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Rome's gelato: heaven in a cup

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Susan Spano's Postcards From Rome

When it's 100 degrees on the Piazza Navona, gelato is better than Bernini. It's coolness in a cup, practically every flavor you ever dreamed of, intense and uncut.

Romans make up reasons to pass by their favorite gelaterias. Others pursue it like a science, learning to tell in a glance the good stuff from the plonk.

Erica Firpo, co-author of "Rome: Little Black Book: A Dining and Entertainment Guide," is an expert who went through a spell some years back when she ate gelato for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Chicagoan came to Rome in 2003 and began her gelato studies. I recently met her at Ciampini on the Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucino to find out about Italian ice cream.

Top-quality gelato is made fresh daily with fruit and water or with whole milk and ingredients such as chocolate or pistachios. It is kept cold in a special forced-air freezer that makes it smooth and spreadable.

At Ciampini, Firpo pointed out the covered metal ice cream tins set into the counter. "The gelato shouldn't be heaped up, and in old-fashioned places like this, they keep the lids on," she said.

"The banana should be pale oatmeal, the color of real mashed-up bananas, never yellow."

Then she stopped by the pistachio. "It's not my favorite," she said. "But people who love it say it's the hardest flavor for gelato makers to get right."

She had the server give me a spoonful of a pale green-colored ice cream. I tried it and my eyes widened.

"It's apple," Erica said, "a secret, unlisted flavor I just heard about."

It tasted like springtime, alive and delicious.

I generally try to stay away from gelato because I have an addictive personality and could too easily get hooked -- though when I first arrived in Rome I sometimes went to Giolitti, another fine, old-fashioned cafe-bar-gelateria nearby, just to look at the ice cream while drinking espresso.

So I was happy to put myself in Firpo's expert hands.

Her favorite spot is the Gelateria del Teatro, a recent addition to the artiginale, or natural, gelato scene in Rome. It's tucked away on a dead-end lane near the Piazza Navona. Windows looking into the kitchen allow visitors to watch the gelato being made in a mechanized, refrigerated churner, using only fresh and natural ingredients.

People rave about the pear with caramel and the sesame. But Firpo especially loves the cioccolato puro, which is 80% cacao.

Before we parted ways at Ciampini, Firpor, who was pregnant when we met, ordered a dish of banana and chocolate gelato with two dabs of unsweetened whipped cream, the classic accompaniment.

"This is for the baby," she said.

Ciampini, 29 Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina

Gelateria del Teatro, 70 Via di San Simone

Giolitti, 40 Via Uffici del Vicario

Il Gelatone, 28 Via dei Serpenti, my favorite, with 80 flavors of gelato, including soy, yogurt and dietetic, made on the premises.

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