Stefano Marcotulli, a former pastry chef, and his wife, Silvia, use only the finest seasonal ingredients at Gelateria del Teatro, on a side street off via dei Coronari. Lemons from Amalfi, pistachios from Sicily, and hazelnuts from Piedmont are translated perfectly into creamy, flavorful gelati. The couple's creative side comes out in combinations like sage with raspberries, and dark chocolate with Nero d'Avola, a Sicilian red wine. Ask to peek through the Plexiglas into the back room where it's all made. And if the weather's not too hot, savor your finished product at one of the outdoor tables. Via di San Simone 70, Centro Storico/Piazza Navona neighborhood, 011-39/06-4547-4880, summer weekdays 11 a.m.–midnight, weekends until 1a.m. (hours change seasonally), from $2.50 (€2).
Piazza Venezia, where tourist hordes dodge whizzing traffic, is the last place in Rome you would expect to find exceptional gelato. But Giancarlo Corona's Gelateria Ara Coeli delivers just that. All the flavors here are seasonal and prepared without artificial ingredients, with a range from classics like chocolate and hazelnut to the more unusual lime with celery, and raspberry with star anise. The shop's semifreddi, semi-frozen custard treats, are like little works of art in a cup. Although Giancarlo will likely hand over his place to new owners at the end of 2010, his daughters will carry the family torch at their Gelateria Corona in Largo Argentina (opposite the busy tram stop in Largo Arenula 27). Piazza Ara Coeli 9/10 on the southwest corner of Piazza Venezia, Centro Storico/Piazza Venezia, 011-39/06-679-5085, gelateriaaracoeli.com, daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m., from $2.50 (€2).
Take a number at the entrance of Gelateria dei Gracchi's Prati location—just a few blocks south of the Lepanto Metro stop—and prepare to be wowed by some truly innovative flavors, like apple cinnamon, coffee with star anise, and meringue with ground pistachio. Bonbons, a house specialty, are displayed in stacks near the gelato case. As an added bonus, Gelateria dei Gracchi also serves gluten- and lactose-free versions. Via dei Gracchi 272, Prati, 011-39/06-321-6668; viale Regina Margherita 212, Prati, 011-39/06-8535-3508; via Tuscolana 251, Tuscolana, 011-39/06-785-6622; open daily noon–10 p.m., from $2.50 (€2).
It's easy to overlook Fior di Luna, a quiet shop on a busy street in Trastevere that prides itself on serving certified organic gelato made with fair-trade ingredients. This near-obsessive commitment to quality explains the cups-only policy: Fior di Luna frowns on the industrial production of cones. Fill your cup with the peanut butter gelato—almost unheard of in Italy—and pair it with any of their half-dozen varieties of chocolate. From October to Easter, the gelateria also makes its own chocolate bars. Via della Lungaretta 96, Trastevere, 011-39/06-6456-1314, fiordiluna.com, Tues.–Sun. noon–1a.m., from $2 (€1.50).
Maria Agnese Spagnuolo opened the first Gelateria Fatamorgana in northern Rome and has since expanded to a slightly more-central location in Prati. Her flavors are whimsical and one of a kind: Kentucky is a blend of tobacco, cinnamon, and dark chocolate, while Panacea combines mint, almond, and ginseng. Fatamorgana serves about 60 varieties that change seasonally, although you can count on around 10 or so chocolate options year-round. Via di Lago di Lesina 9/11, Salaria, 011-39/06-8639-1589; via G. Bettolo 7, Prati, 011-39/06-8639-1589; gelateriafatamorgana.it, daily noon–11 p.m., from $2 (€1.50).
In a piazza just off the posh via del Corso, Ciampini is an old-school Roman café that sticks to traditional Roman flavors like hazelnut, pistachio, stracciatella (chocolate chip), and marron glacé (candied chestnut), the house specialty. The result of decades of experience is an incomparably creamy and rich gelato that attracts serious crowds of locals in the summer. Pay for your gelato at the register, and then take your receipt to the back where you can choose from the flavors listed on engraved brass plates behind the counter. Be prepared to answer the barista's question: "Panna?" (whipped cream?). You can beat the queue at the counter by grabbing a table outside, but you'll pay about double for table service. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina 29, Centro Storico/Corso, 011-39/06-687-6606 . ciampini.net, open daily 9 a.m.–9 p.m., from $3.20 (€2.50).
DECODING THE GELATO EXPERIENCE
* Know your rights
No matter what size cone or cup you get, you are always entitled to at least two flavors. You will get strange looks if you request only one. Panna (whipped cream) is usually included in the price.
* The original ice cream sandwich?
The Sicilian tradition of serving gelato inside a brioche, a sweetened bun, instead of in a cup or on a cone, has migrated north to Rome. Most gelaterie in the city offer the option of brioche con gelato. The best and freshest brioche are at Ciuri Ciuri (via Leonina 18/20, 011-39/06-4544-4548; via Labicana 126/128, 011-39/06-4542-4856; Largo Teatro Valle 1/2, 011-39/06-9826-2284; Piazza San Cosimato 49b, 011-39/06-9521-6082; ciuriciuri.it).
* Frozen treats beyond gelato
Granita, popularized in Sicily but now fully adopted by Romans, is a refreshing, slushy dessert that comes in a cup with a spoon. The most popular flavors are coffee, almond, and lemon. Cremolato is similar to a granita but has a chunkier consistency because it's mixed with bits of fruit and nuts. Semifreddo is a semi-frozen custard. In Rome, several flavors of semifreddo are often layered with coarsely chopped nuts and served in transparent cups to show off the colors and layers.
* A disappearing Roman tradition
Grattachecca is a classic Roman summer treat made with shaved ice and fruit syrups. There used to be grattachecca kiosks all over the city, open only in the summer, but nearly all of them have disappeared. You can catch the few that are left on Lungotevere (the road trimming the Tiber River), at Ponte Milvio, and near Trastevere. Check out Sora Mirella on Lungotevere degli Anguillara, near Tiber Island's Ponte Cestio (no phone).