Enjoying cool thrills in Italy

Summer Pleasures

July 17, 2002|By Norine Schiller | Norine Schiller,SUN STAFF

It's embarrassing to admit, really, but I look forward to the gelato almost as much as I do to seeing my beloved relatives when we make a trip to Palermo, Italy, every three or four years.

I am a grown-up, after all, and the grown-ups I am visiting long ago had their fill of such childish things as ice cream. For them, it's a casual treat, picked up occasionally when they happen to park their Vespas in front of their favorite gelateria.

For me, gelato is magenta fountains of bougainvillea, spilling over cream stucco walls, somehow made edible. It is white-hot sun and salt air, mountains and cactus, childhood recaptured, extract of Sicily on ice. It means far more to me than a few hundred cool calories on a cone.

In Hampden in the '60s, I was the little girl who ran screaming "Waitaminute! Waitaminute!" after the Good Humor truck as it started up Beech Avenue past Wyman Park. But when I went to Italy, approaching the gelato stand required a certain European decorum. In my most ladylike demeanor, I whispered "nocciola" to my mother so the man behind the counter would give me a hazelnut cone.

Behind the glass, tubs glowed in frosty circles of bright pistachio green, rose pink, cream and the deepest dark brown. Hazelnut and coffee, chocolate sorbet and lemon ice, so exotic then to a little American girl, are more familiar to me now. But then, the flavors were so intense, and the texture so luxuriously silky, that they hardly resembled the ice cream I knew: ice-cold scoops that always, in the end, tasted more of milk than anything else.

I had other favorite flavors: fragola, a strawberry sorbet, was a dark and luscious pink; torrone, a nougat flavor, came in two variations, one with little bits of candied fruit, the other with a sweet and crunchy bite that reminded one of the Italian candy for which it was named - predictably, I liked both.

I liked gelato so much that it became a source of amusement for my cousins on each successive summer trip. They always knew how to put a smile on the face of their cugina from Baltimora.

On special occasions, we might go out at night to a gelateria downtown, near a carousel and bumper cars. We would sit outside amid a sea of metal bistro tables illuminated only by the multicolored lights of the rides across the street, and order cassata gelata, an elegant extravagance that looked too pretty to eat. It was made up of concentric rings of cake, strawberry or hazelnut ice cream, and in the center, a heavy cream studded with little bits of chocolate.

In my teen years, my favorite cousin and I would sometimes take an evening walk to the nearest gelato stand - or maybe one not so near our parents. We would ask for our favorite flavor on a brioche, with a dollop of whipped cream, on top. The brioche seemed strange - who had ever heard of ice cream on egg bread? - but it was delectable.

We would dawdle on the way back. And if by chance a certain young man came by on a motor scooter, and if by chance he flirted with us, well, we were only there to get a gelato and had not at all planned the timing for when he customarily passed by that particular spot every evening. And if we happened to be wearing our best dresses and new sandals, well ... that was pure coincidence.

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