In Search of Rome's Holy Trinity: Pizza, Coffee, and Gelato

>I apply for help introducing my stepdaughter to the architectural wonders of Rome—but not to the holy trinity of local specialties

Pantheon Ceiling Jessica Auerbachedit.jpg

I recently spent a few days in Rome seeing it through the eyes of my stepdaughter, Jess, who'd never been and who was celebrating a milestone birthday, her thirtieth. She concentrated on getting a feel for the city, and I concentrated on the holy trinity of pizza bianca, coffee, and gelato.

Because Jess was new to the city and it had been years since I had walked each neighborhood guided by Georgina Masson's Companion Guide and Anya M. Shetterly's Romewalks, both of which are happily in print in revised editions, I applied for help from the Life channel's own Katie Parla, who has admirably supported herself since leaving college by working as a tour guide, food historian, and sommelier. She herself would be unavailable for one of the masterly tours she has given Food channel readers, because after discovering the fascinating, hidden cuisine of Libyan Jews, she was off to Libya herself for the first time. (In the event, I was extremely relieved to hear, she called off her trip at the eleventh hour.) She told me to book with a company she has often worked for, which has the reputation of giving the most scholarly and comprehensive tours available: Context Tours, which runs walking tours in 14 cities around the world.

She concentrated on getting a feel for the city, and I concentrated on the holy trinity of pizza bianca, coffee,
and gelato.

It was excellent advice. In two days we took one introductory two-hour "Orientation" walk and two three-hour Context tours, and I would very happily have taken more. The intimacy and ease of movement is that of a private tour, but the group tours, limited to six people, have the same feel and cost considerably less: private tours for your own group start at about 240 euros and average around 300, whereas most three-hour tours are from 35 euros a person for the two-hour orientation to an average of 65 to 85 euros a person for the three-hour walks. Subjects cover pretty much everyplace you'd want to go and every subject, with a heavy emphasis on food--no tours based on my holy trinity, alas, but numerous tours led by the expert Maureen Fant, like an "annotated lunch" at Checchino dal 1887, a classic Rome restaurant in the area called Monte Testaccio specializing in the quinto quarto, meaning "fifth quarter," or offal, to which I was introduced by our own Faith Willinger, who of course knows everything about everyplace in Italy. And there's a market walk sensibly centered on the Testaccio area, which has many more actual food markets than the central Campo de Fiori, where more stalls sell generic market trinkets than fresh produce.

We didn't take the tour I most want to take one day, the Architecture of Fascism, in the horribly fascinating EUR, a planned city five miles from the center that Mussolini started building in 1936. Mussolini's stamp is everywhere in Rome, and in the rest of the country, for that matter; the blank-facaded, sterile, mute buildings out of a de Chirico bear his stamp, though as Diane Archibald, the "docent" who led our twilight Architecture of Rome tour of central Rome, pointed out, the style became known as the sanitized "modernism" or "rationalism," and was Italy's version of the International Style. EUR is a specialized taste--gleaming and cold--and will take most of a day. For a crash course in the monumental excess of the Fascist style, go to the Foro Italico, closer to the center--a sports center originally called the Foro Mussolini and modeled on the Forum, which is ringed by huge, hilariously campy homoerotic sculptures of athletes.


But we did have a good, if brief, orientation tour that took us from the Piazza del Popolo through the edge of the Villa Borghese and down the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain and then to the Pantheon--an essential first step to getting a sense of the city. Plus we got to make a first trinity stop at the small location of gelateria San Crispino behind the fountain in Via della Panetteria 42--the first center-city branch the ice-cream maker opened. I was originally sent, urgently, by Faith, who knows I'll walk a mile for good ice cream--and I walked several, to the original location a healthy 40-minute walk on the far side of the train station. It was, of course, worth it, particularly for the pale-colored, nut-buttery pistachio, which Faith considers the true test of a gelateria. I was very excited when I discovered a location of San Crispino at Rome's Fiumicino airport, and now must have several cups including the permutations on flavors in a vanilla base with crushed meringues, which include hazelnut, chocolate, and caramel. On this visit I thought that the relatively rapid expansion might have compromised the quality. Or maybe it was the glum, unwelcoming service on a bone-chillingly cold day--cold even for the Northeast, and far colder than Romans are used to or have much tolerance for. Maybe it's nicer at the new, far nicer-looking branch of San Crispino above the Pantheon, Rome ice cream central. We all had hot chocolates, including our guide, a Cuban-born, Florida- and Delaware-raised art teacher who discovered Rome 10 years ago and couldn't leave.

I've never had hot chocolate made as San Crispino did it: simply scooping the densest of the several chocolate flavors into a milk-foaming jug and running it under a steamer until it melted and became hot enough to drink. More or less a hot milk shake with steam. Well, why not? It was surprisingly persuasive--it didn't taste like melted ice cream, not that I've got anything against that--and made me want to experiment with Gus Rancatore's Belgian chocolate ice cream at Toscanini.

As in Boston, which was long famous for its high per-capita winter ice cream consumption, the weather didn't keep Romans out of gelaterie. Or maybe it was only tourists who kept us from going through the door of Giolitti, the most famous of Roman ice cream stores, because it was impassably thronged every time we went by it (and I made sure we went by it a lot). I think you should go into the Pantheon at least twice a day while you're in Rome, to see where the light from the oculus is hitting the coffered ceiling--coffers that play a newly discovered structural role, according to Diane Archibald, our twilight tourguide. She swore that the receding squares we saw were a) all of the same size, which they don't look to be because of perspective and b) actually concealing arches that supported the coffers above and to the side of each one, like interlocking cubes. Or so she said has recently been theorized, as she took us to the outside walls to point out all the supporting arches that are the key to its structure. As to its never falling down despite being the first dome of its size ever even to be tried, she had her own theory about that, too: she's doing work at excavations of Hadrian's Villa, near Rome, and is sure that Hadrian, builder of the Pantheon and, she said in a tone that would brook no dispute, "the greatest architect in history," used his villa as a lab to build many smaller domes that likely did fall down.

Trevi Fountain Jessica Auerbachedit.jpg

She also tipped us off to a gelateria that has always been in plain sight: Cremeria Monteforte, on the side that runs along the right side of the Pantheon as you face the imposing portico. It's a small place, tucked in even more inconspicuously than Fiocco di Neve, which I've always preferred to Giolitti despite a much smaller range of flavors. The specialty is almond, our guide told us. There wasn't latte di mandorla, almond milk, made of pressed almonds and the most refreshing drink I know (similar to horchata) and of course invented in hot, almond-rich Sicily. But there was granita di mandorla, which the owner knew to translate for Jess as "slush." And it was wonderful, even on a cold evening just past sunset. I'm quite irritated that I've never gone in before. My stop on each of my several daily runs to the Pantheon has always been Tazza d'Oro, one of Rome's two rivals as best caffe, for its granita di caffe con panna, which becomes a heavenly parfait when you streak the machine-dispensed high swirl of whipped cream down through the sharply tingling coffee-syrup crystals. Now it will be Tazza d'Oro in the morning (it's the perfect anti-jet lag jolt; and they don't make granita decaffeinato) and Cremeria Monforte at sunset.

Next installments! The wonderful, homey, very stylish and very central newly opened bed and breakfast we stayed at in Rome, and the Umbrian castle-inn where we celebrated Jess's birthday. Plus more on the new rivalry as best caffe in Rome and my perennial entry, one no one knows though it's five minutes form the Pantheon, coffee central. And searching for the third part of the holy trinity, pizza bianca, and radically revising my opinion of the cult favorite--and finding some great gluten-free options for Jess.


Images (top to bottom): Jessica Auerbach, Wikimedia, Jessica Auerbach, missmeng/flickr