Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Orange Gelato, Dishtowels and Memories

I never used to like the combination of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, but it was always my mother’s favorite. As a kid, I’d curl my lip at her weird ice cream parlor choice, and dig into a cone of predictable old chocolate chip. And my mother was just as predictable. Whenever we’d go get ice cream, it was always a scoop of orange sherbet and a scoop of vanilla for her.
I think I spy some agrumi in there...

It wasn’t until my first extended trip to Italy in 2005 that I finally figured out what I was missing. On an unseasonably hot May day in Rome, I and a few other students stopped at a gelateria at Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, that colorful hub of an equally colorful Roman neighborhood. The weather seemed too hot and sticky for chocolate of hazelnut or caramel ice cream, so I opted for orange and, what the hell…fior di latte. Fior di latte is not exactly vanilla—it literally translates to “milk flower”—but it is flavored with vanilla bean and has the same creamy sweetness of a rich vanilla ice cream. What we would call orange gelato is called “agrumi” here; as it’s a mixture of several different types of citrus, though mostly oranges.

I don’t know what compelled me to order that flavor combination. Maybe because I was missing my mom back home, and I knew how thrilled she’d be with Italy, with Rome, and with gelato, especially her two favorite tastes together.

Looks like I found some agrumi in this shot.
And it turns out, she was on to something. The tartness of the agrumi—it has less sugar than most fruit-flavored gelatos—coupled with the creaminess of the fior di latte was an extremely satisfying combination, a ying and yang that balanced perfectly with one another. Maybe for me, it was something about being on the first day of an Italian adventure that would eventually turn into the adventure of my life; maybe it was that picturesque piazza, or the sense of freedom I felt at being, for a couple of months at least, far removed from my daily stresses and instead pursuing a long-shelved dream of studying archaeology. But that orange and vanilla gelato that day in Rome was really just shockingly good.

It also turns out the while fior di latte is a stand-by flavor in most gelaterias, agrumi is not. It’s hard to find, so much so that outside of very large gelaterias in equally large cities, a tub of the tart orange goodness shows up only every so often. Strawberry and lemon? You can always find those. But agrumi is a rarity. In the years since that first cup, I’ve had a hankering for orange gelato to go with my fior di latte (or coconut, an equally delightful combination), and I’ve walked disappointed out of many a gelateria—with some alternate flavors in hand, or…cup, of course.

My dad eating decidedly un-agrumi gelato in Orvieto, 2011.
Now, when I actually find agrumi gelato at a gelateria, it’s such a rare treat and pleasant surprise that of course I have to order it to go with my fior di latte. No one in any gelato-eating party I’ve ever been a part of has ever ordered the combination. I’ve even gotten a few strange looks for ordering it, much like that lip-curl I used to give my mom when we went to Baskin Robbins. I offer a taste, but even Paolo’s not interested in trying it. Orange and vanilla? Weird, right?

In my mom's three trips to Italy with my dad, we never found orange gelato on the daily menu. Bad timing, I suppose. My parents always visited in the fall, when bars and even gelaterias reduce their inventories and cut back on the fruit flavors so associated with hot summer days. So she never got her orange and vanilla ice cream in Italy, but I’m sure she wasn’t too disappointed. And I’m sure I was disappointed enough for her, like I was with so many things that I tried to make up for in her and my dad’s life.

Blackberries in my mom's old colander
So whenever I eat my peculiar combination of gelato, I think of my mom, the same way I think of her when I wear a dishtowel over my shoulder when I’m working in the kitchen. She always used to do that and for whatever reason, it used to drive my crazy, especially when she’d start looking all over the kitchen for her dishtowel, only to realize it was on her shoulder. It turns out, your shoulder is a pretty handy place to keep a dishtowel. I think of her whenever I bake, as I gave all her muffin and cake pans and rolling pins and cookie cutters to my sister, thinking I’d never use them in Italy. I’ve bought new of all of them, but I now miss that old wooden rolling pin, which had been her mother’s, and those battered cake pans and bent metal cookie cutters. I fortunately have her equally beat-up metal colander. It’s funny how something as simple as draining pasta can bring back such sweet memories.

Last evening, we went to our local bar, ostensibly to get Naomi a gelato. I’m dieting now in earnest and wasn’t planning to get anything. But…they had agrumi, so I had to order a scoop of it, along with a scoop of fior di latte. Naomi decided she didn’t want gelato after all and instead grabbed a lollipop formed in the shape of a whistle, and started tooting about the bar. Paolo got his usual chocolate and crema, and wasn’t the least bit interested in my tangy-creamy duo. 
My last photo with my mom, May 2013, taken right before
we headed to the airport to return to Italy. She died in June.

He didn’t know what he was missing, I told him. 

But I knew what—and who—I was missing.