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A licking tour of gelato joints beckons in Rome

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

Then a Roman bus driver gave author Elizabeth Gilbert the buzz - "The Best Gelato in Rome" - and San Crispino became enshrined in her best-selling memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love." Fans have been making pilgrimages for melt-in-your-mouth inspiration ever since.

In the book that has now become a movie, Gilbert recounts her rapturous encounter, three times in one day, with the gelato.

In a single 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.

Ice cream worshippers intent on finding this Roman temple of gelato, however, get little help from Gilbert. She does not 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 - yes, the "best" gelato in Rome is franchised - on Piazza della Maddalena, a tiny square behind the Pantheon?

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 almost to 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 should not come in contact with gelato.

"We lose 30 percent of our customers when we tell them we have no cones," he said.

"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.

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.


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