My addiction to Roman iced espresso topped with whipped cream has historic roots. It may even be genetic--a gustatory heirloom left by my Italian grandfather Alessandro, who gobbled granita di caffe several times daily. His lavish mustache flecked with fluffy cream was a regular sight in the Pantheon neighborhood of central Rome where he lived, minutes away on foot from La Tazza d’Oro cafe, Rome’s granita fountainhead.
I use the term “fountainhead” deliberately. A hundred yards southwest of the cafe stands the Pantheon’s ancient colonnade, fronted by a late-16th century fountain. Its frolicking dolphins and bemused human heads spout spring water from the centuries-old Aqua Virgo aqueduct, whose pipes just happen to run through the walls of La Tazza d’Oro.
Rome is among the world’s great coffee cities, with atmospheric cafes and roasting houses aplenty perfuming the crooked streets. Like many Roman coffee connoisseurs, my grandfather attributed the excellence of La Tazza d’Oro’s granita not only to the house-toasted Arabica blend, which remains unchanged since this family-owned spot opened in 1946. He swore it was the Aqua Virgo water that made the coffee special.
Grandfather shared his coffee passion with my mother, who in turn passed it on to me. I remember my first taste of granita almost 40 years ago, probably because it provided my first caffeine high. One day, as we traversed our Roman neighborhood from the Trevi Fountain’s monumental rockeries toward the Pantheon, my mother herded my siblings and me into La Tazza d’Oro. “Your grandfather’s favorite cafe,” she said, “and he loved granita.”
I figured we, too, should love granita, whatever it was. If it hadn’t been for the whipped cream, though, I wouldn’t have eaten the bitter, strong-tasting black ice underneath. This is one dessert that’s not for kids.
As we spooned granita into our mouths my mother told us about the Aqua Virgo and showed us where the aqueduct conduits run under Via dei Condotti, the road at the base of the Spanish Stairs lined with fancy clothes shops. By then I was bouncing off walls, the frozen espresso coursing through my veins.
A decade or more elapsed before I, like my grandfather, became a granita fiend. By then I was back in California. So it was only a few years ago that, while visiting Rome, I tried to confirm my grandfather’s Aqua Virgo theory. The manager of La Tazza d’Oro, Silvano Giovanucci, nodded gravely while showing me the yard-thick wall where the aqueduct’s massive conduit runs through the coffeehouse. It supplied the espresso machines until the mid-1990s. Water now arrives in modern pipes, he said, but the espresso and granita are as popular as ever. So was my grandfather wrong? “No,” said Giovanucci with a smile. “The Aqua Virgo had no chlorine, and if you filter your water you’ll achieve similar results.”
For those of us who can’t saunter over to La Tazza d’Oro for a daily granita fix, I run my water through a Brita instead, buy the best espresso beans I can find and follow the recipe Giovanucci taught me. The results? Even my grandfather would approve.
Granita di Caffe
(Recipe adapted from “Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome,” by David Downie)
About 1 cup freshly brewed strong Italian espresso made with at least 3 tablespoons of top-quality, freshly ground coffee (about 8 shots)
4-6 teaspoons sugar, to taste
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, if desired
Pour coffee into a glass loaf pan. Stir in sugar, beating with a fork. Freeze for 30 to 40 minutes, until coffee starts to form crystals. Remove bowl from freezer and stir mixture with a fork, breaking apart the crystals.
Return coffee mixture to freezer, removing and stirring it vigorously every 15 minutes or so, until coffee is thoroughly frozen and splintery like sherbet, about 1 hour.
Whip the cream, folding in confectioners’ sugar if using. Fill the bottom of each of six narrow, small glasses with a dollop of whipped cream. Spoon granita on top. Finish off each glass with 1 heaping teaspoon of whipped cream. Serve immediately.