Florence is full of activities and events as well as sights and sounds and people, and if there are sometimes long silences between my entries, it is the silence of activity. This week I haven’t even had time to download Doctor Who.
After describing the many festivals that flood the centro with activity, I went – in all innocence – to the market Saturday morning only to find my return blocked by a vast Noah’s arc built out of Chianti bottles drawn by pure white bulls and accompanied by the guild representatives, flag tossers, and girls in peasant wear handing out autumn fruit, all squarely between my fresh salmon steak and my refrigerator. It was the festival to celebrate the new wine, since the earlier Chianti harvests had just finished their fermentation, producing the young, extra-fruity un-aged wine one only gets in October. Sunday another 10 AM marching band (just one this time) roused me from snoozing. What would it be this time? Public banquet? Patron saint? A groggy descent revealed a wall of emerald green cotton and numbers, since a run for Cancer had flooded the city with literally thousands of Italians of all ages in matching t-shirts, who when I arrived were flooding in a great mass north toward the cathedral. It was quite a fight getting out the front door.
Now, 2,000 green-clad runners or no, opening my front door is generally a… I would say suspenseful act, but since I live at the top of a medieval tower, the descent of 111 steps takes so long that one falls into a kind of distracted hypnotic zen state half-way down, so even friends who visited have said that they, like me, tend to reach the bottom having completely forgotten why they were descending at all. It’s an experience like waiting at a bus stop or going to the bathroom, when you know there is no other activity you can or should be doing, so the mind is free to flit from path to path until you’re mulling about a friend’s Christmas present or a book you read fifteen years ago, and your mind is still on that when you open the front door and–bam!–nun in your face! That was four days ago, a lively old nun habbited in tan and gray (four points, +5 for driving a car; in my game you score different numbers of points for spotting nuns of different colors doing different things, and tan and gray is rare), there she was three feet from my face when I swung the door back. There’s a front step outside the door, and there is always someone sitting on it eating a gelato or consulting a map, and this morning it was an old man chatting with a nun driving a station wagon who had pulled up so close that I had to slide sideways down the length of the car to gain my liberty. Another day it might be a clutch of arguing Russians, or a lost Japanese art historian, or football fans giddily stripping the shrink wrap from their treasures purchased at the Florence football team merchandise shop right next door.
It is a rather different drama opening the door before 8:30 AM. The early bus to the institute rouses me often now in the hours when Florence herself wake up. Her morning face is altogether different. Like the ancient Romans, the Florentines have the good sense to banish commercial traffic to off-hours, so every dawn a fleet of trucks and vans, compact and white for the most part, diffuses through the city to supply the many shops and restaurants. The Disneyland crowds don’t rise until after nine, so in the slanting dawn light, as the last street-cleaning machines Zamboni their way across the cobbles, only a scattering of groggy early-bird tourists stand by churches or statues reading from fat guidebooks or clicking away with the elaborate, heavy cameras carried by those serious enough to set an alarm, even on vacation, in hopes of catching Florence without her crowds. My front door is often blocked by a load of soda bottles, vegetable crates, or infinite bottled water.
And bad gelato.
There you see it, unloaded box by heavy box, seeming to smoke as ice mist wafts from the freezer vans which deliver the unforgivable black underbelly of Florence’s cuisine. I am very serious about gelato, my friends, as one should be about one of the great achievements of our civilization, so it is with no hyperbole that I call it sin when these places serve this artificial, plasticy sugar gook produced in vast vats in the hidden countryside and smuggled in at dawn to masquerade as one of Italy’s great art forms. O tempora; o mores!
Some places, true, do serve a decent delivery gelato, and in places like Venice one can do no better, but the difference between McDonald’s and a fine flame-roasted burger dribbling salt and savor is not more radical than between this bad gelato and the real produce of fruit and milk and human energy served at the places where they make it real, fresh, each day. Bad gelato has its charm, much as lollypops or macaroni and cheese from a box are sometimes satisfying, but just as one doesn’t choose a lollypop over fresh black raspberries dipped in Godiva chocolate, when in somewhere serious like Florence Don’t Eat Bad Gelato! Don’t Do It! Look at it! Sitting there in its slimy saccharine flatness like mediocre yogurt! True gelato is the color of the real substance it’s made of, not its color-coded artificial form, and tastes, well, not like something flavored with a substance but like the substance itself, not strawberry flavor or banana flavor but an actual strawberry, an actual banana, but amplified and intensified, distilled past its natural perfection.
Sometimes, I confess, I break down and find myself calling out to people I see walking into bad gelato places. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but there’s a much better and much cheaper real gelato place on that corner right there!” I try not to do it too often, but I can’t watch! I just can’t watch. Sometimes I hear it from people in the US, “You know, I went to Italy and the gelato there wasn’t any better than at XYZ place here in the states!” I shudder every time. It’s true, and if an Italian went to America and ate MacDonald’s he might report at home with honesty, “Their burgers aren’t any better than we have here.” That is why I sigh watching the cold vans trundle past, and why I still say, after “Dov’è il bagno” (where is the bathroom) the most important phrase to know in Italian is “Cerco una gelateria buona, con gelato vero, fatto con ingredienti fresci, non artificiali.” (I’m looking for a good gelateria, with real gelato, made with fresh ingredients, not artificial ones.)
To the left, a cup of genuine top quality gelato, from Perche No!… (Why Not!…), my favorite Florentine gelateria and certainly the best in the center, especially for the fruit flavors. In the front you see Frutti di Bosco (fruit of the forest i.e. berry, combining raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and redcurrants.) Note how the color is rich and dark, what you would get if you just put the fruits in the blender and let her rip. In the back the pale, unappetizing green gelato is made of fresh figs, speckled with their seeds, and divine. A good gelato place also only makes gelato with fruits in season, so fig is the autumnal treat.