I stepped out from Rome Termini train station into the blazing late-summer sun, my sweat sandwiched against my skin by my travellers’ backpack. I set course for my Airbnb, located in the nearby neighbourhood of San Lorenzo — a task made much more difficult by a lack of sleep, a GPS-less map and the presence of a massive Aurelian wall built around 275.
After lurching into the apartment, I had just one thing on my mind: Gelato.
Gelato is a punctuation mark. It’s a midday semicolon that provides a pause as morning shifts to afternoon, and a period when capping off a long dinner on an outdoor patio. If a so-so gelato is a question mark, a great gelato is an exclamation point — a creamy, balanced sweetness that surprises your taste buds.
The invention of gelato as we know it — that is, as a silky, dense, deeply flavorful ice cream — is frequently credited to Renaissance alchemist Cosimo Ruggieri, who made the flavor fior di latte in Florence in the 1500s. It’s distinct from American-style ice cream because it usually doesn’t use eggs, and often has more milk than cream. Five hundred years later, and Italians are still perfecting it.
Gelato in Rome is no mystery: There’s a gelateria every couple of street corners, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a truly awful one. Rather, the challenge is finding a great one. Here are five gelaterie that won’t disappoint.
Grangel – Granite & Gelati Roma
With a storefront no bigger than a newsstand and a modest display case of about a dozen all-natural gelati, Grangel might be easy to miss. It won the privilege of being my first gelato in Rome by sheer proximity to my apartment; it was a 30-second walk.
By law, gelato in Italy requires a minimum of 3.5 percent butterfat, which is peanuts compared to North American-style ice cream. (Häagen-Dazs normally packs four or five times that amount.) Without the distraction of an oily mouthfeel, lower fat content permits — even demands — flavours to pop.
Grangel goes a step beyond by only using cane sugar to sweeten its gelati, meaning its chocolates, nuts, fruit and other ingredients need to be top-quality. Luckily, they are. The dark chocolate gelato had the perfect bitterness and depth of flavour, yet didn’t overpower its milder cupmate, pistachio. The freshness of the nuts shone bright, giving an earthy, natural taste to the ice cream. Within moments of arriving in Rome, I’d found the standard against which I would measure all other gelato.
Gelateria Fatamorgana is often seen near the top of Rome’s must-eat lists, and for good reason. The local chain makes unusual blends that can include garlic, rose petals, cheese, basil, olives and other ingredients that beckon to adventurous eaters.
I, however, tend to stick to the classics. If we can’t get a basic recipe right, what hope do we have for more complex mixtures? Fortunately, I was not disappointed. The Trastevere location’s strawberry gelato was vibrant, sweet and satisfying on a hot September’s day.
Italians take gelato seriously. There are a number of rules dictating how to make and market gelato, including when and how to use the term artigianale (artisanal, made from natural ingredients) and produzione propria(made on site). It’s supposed to be a marker of quality, but is used by even the most mediocre gelaterie looking to capitalize on tourists.
Your best bet is knowing how to identify a good-quality gelato. The most important favour you can do yourself is steering clear of artificially coloured creams. Next, inspect the texture of the gelato; it’s meant to be a dense dessert, so if it is too fluffy-looking, or piled too high in its container, you should move on.
Gelateria dell'Angeletto makes the real thing. Hidden in the maze-like Monti, one of Rome’s oldest neighbourhoods, dell’Angeletto shop has garnered a worldwide reputation in its short life. On TripAdvisor and Yelp, tourists called it not only the best gelato in Rome, but the best in all of Italy.
I stepped onto its checkerboard floor and peered at the flavours, pondering my choices for several minutes before opting for its famed pistachio and stracciatella, a type of vanilla gelato with chocolate shavings. They were good, maybe even amazing by North American standards. But after five days in Rome, I wasn’t sure if I could agree with the “best in Rome” designation. I soldiered on.
Neve di Latte (Prati)
Sometimes gelato is a destination, and sometimes it’s just serendipity. While Fatamorgana and dell'Angeletto had been intentional stops on my day’s adventures, the best gelati I had in Rome were accidental discoveries.
On a sweaty, tiring walk to Castel Sant’Angelo I popped in to Neve di Latte for an espresso and gelato. A no-nonsense nonna and her excited grandchildren butted their way to the front of the line, giving me time to carefully consider my choice. The woman behind the counter periodically checked in with me as I waffled. Ultimately, I voted for chocolate and almond and settled in on the sidewalk patio. Perfection.
Gelato San Lorenzo
I’d passed Gelato San Lorenzo every single day of my week in Rome, but waited until my last night in town to finally try it.
The bright-white shop had an expansive refrigerated display case boasting an overwhelming number of options. Cinnamon-pear, Amalfi lemon, Tahitian vanilla, all the fruit granite you could possibly imagine. I watched in awe, and jealousy, as a woman ordered a kilo of pistachio.
Exhausted from a long day in the heat, I defaulted to my trusty standbys: stracciatella and coffee, topped with a miniature pizzelle. The bitterness of the coffee deftly played off the subtle sweetness of the vanilla-chocolate blend. I scraped my cup clean and briefly considered seconds before the responsible adult in my brain swept me away.
After a week of eating gelato at least once a day all over the city of Rome, I’d found my winner — and it was there, right across the street from my main bus stop.
G Adventures can make your gelato dreams come true. Check out our small group tours of Rome in particular, and Italy in general, here.