Got Granita? Savoring A Summertime Sweet In Italy

granita con caffe
Chris, Flickr

It will officially be summer in just a few days, and who doesn’t associate long, hot days with ice cream? Or, depending upon your preferences, lactose-digesting capabilities, and what part of the world you’re in, gelato, sorbet, paletas, kulfi, faloodeh, bur bur cha cha or other sweet, frozen treats served around the world.

Gelato is obviously past its tipping point in the U.S, but the granita still isn’t a well-known part of the general populace’s culinary lexicon. In Italy, however, this grainy frozen dessert is a summertime staple. Granite (plural of granita) refers to a dessert that’s scraped at intervals as it freezes, in order to form larger crystals than a typical sorbetto. A true granita should have a coarse texture because it’s made by hand, rather than processed in a machine, which results in a slush.

Coffee or espresso with a bit of sugar is the most commonly used flavoring for granite. Known as granita di café or caffe freddo, this refreshing treat is best served con panna; with unsweetened whipped cream. The first time I ever had one was in Florence, on a freakishly hot October day. Like millions before me, I left crowded the Galleria dell’ Accademia after viewing Michelangelo’s David, thirsty, sweaty, and grumpy.

Several blocks down via Ricasoli, I happened upon a little shop called Gelato Carabé . I was drawn by the wafts of sugary, perfumed air, but it was the menu and hand-crafted appearance of the gelati (mass-produced stuff is often sold out of plastic tubs, but it also tends to look manufactured, and just a little too perfect) that sold me on the place.

eating gelato
minka6, Flickr

The customer in front of me turned away from the counter clutching a cup filled with a rough-looking iced concoction, topped with a soft mound of whipped cream. Its color suggested it contained caffeine. I asked, in crappy Italian, what it was. And then I ordered my first-ever granita di café con panna. Instant addiction. The melding of flavors and textures – bitter espresso, a hint of sugar, grainy ice, silky cream – was the ideal salve for my museum-and-crowd-addled soul.

I returned to the gelateria every day for the remainder of my trip. After I returned home, I learned that owners Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on Sicily’s northern coast. Antonio’s grandfather was a gelatio, or gelato master, and Antonio became a leading authority on gelato, as well. FYI, gelato has less air incorporated into it than American ice cream, which results in a more dense, flavorful product. Depending upon the region in which it’s made, it may contain eggs, or use cream instead of milk.

The Lisciandro’s import seasonal ingredients from Sicily, including pistachios, hazelnuts and almonds, and the intensely flavored native lemons, which have a thick, bumpy skin. They produce rich, creamy gelati, cremolati (cremolata is similar to sherbet, but made with fresh fruit pulp instead of filtered juice; both are made with milk or cream, whereas sorbetto is dairy-free), and the aforementioned ethereal granite.

Today, Gelato Carabé has two locations in Florence. I’ve since had granita di café con panna all over Italy (I highly recommend enjoying it overlooking the Sant’ Angelo harbor on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples). Barring that, I suggest using this recipe. Get a copy of Laura Fraser’s delicious “An Italian Affair” (which is how I learned about Ischia in the first place). Spoon granita into a pint glass (let’s not kid ourselves with a foofy parfait-style). Find a relaxing place in the shade, and then savor summer, Italian-style.