Back to Italy: Gelato in Venice

So sometimes being a musician seems like a terrible life choice.  Like those times when I realize I’ve got $6 in my wallet and $30 in my bank account and it will be two weeks before I get paid for that gig I just did.  Those are the days I start to wonder if I should just accept that if I ever want to be a productive member of society, I’m just going to have to suck it up and apply for a barista position at Starbucks.

But then there are other days.  Like when I get invited to sing for the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice Italy for a week… and find out that the whole trip will be all-expenses paid.  So here I am, staying HERE:

Yeah. I know.

Yeah. I know.

Making beautiful music with other fantastic musicians.  And not spending a dime.  In VENICE.

So yeah, occasionally there are perks!  One of the best perks of this particular boondoggle is the fact that it affords me a fantastic opportunity to further my deeply important and world-changing research.  Which is, of course, finding the best ice cream on the planet.

Turns out Venice is a pretty darn good place to start looking.  Now since many of the people running the Fondazione Giorgio Cini are native Venetians, step one was to get the insider scoop, so to speak.  Most of the gelaterias I visited, I specifically sought out because they were recommended.  But getting lost is half the fun of Venice, so there are a few “stumble-upon” discoveries as well.  Here are the results of my first day of exploration, adventure and pigging out.

During our lunch break Davit Moroney (total badass harpsichordist—if you’re into early music, you’ve probably heard of him… if you’re a normal human being, you might not have) took a group of us on the vaporetto from our lovely island right across the harbor from San Marco to the Zattere stop on the main island for his personal favorite gelato:  Nico’s.  Here are my tasting notes:

Gelati Nico

(Dorsoduro, on Giudecca Canal, near Zattere stop)

Flavors tried:  Cioccolato and Fior di Latte

Fior di Latte had a lovely, delicate flavor, but was plagued by the ice crystals that are often a product of real gelato made the right way.  Cioccolato… the first REAL Italian chocolate gelato I’ve had in a long, long time, I came to it like a starving person.  Finally, that rich depth of chocolate flavor and color!  The dense, rich texture that reminds one of silk… my only regret is that it took me three days to get to it!

So Nico’s is totally legit.  I may or may not have gone back two or three times during the course of my stay.  The servers were actually kind of impatient and rude, but the gelato is solid and the MAIN appeal of the place, in my opinion, is its location.  Right on the waterfront with a fabulous view of the harbor, it’s the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by (which includes everything from mega-huge cruise ships that take up practically the entire width of the canal to tiny water taxis zipping around)… and watching the world go by is always more enjoyable with fabulous gelato in your hand.

I had the good fortune of not being called to any afternoon rehearsals that day, so I stayed behind to eat on the waterfront at my leisure and wander my way through Dorsoduro.  Keeping the water on my left, I soon found myself at another gelateria.

Gelateria al Sole

(also on the Dorsoduro waterfront, near San Basilio stop)

Flavors tried:  Liquirizia, Cioccolato, Pistacchio

Liquirizia, just because I’d never seen it before… turns out it’s licorice. I guess it’s time for me to go back to Italian 101. Glad I only got a sample since I’m not a huge licorice fan!  Still, interesting as a gelato flavor.  Cioccolato was rather disappointing right after Nico’s and the Pistachio was good, but nothing special.  They all had identical textures (which I’m not sure is actually a good sign), very creamy, but more like ice cream (or the stuff they call gelato in Germany) than the really authentic made-today gelato.  Flavors were pleasant, but lacking in intensity–not enough contrast between the chocolate and pistachio–should have been huge!

So this was something of a disappointment and as I had now eaten 4 scoops of ice cream in the space of an hour, I learned the lesson of choosing carefully if I was going to take a risk on an un-recommended gelateria.

  So then I turned inland and started wandering in an attempt to burn off some of those calories and free up more space for more gelato.  What an amazing city!  It’s astonishing how deserted and quiet it can be once you leave the main tourist thoroughfares.  I love getting lost in Venice, ending up in dead end alleys that lead to nothing but water, seeing brightly colored laundry and geraniums festooning the windows, happening upon stunning churches, piazzas or impossibly charming bridges over countless canals.

Among my accidental discoveries were the oddly shaped Piazza San Sebastian, La Chiesa del’Angelo Raffaelo (square cross shape, incredible paintings and sculptures–all just tucked away in this deserted church!), and La Chiesa dei Carmini, an immense and beautiful brick structure filled with enormous oil paintings depicting the 12 stations of the cross and many other scenes… the light was so beautiful in there!  Just frosted (not stained) glass, but the whole church was bathed in a wonderfully warm light.

Once I got to the (I now know) Campo Santa Margherita, I asked an elderly couple that sat down next to me on a bench, “Sarebbe dove siamo?”  (Do you happen to know where we are?)  to which they responded, “Oh, sorry, we don’t speak Italian.”  “English! Even better!” I answered.  They were a really sweet pair from Birmingham on their first trip to Venice, so we chatted for a while, they kindly helped me reorient myself with their map… and pointed me towards where they had gotten their delicious-looking gelato.

Gelateria “il Doge”

(on Campo Santa Margherita)

I was really quite full of gelato by this point and had no desire to get any more when I happened upon this place, which was surrounded by a thick crowd primarily speaking Italian–usually a good sign.  So I took one for the team and checked it out.  And wow–even after on gelato, it was fabulous and I’m considering going back–so many interesting flavors!

I tried the Cioccolato (since it’s research, I have to have a control…) and the ‘mascarpone e fighi’ (mascarpone cheese and figs), which was delightful!  The chocolate was also excellent, though not quite as rich, dense or flavorful as Nico’s.

Floating fruit shop!

Now that I knew where the heck I was, I then waddled my way through the windy streets and canals to the Accademia bridge, at which point I was able to figure out my way back to the Zattere vaporetto stop.  What an amazing wander!

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Posted by on September 4, 2012 in ice cream


LA Gelato for Real!

As promised, I did use my next visit to Los Angeles to form my own opinion of the Gelato Bar on Hillhurst, in Hollywood/Los Feliz. Less than an hour ago, in fact, so I’m posting while all of my impressions are fresh (for a change).

Dawn did not exaggerate.

This is easily the best gelato I’ve tasted outside of Italy and rivals most of the gelato I tasted INSIDE Italy. This gelateria is owned by a third generation Italian gelato maker, and it shows. Okay, it’s a little pricey, but compared to a plane ticket to Florence, it’s one heck of a bargain!

They take pride in both the freshness of their ingredients and the proportion of fresh fruit or other natural flavorings in each variety they offer. They make about 70 different flavors and rotate them, offering a couple dozen at a time–though a few favorites are always available. Next time I’m in LA (this is a fairly short visit, alas) I plan to make a point of going back and trying some different selections.

For this visit, I went with the Cioccolato Sorbetto and the Menta, while Dawn chose the Olio d’Olivia and the Blueberry-Pomegranate Sorbetto. Before ordering, we tasted both the Cioccolato and the O d’O–partly because I was skeptical about both. Chocolate Sorbet? Really? Oh, yes. Really. I was expecting ice crystals, but no. Very smooth and creamy and INTENSELY chocolate. I asked and was told it’s made with water instead of milk (hence, sorbetto–and which means someone lactose intolerant would be fine with it) and with 70% cocoa. This chocolate may just beat out Il Grand Duca in Florence for richness. The Olio d’Olivia was described as “sweet cream and olive oil,” which sounded…unlikely. But it was delicious, with just a hint of rich olive oil taste. Since we were told it paired well with the fruit flavors, that’s what we did.

Blueberry-Pomegranate sounded like such a winner we ordered it without tasting first and were not disappointed in the least–and it did indeed pair excellently with the O d’O. Mint is always a fave of mine and went divinely with the rich, dark chocolate. (Ooh, and they also put in lovely cookie sticks with fudge drizzled inside. I recommend using it as a spoon until it’s gone.)

If I ever said (as I might have) that you just can’t get authentic Italian gelato in the States, I take it back. The Gelato Bar is superb and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Los Angeles. Kudos!



Blogging by proxy?

I haven’t been anywhere blog-worth lately, but my daughter Dawn discovered a wonderful gelateria today in Los Angeles. I can’t wait to visit and try it for myself! But in the meantime, she wrote a very nice review:

(In case anyone else posts one later, hers is the one by Dawn B.)

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Posted by on August 25, 2010 in chocolate, gelato, ice cream, los angeles


Gelato on the high seas

Bethany and I just got back from a lovely seven night cruise aboard the Celebrity Solstice. Among other delights (like fabulous food All Day Long and dancing into the wee hours) we discovered a real, honest-to-goodness gelateria aboard the ship! Of course, we couldn’t ignore such a  wonderful research opportunity, so we sampled the chocolate and the raspberry and discovered (cue angelic choir) that it was every bit as good as most Italian gelato we’ve tried! Okay, maybe not QUITE up to Florentine standards, but really, really excellent.

So, if the prospect of relaxing aboard a gorgeous ship in the balmy Caribbean and being served sumptuous meals every day, combined with way cool shore excursions like ziplining through the Puerto Rican rain forest and snorkeling off a sailboat in St. Thomas doesn’t tempt you, this exquisite gelato definitely should! The worst thing about a cruise?

It ends.

Can’t wait to do it again sometime!

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Posted by on April 28, 2010 in caribbean, chocolate, food, gelato, ice cream, travel



Excellent Indiana Ice Cream

Okay, so I didn’t get to go to Europe with Beth for research this time around, but after she got back we did take a trip to northern Indiana (partly for some other book research for me) and on the way home we made a stop at Fair Oaks Farm for their famous ice cream and cheeses. It’s right along I-65, maybe an hour from Chicago. Coming from Chicago, you can’t miss the billboards! “Our Whine Cooler” (with a picture of ice cream) and “We Dairy You to Stop” among others.

The cheesiness of their billboards aside, I can unequivocally say that their reputation is well deserved. The mint chocolate chip ice cream may have been the creamiest I have EVER tasted, and that’s saying quite a lot. The chocolate was also very, very good. Bethany got the butter pecan and the peach and those were exceptional as well.

Then there’s the cheese. We bought some to take home and the Butterkase in particular is divine. We also had grilled cheese sandwiches while there–I had the Havarti with pepper and Beth had the cheddar. Both were lovely and exactly what we wanted for a light-enough lunch to leave room for ice cream.

If you have kids along, there’s even Mooville, their outdoor playground… and even without kids, I confess we couldn’t resist jumping on the enormous “Dairy Air jumping pillow.” So if you find yourself a bit peckish while driving I-65 between Lafayette, IN and Chicago, this place is well worth a stop.



Posted by on September 22, 2009 in food, ice cream, Indiana


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Victorious Homecoming

Beth here.

I know you’re all going to feel VERY sorry for me when I report that I’ve just returned home from another GRUELING research mission. After 21 days in 11 different places in Europe, I have much to report. It was tough work, but somebody’s got to do it. Just goes to show what I’m willing to endure to bring YOU, the ice cream lovers of the world, the information you so desperately need.

All right, I’ll cut right to the top of the pile: Florence. Still the ice cream capital of the WORLD, in my opinion, but the balance of power has shifted slightly since the last time I was there. I am sad to report that Il Gran Duca–formerly the owner of the coveted #1 in the world (as we had discovered thus far) spot, has backslid since my last visit. It’s still FANTASTIC gelato. It’s just no longer noticeably a cut above the rest of the wonderful gelato in the magnificent city of Florence. They’ve scaled their production way back and now no longer even offer a dark chocolate flavor (the quality of which had A LOT to do with their supremacy).

While this is a very saddening turn of events, the GOOD news is that I found several other gelaterias worthy of note. We were already familiar with the Gelateria dei Neri (which may now have overtaken the #1 spot… I think it may have been #2 before and their quality has NOT gone down–if anything, it has improved since my last trip to Florence), a few blocks east from the Piazza delle Signioria on the Via dei Neri. Definitely worth the TWO visits made on this trip–and when you’re trying to hit as many different gelaterias as possible in a day and a half in Florence, that’s really saying something. Their dark chocolate flavor still makes me go weak in the knees, and they have a lot of other interesting options, such as a wide assortment of very authentic fruit flavors (usually featuring bits of the ACTUAL fruit mixed in with the gelato) such as pear, mango, and frutti di bosco, or wildberry.

They also offer 9 different flavors of granita, which would loosely translate to “slushy,” but it’s so much more than the syrupy gunk that bears the same name here. For one thing, like with the ice cream, they use ACTUAL fruit (or in the case of the mint flavor, actual mint leaves) in the production. They’re incredibly light, refreshing, delicious and remarkably thirst quenching–there’s not much that can beat them on a scorching afternoon in August. I myself partook (AFTER a small pear/pineapple gelato, of course–I have to put my research first!) in a mandarin orange granita on my second trip to the dei Neri–and was not disappointed!

My first trip featured a dark chocolate/fior di latte (literally “flower of milk”–a delicate and superbly flavored member of the cream flavor family) that knocked my socks off. The contrast of the incredibly dark chocolate and the lighter-than-air fior di latte was particularly effective. Others in the party sampled such flavors as chocolate orange, peach, lemon, tiramisu and biscotti (Italian cookies).

The charming service (particularly from the older gentleman who I suspect may have been the owner/author of the edible art we saw before us), the somewhat tucked-away location, the variety of flavors and the consistency of the excellence of the gelato all come together to make the Gelateria dei Neri one of the best (if not the best) gelaterias in Florence, and therefore, quite possibly, the world.

Looks like it’s going to take more than one entry to cover my adventures in Florence. Stay tuned!

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Posted by on August 28, 2009 in ice cream


Gelato in L.A.

So my sister Dawn recently moved to L.A. to make her fortune (which she undoubtably will–she’s a brilliant actress and absolutely gorgeous–she fits the movie star look much better than I do–probably because she’s not nearly as obsessed with ice cream as I am…) and has gotten the classic job-for-aspiring-actor-needing-to-pay-rent: bartending at a swanky restaurant. I went to visit her over spring break and spent some time at said restaurant since she couldn’t get time off: Il Moro. It’s in West L.A. (near Santa Monica) and it’s owned by a couple of sweet Italian guys who seemed to think that the fact that I can say a few things in Italian and that they like my sister’s work was reason enough to shower me with free food while I was there.


I managed to casually let it slip that I was crazy for gelato (when one is a graduate student, one has no shame when it comes the the procurement of free foodstuffs) and Elio (one of the owners) quickly brought out this beautiful tray with three scoops of different flavored gelato, each cradled in a finely crafted chocolate cup. I nearly wept at the beauty of it.

The flavors were: coconut, vanilla, and chocolate rum. Can you guess which was my favorite? They were all delicious, but I’m afraid that coconut and vanilla simply can’t compete with chocolate, particularly with chocolate also flavored with RUM. Yum. On our scale of 5, I would give it a 4.5 for flavor and a 3 for texture–it had the ever-so-slightly crystaline texture to it that is quite common, even in Italy. It’s the real stuff, though. Absolutely delicious and definitely worth a trip, even though the Godawful L.A. traffic.

Besides, the bartender is a total hottie.


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Posted by on April 4, 2009 in ice cream


A new challenge!

I know I’ve been terribly remiss in posting here. Bethany is away for the summer, performing at Festival 56 in Princeton, IL, and traveling around sampling ice cream just isn’t as much fun alone. But today’s Indianapolis Star had an article (Cool Scoops) that has lit a new fire under me! I’m determined to try as many of these places/flavors as possible and report back. Since most of them are practically in my back yard, I can’t make excuses. And who wants to make excuses to NOT eat ice cream, anyway?


Posted by on July 11, 2008 in food, ice cream, indianapolis


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Ice cream in Japan

After a week in Japan, touring Tokyo and Kyoto, I think we can definitively say that Japan has many wonderful things–kai ten sushi, karaoke, Buddhist temples that are over 1000 years old–but ice cream isn’t its strongest suit.

We started tasting in Kyoto with some Sakura (cherry blossom) and matcha (green tea) hand-dipped ice cream near the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Nice, but nothing to write home about. A day later we tried another place nearby (we were staying at a bed & breakfast near that temple) and it was better. The black beans and mochi are an interesting addition. I liked it better than Bethany did. (I’m not naming these places because the names were in kanji and even Dawn couldn’t tell me what it meant–sorry!)

After seeing lots and lots of soft-serve places, we finally decided we’d better try that, since that seemed to be more of a specialty. And yes, that was quite good! If you go, do try the soft-serve.  The place we tried in Uji (a short train ride from Kyoto) was particularly good. Uji is famous for its green tea, and the matcha-flavored soft-serve was excellent.

We only ran across one place that advertised gelato, the coffee shop at the top of the government building in Shinjuku (in Tokyo). Fabulous 360 degree views, but the gelato? Um, let’s just say the strawberry cake was much better. Ice crystals and not a lot of chocolate flavor.

In summary, if you visit Japan, make sure to visit a kai-ten sushi place. That’s where little plates of sushi travel all around the restaurant on a long conveyor belt. You sit on a stool and snag whatever strikes your fancy, then pay at the end according to the plates you’ve accumulated. Fun, inexpensive and very tasty!  And do try Japanese karaoke if you’re with a group. Unlike American karaoke, you and your friends get a private little room and only embarrass yourselves in front of each other, instead of a room full of strangers. Tip: Nomi Houdai means “all you can drink.”

And if you get to Uji, try the matcha soft-serve ice cream!


Posted by on May 15, 2008 in food, gelato, ice cream, japan, travel


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A Midwestern Treasure!

I’d been hearing good things about FARMbloomington, a locally-owned restaurant in downtown Bloomington that boasts a diverse menu of organic and locally grown foods. But not until last week did I finally have the chance to check it out for myself.  Five of us stopped by after a show (Beth’s show, which was fabulous–but that’s a different topic) for drinks and dessert.  Beth had been there once before and said the ice cream was wonderful. (Yes, she should have blogged about it then!)  With five of us, of course we ordered five different desserts and everyone tasted everything.

Oh. My. Goodness.

I’ll start by saying that ice cream does not have to be gelato to be outstanding! Okay, we already knew that from Berthillon’s in Paris, but FARMbloomington’s chocolate ice cream is every bit as good and a whole lot more accessible from the midwest!  For vanilla lovers, the vanilla was just as exceptional. Smooth, creamy, very, very flavorful.

Moving beyond ice cream, the apple pie (okay, with ice cream) was fresh, warm and excellent. The carrot cake was one of the best I’ve tasted. The coffee ice with vanilla ice cream was something different, but also very good. And the red velvet cake was as velvety as the name suggests and very chocolatey.

This place isn’t cheap, mind you–desserts ranged from $6 – $9 and the drinks from $5 – $9– but taken in the light of an experience instead of just “drinks and dessert,” well worth the price and the drive.  Highly recommended!


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