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.
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.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

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.

  1. Related content
    1. 'Eat, Pray, Love' offers female wish fulfillment
    2. A more mature Roberts finds her place
    3. Roberts talks nerves, family, 'Eat, Pray, Love'

"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”

loading photos...
  1. Open for business

    Tourists walk in the Colosseum near the hypogeum (underground) on October 14, 2010, in Rome. The underground, never before available to the public, is now open for visitors. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Underground tour

    Gladiators, wild beasts and ... tourists? Yep. People visiting the Colosseum can now walk around the underground chambers where lions and tigers were caged and gladiators waited to hear their fate. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Roman hot spot

    More than 18,000 people visit the amphitheatre every day. The newly opened areas will be accessible to guided tours of a maximum of 25 people at a time. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Colosseum

    The Colosseum is one of the most recognized structures not just in Rome, but in all of Europe. The building, which was inaugurated in 80 A.D., is visited by several million tourists each year. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Papal Basilica of St. Peter

    The Papal Basilica of St. Peter is illuminated in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. The basilica, until recently, was the largest church ever built. The holy place stands where St. Peter was crucified and buried. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Roman Forum

    The Roman Forum is located between the Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill. The ancient city's most important and oldest structures were situated in or near the Forum, including many shrines and temples. (Doug Pearson / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Piazza del Campidoglio

    The Piazza del Campidoglio was designed during the 16th century by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The piazza is located atop Capitol Hill in Rome. The structure seen today dates back to 1560. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. City hall

    Two tourists rest next to a statue in front of the Campidoglio, Rome's city hall. The statue, one of a set of two, was built by Italian artist Matteo Bartolani in 1588 and is meant to represent Rome's Tiber River. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castel Sant'Angelo

    Castel Sant'Angelo, sitting above the Tiber River, was built by the Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his successors. The Mausoleum was later completed by Antoninus Pius in 139 A.D. (Robert Harding / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Trevi Fountain

    Legend has it that if a visitor throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, he or she is ensured a return. About 3,000 euros are tossed into the fountain each day, according to the BBC. (Sharon Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Capitole Museum

    Antique statue fragments sit inside the Capitole Museum yard, located at the Square of Campidoglio, in Rome. The Capitole Museum contains an antique collection began in 1471 by pope Sixte IV. (Gerard Julien / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Basilica's interior

    Shafts of light fill the interior of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Tourists who plan to visit the basilica should take note of a strictly enforced dress code, which includes no shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts. (Kazuyoshi Nomachi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Sistine Chapel

    The ceiling of Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Images on the ceiling depict scenes from the book of Genesis, and the walls are covered with Renaissance frescoes created by other artists. (Jim Zuckerman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Vatican Museum

    The main staircase of Vatican Museum forms a tightening spiral as it descends. The museum is located in the Vatican Palace, which popes have called home since the 1300s. (Peter Adams / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The Pantheon

    The Pantheon, according to the Web site, is the Roman monument that holds the most and best preserved records, and is "the most copied and imitated of all ancient works." (Glenn Beanland / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma

    The Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma (MACRO) houses a permanent art collection that includes "some of the most significant expressions characterizing the Italian art scene since the 1960s," its Web site claims. (Paolo Cordelli / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Villa Medicis

    Villa Medicis is a 16th Century garden located on the Pincian Hill at the top of the Spanish Steps. The gardens are complemented by statues and fountains. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Villa Borghese

    The area now known as Villa Borghese was originally started as a vineyard in the 1500s, but was purchased by cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, in 1605 and turned into a park. Rome obtained Villa Borghese in 1903, and it was opened to the public. (Will Salter / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Piazza Navona

    People take a freshly brewed espresso at a cafe terrace on Piazza Navona in Rome during the "Espresso Italiano day 2009." Italians drink some 70 million cups of coffee at the bars every day, according to the figures given by the National Institute of Italian Espresso. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rome from above

    This aerial shot of Rome shows the Vittoriano Monument, dedicaded to the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuelle II, in the background. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Via Condotti

    Italian shoppers browse at Via Condotti, which is the home to some of the world's most famous designer boutiques, in Rome. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Spanish Steps

    The Spanish Steps connect Piazza di Spagna to Trinita dei Monti, a French church. Once a gathering place for beautiful men and women hoping to be chosen as artists' models, the Spanish Steps are now used as a catwalk for an annual summertime fashion show. (Tony Burns / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Altar of Peace

    The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Peace, dates back to 9 B.C. The altar was built to celebrate the advent of peace under the reign of Augustus, Rome's first emperor. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Vittorio Emmanuele II monument

    The Vittorio Emmanuele II monument is seen at sunset. With nearly 3,000 years of history, Rome continues to live up to its motto of "The Eternal City," being one of the founding cities of Western civilization. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments