For the last few days, I’ve been stationed in Sabaudia, Italy, a small but charming beachside town about an hour southwest of Rome. Here, as it does in so many parts of the country, something pretty magical happens around the time we refer to as “happy hour” back home in the States.
It’s around now when the world comes back to life, after a short break in the early afternoon, during which folks close up their boutiques, butcher shops, pharmacies, and fruit stands. They head home for lunch, and maybe a quick nap. They take a few moments with family, feed their pets, or put their feet up.
But come this dawn of evening, there’s a serenity to the way they approach reopening. It’s done as they see fit, not necessarily tethered to store hours stamped on a shop window. Along the main drag of this coastal community, which is anchored by a church tower built by and boasting a mosaic of Mussolini himself, are a handful of bars, cafés, alimentari, and a butchershop, a toy store, a couple of booksellers, jewelry shops, two pasticceri, and naturally, some storefronts where you can sample the classic pizza a taglio. And I count at least seven places to score gelato. Come early evening, each and every one is cranking. This, my friends, is gelato hour—the happiest one of the day.
This is not some children’s treat, or a reward for a job well done. It’s as much a part of the quotidien routine as a cup of caffè in the morning. It’s not uncommon to find a full-grown man strolling the strada, a cone of something blushing pink, pale green, or even Smurf blue (a flavor lovingly and ludicrously referred to as “puffo,” and reminiscent, I’m told, of something like cotton candy), next to an eight year old or an elderly couple.
Here, where dinnertime isn’t until sometime between nine and eleven p.m., this isn’t just a treat; it’s a functional bridge between naptime and a negroni. It can be a sorbetto or granita, even an affogato, but you better believe it’s a little something. Unlike the massive scoops we expect stateside, the sizes are such that a daily stop at the gelateria doesn’t slow you down. Options, beyond a mountain range of multicolored flavors, are pretty limited. Some offer a few kinds of cones, but more often it’s simply cono or coppetta. Almost everyone answers yes to the question, “Con panna?” because the barely sweetened whipped cream is served as such a delicate crown that it stands up even on a cone. Occasionally, there’s a slather of Nutella, but entirely absent is a laundry list of toppings. You’ll find no sundae creations that require ten friends or a trough, no prize at the end for descending into a self-induced food coma.
Gelato is usually served by spade, not scoop, often at the hands of a dignified looking server in a bowtie or a soda jerk’s paper hat. Flavors can be familiar—chocolate, pistachio, strawberry or lemon. But some might be less recognizable to American palates, like my personal favorite: black licorice, or Sapori di Sicilia—an amalgamation of pistachio and almond studded with candied orange peels.
The custom of eating gelato isn’t something people take part in early in the day—that’s something only foreigners might do. But with my trip coming to a close, I embrace my inner tourist. I can find only one place that puts out their gelato selection before noon. So while everyone around me is scrambling first thing for their cornetto e cappuccino, I order a copetta of pine nut and pistachio, and ignore a few odd looks. And that ignorance is rewarded with bliss; so rich and creamy it almost sticks to the roof of my mouth. The pine nuts are unevenly toasted but bursting with flavor, their imperfection indicating authenticity and freshness, while the pistachio is salty and balancing. I couldn’t care less that it’s not even nine a.m.
When I go for my second gelato of the day, it’s with the rest of the masses. I order licorice and amarena cherry, on a cone, con panna of course; and it is perfection again. This time, I notice a sign on the door, which loosely translated, reads:
“The time and love can change the opening and closing hours of this location.”
It doesn’t quite make sense in English, but that’s not why I have to laugh to myself. It’s that we would never tolerate such ambiguity back home. But then, who are we to argue with the masters of this perfect craft? We must grant them the time and space they require, at their mercy if we want their magic.
Because as I’m finding here in one short week, we need as many gelato locations as we can get, and whatever the hour they choose to open the doors and share their creations—that, my friends, is the perfect gelato hour.