Let’s talk about gelato. A term often bandied about by neophytes and dessert junkies alike, gelato is actually just the Italian word for ice cream. What has given it legendary connotations worldwide is that in Italy, ice cream is quite simply better than anywhere else. The texture is simultaneously denser and softer than other ice creams, resulting in a velvety mouthfeel. Gelato is never so cold that it is hard. You don’t need to bite it, either. It clings to the spoon or cone, but gives sensuously to the slightest pressure of your tongue.
To be completely fair, San Francisco ice cream makers tend to have more creative flavors (like so much else, ice cream is an SF food fetish). In Italy, you are unlikely to find balsamic and strawberry, or avocado, or bourbon and cornflake, except at a few select shops. However, there isn’t an ice creamery in the US that can match Italian nut flavors like pistachio, pine nut, hazelnut or walnut. In the past week, I admit I’ve eaten more gelato than in the past year. The two gelaterias that stand out so far are G. Fassi, near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and Fior di Luna in Trastevere.
Fassi is emphatically of the old school, situated in a cavernous space with promisingly grumpy service. The flavors are mostly traditional, comprising a good twenty five different fruit, chocolate, nut and dessert combos. You pay and get a ticket, then at the counter you order the flavors (multiple) that you want in your cup or cone. My first taste of Fassi was actually an ice cream cake at home. It blew my mind, firstly because of the clarity of the flavors and the phenomenal silky texture, but secondly because this ice cream cake was all ice cream, no cake in sight. It was as if someone had gone to the fount of all good desserts and tailored one to me. Coffee, dark chocolate and vanilla melted beautifully on my tongue, I found it disturbingly difficult to stop eating. My second taste was at peak hours. I got elbowed by several mothers ordering for whole soccer teams, but I walked out victorious with a cup of pistachio and coffee. Both flavors were lusciously tasty, though I've since discovered much better pistachio. Fassi's is ultimately too sweet for me.
On my third trip to Fassi, I encountered another love at first taste: rice gelato. I expected it to taste like arroz con leche, and at its core it does taste like rice pudding. However, the flavor is so delicate and mildly sweet that you find yourself tasting it over and over to attempt to capture its essence. Also, incredibly, there are actual grains of rice in the gelato, giving your mouth a contrast between the luscious cream and slightly al dente rice. It is, quite frankly, crazy good. Thankfully Fassi is around the corner…life is beautiful.
Fior di Luna is a completely distinct experience, being both very tiny and relatively nontraditional. Texturally, the gelato is a little fluffier than Fassi, though not in a bad way. They take a lot of care in choosing ingredients and the emphasis is on fresh, seasonal fruit flavors. Here, you can only get a cup because they disdain the artificial ingredients in cones (though they do have these fabulous hazelnut wafers that you can eat with your gelato). My favorite flavor so far has been the subtle perfume of pine nut. Their pistachio was slightly too sweet for me, but the winter melon was wonderfully light. They also have chocolate with chili and chocolate with rum, both of which I plan on trying. I look forward to their summer fruit flavors, since the selection expands considerably. If you are in the neighborhood, do try to stop by.
In summation, it is perfectly reasonable to eat gelato every day here. Or so I keep telling myself.