One lick and you are hooked

Lee Marshall on the secret of Italy’s best ice-cream shop.

Two brothers set up an ice-cream shop in a Roman suburb. Within a year Italy’s top gastronomic guide has nominated Il Gelato di San Crispino as “the best ice-cream shop in Italy”. At peak times the press of customers and cars outside calls for the presence of a traffic policeman.
It sounds unlikely but Pasquale and Giuseppe Alongi saw a market opening so obvious that they are still amazed no one else had thought of it.
“Ninety-nine per cent of ice-cream is made using industrial flavourings that necessarily contain additives,” explains Giuseppe. “We decided to get rid of additives and colourings. We may not grow the hazelnuts that go into our hazelnut ice-cream, but we do select and grind them ourselves – at least three times a week – to ensure freshness. And our eggs come from hens fed only on sweetcorn, lucerne and soya. I challenge you to find another ice-cream maker, even one which advertises its products as ‘home-made’, that is as demanding as we are.”
Pasquale and Giuseppe are evangelists for ice-cream and they know how to sell their products. It is tempting to see their mixture of passion and method as a legacy of the union between their Sicilian father and Austrian mother.
Plans for the enterprise evolved when the two were studying at Florence University. Together with a fellow student, they discovered Vivoli, the mythical Florentine ice-cream bar near the church of Santa Croce. A shared passion soon become a solid business proposition.
For three years, armed with a couple of manuals and a domestic ice-cream maker, they experimented with flavours. “With the help of friends and relations, we got through almost a kilo of ice cream every evening”, says Giuseppe. “We decided not to follow the usual procedure of making a single creamy base to which different flavourings are added. Pistachio nuts, for example, have a high fat content; unless you reduce the fat in the base, the ice cream is indigestible. This means, though, that if a recipe does not come out just right, the proportions need to be changed. The banana alone took us a month to get right.”
This dedication to quality above all else is symbolised by the brothers’ zabaglione ice-cream, which uses only an extremely expensive 20-year-old Sicilian Marsala. “People say we’re mad, that any old Marsala would do – until they taste it. Our reasoning is that we don’t mind making a loss on one flavour – because once people taste the difference, they’re hooked.”
Giuseppe’s favourite flavour is the “gelato di San Crispino”, a delicate honey ice-cream. Other exotic flavours include Pink Grapefruit, Armagnac, Martinique Rum and even Boletus Mushroom – though customers have to wait to try the letter, as it is made only in early autumn.
About a quarter of the flavours at San Crispino are seasonal, including mandarin, a winter flavour, and the rare “uva fragola”, or strawberry grape. For Christmas – still a busy time at San Crispino, despite the cold – Pasquale and Giuseppe try to come up with something special. Last year it was a pine-nut flavour; this year, says Pasquale, “we may be offering a special ricotta ice cream. It all depends on the sheep.”
But it is the “ordinary” flavours of which the brothers are proudest, because these are the benchmarkers of quality. Connoisseurs reckon that hazelnut and chocolate are the real test of the ice cream-maker’s skill.

- 16-22 December 1994 -