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.

Best ice cream in America not just from a shop

best ice cream AmericaSince Memorial Day is past, I think it’s safe to say we’ve officially entered ice cream season (National Ice Cream Day is July 17) Unless you live in Seattle, in which case, it’s still winter, but never mind. We still have great ice cream.

What makes for acclaim-worthy ice cream? Food writers like me tend to look for an emphasis on local/seasonal ingredients, including dairy. I love high butterfat ice cream, because my feeling is, if I’m going to indulge (I’m also lactose intolerant, so it’s really taking one for the team) I want something insanely creamy and smooth, with a rich, full, mouthfeel. Gummy or chewy ice cream is the hallmark of stabilizers such as guar or xanthan gum. The fewer the ingredients, the better, in my book. Hormone/antibiotic-free cream, milk, eggs; fruit or other flavoring agent(s). That’s it.

Much ado is made of unusual ice cream flavors, and I agree that creativity is welcome, as long as it remains in check. But there’s something to be said about purity, as well. If you can’t make a seriously kickass chocolate or vanilla, you may as well shut your doors.

Below is a round-up of my favorite ice cream shops, farmers market stands, food trucks, and carts (the latter two a growing source of amazing ice cream) across the country. If your travel plans include a visit to one of these cities, be sure to drop by for a dairy or non-dairy fix; most of these places do offer sorbet, or coconut milk or soy substitutes. Some also sell via mail order and at other retail outlets; check each site for details.

1. San Francisco: Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop
When I lived in Berkeley, I used to make special trips into the City just to shop at Bi-Rite Market, a beloved neighborhood grocery in the Mission District that specializes in all things local, organic/sustainable, and handcrafted, from produce to chocolate. When they opened a tiny, adorable creamery across and up the street a few years ago, it was with the same ethos and business practices in mind. Organic milk and cream are sourced from Straus Family Creamery in adjacent Marin County, fruit from nearby family farms. Salted Caramel is a best seller; I’m a slave to Brown Butter Pecan, and Creme Fraiche. Every rich, creamy mouthful is about purity of flavor, but sundaes and new soft-serve flavors are also available.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Barbara L. Hanson]best ice cream americaRunner-up is three-year-old Humphrey Slocombe, also in the Mission. Personally, I can live without Government Cheese, Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke), or Foie Gras ice cream, but I can definitely get behind Secret Breakfast (bourbon and corn flakes), Prosciutto (somehow, it makes sense, whereas I just don’t like my diseased goose liver in dairy form), Honey Thyme, and Cucumber Ice Milk. Like Bi-Rite, dairy also comes from Straus, and local food artisans and farmers provide the goods for most of the esoteric to downright freakish flavors. Bottom line: what doesn’t repulse you is good stuff

2. Brooklyn: Van Leeuwen
While in Williamsburg two weeks ago, I stumbled upon one of Van Leeuwen’s famous, butter-yellow ice cream vans (co-founder Ben Van Leeuwen used to be a Good Humor driver). It was tough to decide on a flavor, given the lovely, lyrical sound of the mostly botanical flavors such as ginger, currants and cream, and Earl Gray. I chose palm sugar, which was an ethereal blend of sweet, high-quality dairy Van Leeuwen sources from a farmer he knows in Franklin County, and the caramelly richness of the sugar. Props too, for using all biodegradable materials. Van Leeuwen also has stores in Greenpoint and Boerum Hill. A trusted friend in Brooklyn also highly recommends the Asian-inflected flavors at Sky Ice, a Thai family-owned spot in Park Slope.

3. Chicago: Snookelfritz Ice Cream Artistry
Pastry chef Nancy Silver stands behind her unassuming little stall at Chicago’s Green City Market in Lincoln Park, dishing out some of the most spectacular ice cream in the country. Snooklefritz specializes in seasonal ice creams, sherbets, and sorbets using Kilgus Farmstead heavy cream and Meadow Haven organic eggs. The result are creations such as the deeply flavorful maple-candied hickory nut, and heavenly brown sugar and roasted peach ice creams, and a creamy, dreamy Klug Farms blackberry sherbet.

4. Seattle: Full Tilt Ice Cream
The city’s most iconoclastic ice cream shop (on my first visit, the ska-punk band Three Dead Whores was playing…at the shop) has opened several locations in the last two years, but the original is in the ethnically diverse, yet-to-gentrify part of South Seattle known as White Center. That accounts for flavors like horchata, Mexican chocolate, ube (purple yam), and bourbon caramel (if you saw the patrons at the open-at-6am tavern next door, you’d understand). Enjoy Memphis King (peanut butter, banana, and chocolate-covered bacon) with a beer pairing while scoping out local art on the walls or playing pinball. Over in hipster-heavy Capitol Hill, Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream & Tea Room does the PacNW justice by offering an intense, almost savory Elysian Stout (the brewery is two blocks away), and a spot-on Stumptown Coffee ice cream. Not as high in butterfat as the other ice creams on this list, but well-made, and full of flavor, using Washington state dairy.
best ice cream america
5. Portland, Oregon: Salt & Straw
“Farm to Cone” is the motto at this new ice cream cart/soon-to-be-storefront in the Alberta Arts District. Think local ingredients, and sophisticated, fun flavors that pack a punch like a lovely pear and blue cheese, honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper, hometown Stumptown Coffee with cocoa nibs, and brown ale with bacon. The 17% butterfat content is courtesy of the herd at Oregon’s 4th generation Lochmead Dairy.

6. Columbus, Ohio: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni’s has a clutch of stores now, but the family-owned original is in Columbus. The Brown Swiss, Jersey, Guernsey, and Freisan cows at Ohio’s Snowville Creamery produce high-butterfat milk and cream, which, according to Jeni’s, goes from “cow to our kitchen within 48 hours.” The result are flavors ranging from signature Buckeye State (salty peanut butter with chunks of dark chocolate) and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, to seasonal treats such as Backyard Mint, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, and Strawberry Buttermilk. Down home and delicious.

7. Boston: Toscanini’s
From Burnt Caramel to Grape Nut, Cake Batter, Cardamom Coffee, or Banana sorbet, this wildly popular Cambridge shop is, in the words of a colleague, “consistently original and good.” Equally wonderful is Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream, also in Cambridge. It’s attached to the family-owned spice shop: the results are fresh, potent flavors such as Cinnamon, Herbal Chai, French Vanilla, Fresh Rose or Mint, and Bergamot. Five sorbets are available daily, as well.

[Photo credits: bourbon, Flickr user gigaman; bacon, Flickr user miss_rogue]

This eggnog ice cream from Van Leeuwen is admittedly Christmasy-sounding, but just think of it as “custard” ice cream (and a way to subconsciously cool off, while watching this clip). Pair with luscious summer fruit, such as sliced nectarines, cherries, strawberries, or plums.

Van Leeuwen Eggnog Ice Cream Recipe

Photo of the day (10.22.10)

It’s possible, of course, that Gadling Flickr pool contributor Favio@Flickr staged this photo, but it looks to me like a random slice of Roman life: a young woman eats gelato demurely, while behind her a wheatpasted poster on a wall creates a political context. The result is a fragment of a fragment of urban life, compelling in its pleasing simplicity and strongly evocative of the city and country where it was shot.

Got a suggestive image in your personal photo archive that captures a mere wisp of a city’s essence? Upload it to Gadling’s Flickr pool and we might just feature it as our Photo of the Day.

Eat, Pray, Love movie review

Elizabeth Gilbert’s personal transformation from depressed divorcee to healthy, balanced woman in love were recorded in her bestselling memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love.” The book resonated with so many people that a movie adaptation was made, with Julia Roberts playing the lead.

Filming highlighted the beauty of the locations, especially Italy and Bali. A soft focus gave a dreamlike quality, with Roberts’ golden hair glowing like a halo. India didn’t get as much glamor, though the chaos of the country, especially to a new arrival, was portrayed fairly accurately.

Though the movie definitely employed “pretty power,” it wasn’t able to really tell a story. Lost is the complexity of Gilbert’s situation and relationships. We see her in New York, telling her husband she doesn’t want to be married, but there’s no background. The pivotal moment in her story, when she first talks to God, seems out-of-place and as if it came out of nowhere.
The rest of the movie is similar. Gilbert goes searching for herself, but as viewers we’re not really sure what she’s in search of — or if she really ever finds it. Relationships don’t have the weight they should, and thus Gilbert’s journey is lost. Gone is the story of her building herself back up, learning to be alone, and eschewing romance in favor of nurturing her soul. People pop up, friendships are made, but none of it seems to make much sense. And while Roberts does a fantastic job of conveying pain, she doesn’t have the perk that led to Gilbert’s being assigned to the job of Key Hostess in her ashram in India. Thus, Gilbert’s charisma is also gone, and with it any sympathy the viewer might have had for her. When there is an emotional scene, it just tries too hard — like the awkward, pointless confession from Richard from Texas (played by Richard Jenkins).

At least it’s beautiful. And not just the scenery or the Italian food porn: Roberts is surround by a cast of sexy eye candy, including Billy Crudup, James Franco, and Javier Bardem. Unfortunately the beauty of these men in contrast with the lack of character development will only serve to amplify the dreamlike, fantastical quality of the movie; rather than focus on the work that Gilbert did on herself in order to become a more aware human being (what makes the story appealing and relatable), female fans are likely to get lost in the dream of travel and sexy men. I don’t suppose that’s the end of the world, and it is definitely what Hollywood is for, but again, the bigger message of Gilbert’s story is pretty much only conveyed in a final voice-over at the very end.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mzarzar]

Photo of the Day (7.11.10)

Does all this sweltering Summer weather have you feeling sweaty this week? Why not cool off for a second with today’s refreshing Gelato photo, courtesy of Flickr user Leslie at The L-List. Taking photos of your food while you travel can be a fun way to remember a particularly great meal or a special ingredient you just don’t want to forget. In the case of today’s photo, there’s also plenty of interesting visual elements that catch the viewer’s eye. The Macro technique does a great job of making you feel like the viewer is about to take a big old bite. I can almost taste that Gelato now…

Have any great food photos from your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of your delectable shots as our Photo of the Day. Food-loving photographers should also check out Gadling’s Food Photography Contest ending tomorrow. We’re giving away over $400 in photo gear.