Gelato in Nauplion

16 Sep

Greeks have a habit of laying claim to all great achievements of the western and near-eastern world, like democracy, geometry, and the stunning church-turned-mosque in Istanbul, the Aghia Sophia.  But even we can’t be so bold as to lay claim to Gelato, that quixotic, quintessentially Italian dessert.

That’s why we’re grateful for Marcello Raffo, an Italian from Rome who settled in Nafplion and opened the tastiest gelato shop not only in town, but in all of Greece.

The shop, the Antica Gelateria di Roma, stands on a corner in the old city, close to the main square, which is paved in marble and graced with Venetian homes, their balconies trailing waves of bougainvillea.  Bakeries, cafes, and shops line the pedestrian thoroughfares that lead away from the square, up the hill and down to the sea. The streets are connected one to the next by narrow stone steps, worn smooth by time. Every evening Greeks and tourists alike come out to stroll, have a drink at an outdoor café, or argue about politics, theirs and the rest of the world’s.

Nafplion town & harbor

Crowning all this activity is the Palamidi Fortress, built by the Venetians in the early 1700s.  To get there, you’ll have to climb 999 steps – but the view is worth it.  Down below, 450 meters out to sea, the island fortress known as the Bourtzi, which once protected the harbor from pirates, stands guard.

Bourtzi, Nafplion's Island Fortress

And somewhere between the fortress above and the fortress below, you will find Marcello, bidding a booming welcome to hot and thirsty visitors.

Marcello learned his craft as an apprentice to the owner of the Gelateria Pignotti in Rome, which had been serving gelato since 1870.  For 10 years, Marcello worked closely under Señor Pignotti, learning his trade secrets until the day the old man decided to retire and closed his shop’s shutters for the last time.

Then, about 13 years ago, Marcello left Rome to visit his sister and her Greek husband in Nafplion, and like countless Greeks and Italians before them, they dreamt up an epic collaboration.  Soon after, they opened their Antica Gelateria and welcomed their first customers.

Today, Marcello serves thousands of tourists each summer, but he’s especially grateful for his returning Greek patrons.  “They have accepted me as one of their own,” Marcello says. “I am proud that they keep coming to my gelateria, and I consider many of them my friends.”

Marcello makes his gelatos and sorbets on his premises.  “They are in every sense home made,” he says. “When it comes to our flavors, we have of course our very own traditional recipes.  But we also work with the local harvest, flavoring our sorbets with local melons, lemons, and oranges.”

Though business can get pretty brisk with customers crowding around the two large display cases in the shop and lining up outside the door, Marcello always makes sure each visitor leaves feeling like they’ve received the best attention and service.

“Mine is a seasonal business and of course the summer months are the most demanding.  But I try my best not to disappoint anybody,” he says.

One of my students: a very satisfied customer!

Each time I visit Marcello’s shop, I leave feeling like I have been reunited with an old friend. And I leave with a new favorite flavor. The first time, it was pistachio gelato. This past summer, it was a sorbet made with the juice from the local lemons, for which the region is famous.

I also leave Marcello’s shop inspired to make my own sorbets, gelatos and ice-creams, to tide me over until my next visit.  This week, I think I’ll try a strawberry sorbet. I can use up this season’s berries that have been waiting in my freezer.  Next week, I may try David Lebovitz’s blackberry-lime sorbet or Bruce Weinstein’s cranberry sorbet — since I am, after all, in Wisconsin!

Do you have a favorite gelato recipe or cookbook?  It’s going to be a long winter – and I would love to hear from you!

Strawberry Sorbet

My strawberry photo -- until I can take one of the sorbet I'm going to make! This is a custard dessert I ate at Marcello's this past June.

1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

1/2 cup sugar (many recipes call for ¾ cup, but I like a bit of tartness)

1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Pinch of salt

Fresh mint or basil, torn into ribbons, for garnish, if you’d like

Place all the ingredients except for the mint or basil in a bowl. Stir.

Cover and let sit for 30 minutes or so, stirring often.

Place in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

If you don’t like the strawberry seeds, press the mixture through a strainer.

Pour into your ice-cream maker and follow your machine’s instructions.

Serve garnished with mint or basil.


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