Image: San Crispino
Andrew Medichini  /  AP
Customers place their orders at the San Crispino in Rome, already a pass-the-word must for gelato purists even before being enshrined by "Eat, Pray, Love" on the pilgrimage route to melt-in-your mouth pleasure.
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updated 8/18/2010 9:32:29 AM ET 2010-08-18T13:32:29

Named for a saint and naturally tasting heavenly, San Crispino gelato already was a pass-the-word must for devotees of the Italian treat.

Then a Roman bus driver gave Elizabeth Gilbert the buzz — "The Best Gelato In Rome" — and San Crispino became enshrined in her how-I-found-the-real-me journey-memoir, "Eat Pray Love." Fans have been making pilgrimages for melt-in-your-mouth inspiration ever since.

In the book that's now become a movie Gilbert recounts her rapturous encounter, not once, but three times in one day, with the gelato. In a single, mouthwatering paragraph, she waxes enthusiastic about the flavors. First she had the honey and hazelnut combo, then she returned for a pairing of grapefruit and melon, and yet again for an exotic nightcap of cinnamon-ginger.

While playing just a bit part in the movie, gelato is getting a big boost from the film's ads, with Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert, with a puckish look on her face and a cup of (presumably) San Crispino ice cream in her hand as she sits on a stone bench in Piazza Navona.

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Gelato worshippers intent on finding this Roman temple of gelato, however, don't get much help from Gilbert. She doesn't say just where she had her San Crispino gelato.

Did love-at-first-lick come on Via della Panettieria, a narrow street near Trevi Fountain?

Or at the San Crispino franchise — horrors! yes, the "best" gelato in Rome is franchised — on Piazza della Maddalena, a tiny square behind the Pantheon?

Slideshow: Julia Roberts

Or perhaps at the gelateria where the two brothers who founded San Crispino opened their first location, in 1992, on Via Acaia in the working class San Giovanni neighborhood?

Wherever Gilbert had her gelato epiphany, "we are happy we were cited in the book and especially that she liked our gelato," Pasquale Alongi, one of the brothers, modestly said as lemons were squeezed for San Crispino's "limone" gelato in the "laboratory" on Via Acaia.

Giuseppe Alongi said he and his brother set out to make gelato with "equilibrium" and create flavors that are not too sweet and with only natural ingredients.

Pasquale, a former law student, and Giuseppe, a former medical student, were inspired by the fresh-tasting pastry made by their mother from the South Tyrol region near Austria. Their father is from Sicily, also known for the freshest of ingredients, such as the pistachios from Bronte, a town on the slopes of the Etna volcano. They are the only pistachios the brothers consider good enough to use in San Crispino gelato.

"When we make lemon flavor, we use only good Amalfi lemons," said Pasquale. "If we don't find them, we do not make the lemon flavor."

That would be a shame. San Crispino's lemon gelato coats the tongue with silkiness bordering on sensual, yet presents enough pizazz to almost cause a pucker.

And there are no cones at San Crispino because, as Giuseppe explained it, cones are "contaminated" by greasing agents used in baking pans and thus shouldn't come in contact with gelato.

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"We lose 30 percent of our customers when we tell them we have no cones," he said in his store near the Trevi Fountain.

"The owners have a purist approach, everything natural, no intense colors, no flavorings," said Francesco Amore, the San Crispino franchisee near the Pantheon who said he became a "disciple" of the gelato when a friend introduced him to it.

"You have to have a very refined palate to appreciate it," said Amore, recalling how the Alongis fermented basil leaves for six months and made all of two tubs of basil gelato last fall. The basil flavor was quickly scooped up, and then it was finito.

For Italians, gelato is more than a sweet treat. "It's a moment for us to get together," Amore said, venturing that Romans are loyal to their gelato shops in the same way they grow up with lifetime loyalties to one or the other of their local soccer teams.

And that love has been a lasting one. Some 2,000 years ago historian Pliny the Elder cited a recipe using snow, honey and fruit nectar. Around the same era, Emperor Nero, notorious for partying in his fabled Golden Palace in Rome, was said to have devoured copious portions of frozen fruit drenched in honey.

An almost reverent air pervades a San Crispino gelateria. Unlike other shops in Rome, which display a riot of colors and textures of gelati brimming in display tubs to set customers salivating, San Crispino keeps the flavors of the day in 22 "pozzetti," or metal tubs covered with shiny lids.

Workers behind the counter lift the lids with a delicate motion, as if they are about to open a container of precious jewels, then offer tiny spoonfuls for the undecided to taste.

Pairings of flavors are chalked in on a blackboard entitled the "San Crispino Experience'" to guide customers, said Amore, who added he gently suggests what he hopes will prove to be a happy marriage of flavors.

On this boiling August day the combos include hazelnut meringue, white fig and cream; pink grapefruit and chocolate and rum, as well as the classic pairing that so impressed Gilbert — San Crispino honey with ginger-cinnamon.

Contrary to what Gilbert writes, San Crispino does not mean the "crispy saint." The Alongis chose the name because the saint is the patron of shoemakers and is pictured with tools in his hand, an image the brothers thought captured the handmade care behind their product.

"We wanted to find the best ice cream in Rome, but it actually said it is not only the best ice cream in Rome, it is the best ice cream in Italy, and we think it is," said Steve Donague from Manchester, England. He was ecstatic that there was "lots of rum" in trio of Armagnac, rum and chocolate combo.

Of course, Rome is a city all but bursting with gelato. And while the no-cone formula evidently worked for Gilbert, those who like to share their licks are hardly left in the cold.

Dutch tourist Peter Der Graaf polished off a cone of strawberry, pear and limoncello, made from the dessert liquor, at his favorite gelato haunt in Rome, Giolitti's, a family-run place that has been making gelato for some 100 years and is arguably the Italian capital's best-known gelateria.

"I like the taste, the coldness, the texture," said Der Graaf, as his 9-year-old son, Jelle, took a few licks from his dad's cone outside the shop, near the Italian Parliament.

Nazzareno Giolitti, whose namesake grandfather first started dishing out gelato in the early 1900s, ventured that eating gelato is "a form of socialization. It's being together with a family."

Associated Press reporter Leonardo Moauro contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 'Eat, Pray, Love': Aug. 13

Photos: Rome, “The Eternal City”

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