 

It is possible to visit all in a few hours on foot (you can see Rome in a day); recently I took my four-year-old on a walking tour of the city’s gelaterie — and we did eat at all, in one day. It was a good day.

Gelato

Giolitti

Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40, 00186 Rome
A waiter placing a tray of two glasses of gelati on a table at Giolitti
Giolitti: ‘If I had to send you to one gelateria in Rome, this would be it’
The gelateria’s flagship has been at its current address for almost a century

If I had to send you to one gelateria in Rome, this would be it. Despite the fact that Giolitti now has franchises in the Middle East and beyond, it remains, after five generations, owned and operated by the Giolitti family. The business started as a dairy on Salita del Grillo in 1890, and as a café at the current address since 1930. 

My mum remembers parties in the 1950s and early ’60s thrown by Jenny Nicholson Crosse, Robert Graves’ daughter, who lived at the very top of the Torre del Grillo (a narrow medieval tower). She would ask a local ice-cream vendor to hoik his little cart all the way up her staircase, where he would offer the flavours of the day: chocolate, crema, strawberry or lemon. After a few years, Jenny allegedly started discussing with him the possibilities of white peach when in season, or figs with marsala as a gelato. It turned out this vendor was likely to have been Silvano Giolitti, of the company’s third generation, who helped forge what gelato is today. One of his descendants, Nazzereno — who, along with his siblings and children, runs their small empire — says Silvano pushed the boundaries by mixing fruit and milk, which no one else was doing at the time.

A glass containing pale green, peach and lilac-coloured gelato, topped with whipped cream and a cigar-shaped wafer, on a table at. Giolitti
Orange, apple and pink grapefruit are among Giolitti’s many flavours . . .
A hand scooping out a purple-coloured gelato from one of several tubs containing pink, mauve and lilac-coloured gelati at Giolitti
. . . which also include watermelon and chocolate ‘seeds’, white peach and a ‘spectacular’ hazelnut

Today, at Giolitti’s Uffici del Vicario flagship, a crew of eight gelato chefs makes between 1,000 and 1,500 litres of the stuff a day in a bewildering array of flavours. The hazelnut is unusually dark roast and light in texture — it’s spectacular. Watermelon comes studded with chocolate “seeds” (which Nazzereno was tasked with making as a kid), the passion fruit is bitingly fabulous and the white peach is the best I have ever tasted (light, crisp, aromatic and flecked with skin). The gelato al riso (milk and rice grains) is lush and decadent. But to top it all: a delightful champagne sorbet. Website; Directions

Otaleg

Via di San Cosimato, 00153 Rome

Otaleg (which is “gelato” spelt backwards) is a little gelateria in Trastevere that started making waves as soon as it opened in 2012. Owner Marco Radicioni, an alumnus of Claudio Torcè (whose Torcè gelaterie are also worth visiting), is a gelato-making maverick.

A hand holding a cone topped with Otaleg’s pecorino asparagus and egg-yolk ‘omelette’ gelato
Otaleg’s maverick gelati include pecorino, asparagus and egg-yolk ‘omelette’

I am going to ignore his wackier creations, such as avocado and sage; pecorino, asparagus and egg-yolk “omelette”; or mussels au gratin. These are gastronomic accomplishments and fascinatingly delicious, but not what I consider gelato, so to focus on them would be to miss the real point.

Radicioni’s fruit sorbets are mind-blowingly pure and intense: I have cried tears of joy at his mulberry sorbet, raspberry and passion fruit and peach. Pistachio and hazelnut here redefine what these gelati should be; with massive amounts of nut, they are packed with flavour and mouthfeel. A sorbet of walnuts with chocolate flecks demonstrated what is so special about Otaleg: it had the taste and texture of eating a lot of very good walnuts. 

A hand holding a cone of burgundy-coloured sorbet by Otaleg in one hand and a scoop in the other
‘Mind-blowingly pure and intense’ is how Kenedy describes the sorbets . . .
Otaleg owner Marco Radicioni wearing chef’s whites and black rubber gloves
. . . created by Otaleg owner Marco Radicioni

Other gelaterie aim to have every gelato be the same texture, so they can be easily served from the same freezer. Marco claims not to care about texture, to focus only on flavour. However, it is in texture that he shines: his gelato takes on the texture of its ingredient — it feels like walnuts, or pears, or pistachios, or chocolate. And while it feels fabulous, it also tastes spectacular and challenges what gelato is in the best possible way. It is, after all, gelato, backwards. Website; Directions

Al Settimo Gelo

Via Vodice 21, 00195 Rome

Mirella Fiumanò is a lovely and evidently loving person. At her gelateria, Al Settimo Gelo, she takes raw ingredients — figs, pomegranates, pears, peaches and apricots from her garden; almonds from Avola, pistachios from Bronte, Tonda hazelnuts from Viterbo, to name a few — and lavishes them with affection. 

I’ve tried many of her signature flavours: “Greek” (yoghurt and chestnut honey); “Voglio Tornare Bambino” (“I Want to Be a Child Again”) with caramelised hazelnut brittle; “Persian” (rose and saffron) and “Afghan” (cardamom). I loved them all. Her pistachio gelato is particularly special. While most gelaterie use pastes of roast pistachios for an intense flavour, Mirella uses raw, untoasted ones, yielding a light, ethereal, delicate and yet beautifully fragrant flavour. The hazelnut was as it should be: laden with hazelnuts. Passion fruit redefined the sorbet for me. A chestnut sorbet — made simply by mashing chestnuts she had boiled in the kitchen — has set a new gold standard. 

At Al Settimo Gelo, Mirella has gone out of her way to make life difficult for herself, but it is a life she loves. And love is an emotion that binds her ices together. Website; Directions


Grattachecca (shaved ice)

Alla Fonte d’Oro 

Lungotevere Raffaello Sanzio, 00153 Rome
A hand holding a transparent cup of green and blue grattachecca by Alla Fonte d’Oro against a pale blue sky
Alla Fonte d’Oro’s grattachecche are a staple of the Roman summer

It is a must to try grattachecca when in Rome (and in summer, at least once a day). The classic flavours — cherry, strawberry, watermelon, mint, almond, tamarind, cedro (citron) and lemoncocco (lemon-coconut) — are invariably the best. 

There are kiosks across the city to choose from, but the top choice is Alla Fonte d’Oro in Trastevere — it is the oldest in Rome (since 1913), possibly the most picturesque and they make all their syrups in house. 

A transparent plastic beaker containing Alla Fonte d’Oro’s ‘rainbow’ grattachecca
The menu at Alla Fonte d’Oro includes its ‘rainbow’ grattachecca
People in a queue at Alla Fonte d’Oro’s kiosk, which dates from 1913
Alla Fonte d’Oro’s kiosk has been a Trastevere institution since 1913

Unlike others, at Alla Fonte d’Oro they use a machine to grind their ice from cubes (it stays colder that way). Lemon here means unsweetened, freshly squeezed, bracing Amalfi lemon juice, while tamarind is made from scratch by fortifying coconut syrup with aromatics. Massimo, the owner, is fourth generation — his family allegedly invented lemoncocco, which remains his best seller — but his favourite is “limone, tamarindo e amarena ”: fresh lemon juice, tamarind syrup and confected sour cherries, with chunks of coconut and biting morsels of pith-on chopped lemon. You can sip it as you take in the views of the Tiber over the roar of the Lungotevere traffic. Open seasonally. Website; Directions


Cremolato (ice slush)

La Casa del Cremolato 

Via di Priscilla 18, 00199 Rome

Outside La Casa del Cremolato, Mario, the owner, plies me with shot glasses of today’s flavours, while explaining that cremolato began as a mistake his father made. Three times he starts to tell me the story, but no matter how much I coax, we cannot reach the punchline. Never do I learn what the mistake was, or how it arose. 

Mario comes across as a rebel, a loveable rascal. What is more, the man can cook: he does not have scales in his kitchen, instead measuring by taste. He buys excellent, mostly local products, hand-selects fruit for ripeness each day and makes a lot of people very happy.

Cremolato, ice slush, is a cousin, or rather a subset, of granita. Mario has different approaches to fruit and non-fruit cremolati, which makes for great textural contrast. All are served with dense whipped cream spooned on to the cup.

Of his fruit cremolati, I’ve tried melon, blackberry, strawberry, fig and visciola (wild sour cherry) — all incredible. The ripe fruits are smushed by hand with sugar and water, then frozen, mixing regularly with a paddle. The result is a mixture of tasty ice slush with chunky morsels of frozen fruit of blindingly high quality. Like granita, only coarser.

Of his non-fruit cremolati, I’ve tried chocolate, almond and pistachio — also all tremendous. Mario makes rich almond or pistachio milk, or chocolate water, and churns the liquid in an ice-cream machine for a smooth, spreadable texture. Like granita, only smoother.

Whatever cremolato is or how it came to be, at La Casa del Cremolato it is brilliant and unique to Rome. The only mistake would be not to go. Website; Directions


Coffee granita

Caffè Sant’Eustachio and La Casa del Caffè Tazza d’Oro

Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 82 and Via degli Orfani 84, both 00186 Rome
A man scooping iced coffee into the top of a cup of coffee granita
Loading up a coffee granita at Sant’Eustachio . . .
A glass cup of coffee granita, with whipped cream and wafers on the top of it
 . . . which Kenedy says makes his ‘platonic ideal’ of the sweet

These two venerable cafés, both a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, vie for the title of the best coffee in Rome. Both are famous for — and excellent at — granita al caffè. Where grattachecca is crunchy shaved ice with syrup atop, granita is slushy-frozen sweetened liquid (coffee, almond milk, or fruit juice) with Arab origins in ninth-century Sicily. Both Sant’Eustachio and Tazza d’Oro make the platonic ideal of granita al caffé: indulgently intense, dark and bittersweet. Have it with whipped cream (the cream is put in the bottom of the cup and atop, sandwiching the granita in-between) for a breakfast treat or daytime pick-me-up.

Two waiters in white shirts and burgundy gilets behind the counter at Sant’Eustachio café, with a man beside them in a blue shirt prepping coffee granita
Sant’Eustachio has been serving coffee in all its forms to Romans for more than two centuries

Sant’Eustachio, founded in 1800 but refurbed at the turn of this century, is the more touristy. It has evolved into a trendy spot, with mega crema on its fair-trade, organic, wood-fired, slow-food-authenticated coffee. Sant’Eustachio also produces delicious coffee-flavoured treats — biscuits, chocolates and cookies — to nibble on or take home. Website; Directions

Established in 1944, Tazza d’Oro is a mid-century masterpiece, still roasting in house, with an incredible intensity and depth to its coffee (but little crema). It is more of a classic Italian café that also serves pastries. Website; Directions

Jacob Kenedy is the chef-patron of Bocca di Lupo, Gelupo and Plaquemine Lock, London

Who in your opinion does the best gelato in Rome? Tell us about it in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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