Gelati. Cortona’s got the A-List

At some point the subject of Gelati came up. I’m not all that attracted to ice cream here in the states. I’ll eat it,of course, if you plop it on my pie/cake/empty plate/bowl/outstretched hands. But gelati, in Italy, that’s in the give us our daily bread realm of things, isn’t it?


PANICALE, Umbria, Italy – So, here I am walking through the double glass doors of Aldo’s café for the millionth time with yet another burning question on my mind.

Oh, look, American friends. “Hi, Hi”! and oh look over there, some English-speaking German friends “Hi, Hi” some more. Aldo looks up from loading ice cream bars into a cooler, wide eyed, skips a beat and then shakes his head and laughs at himself. “Never going to learn” he says “You all say Hi as a greeting and I’ve heard it over and over but it sounds just like “Ahi” our word for “Ouch!” And I jump everytime.” Foreigners. Its not like we don’t know how to use big words like: Ciao.

I wait till the bar clears and Aldo is squeezing me some orange juice. “Aldo, I’ve been trimming and pruning my garden for days. I’ve got leaves and branches piled high as anything. Know anyone with a pickup?” “Oh, you need Primo.” He says, “You know him?” I nod; Sure, Primo is the mason. He was supposed to fix a wall in our kitchen last winter, and I need to talk to him anyway.

Ever helpful, Aldo knows how to make this happen. “Go ask Andrea. It’s his uncle.” Never knew that. I tromp next door to Masolino’s and say the whole thing over again and Andrea says, “Come back at 1:30. Primo’s here everyday for coffee after lunch.” Didn’t know that either. Can’t believe they gave away his location like that. And of course he didn’t show. “Don’t know where he could be,” Andrea says, looking at his watch. While we were waiting, killing time, talking about this and that, Andrea was polishing glasses behind the bar for a while, and we both flipped through the sports newspaper and admired the view out the open door of his balcony down through the cypresses to Villa Le Mura.
dolce vita, gelati at the gelateria in cortona
At some point the subject of Gelati came up. I’m not all that attracted to ice cream here in the states. I’ll eat it,of course, if you plop it on my pie/cake/empty plate/bowl/outstretched hands. But gelati, in Italy, that’s in the give us our daily bread realm of things, isn’t it? And this is Andrea talking. Andrea’s family owns Masolino’s restaurant and his mother is the ranking chef in all of Umbria. She has an Olympic sized medallion to prove it. Go Bruna! Naturally, when they are on the subject of food, I’m all ears. Holding up his thumb and the nearest two fingers he says “There are three places you need to know. My top three for Gelati – Uno, Gelateria Snoopy in Cortona.” I know that one! It is right next to our friend Nando’s Bar Sport in the epicenter of town. “Due,” he continues, “Quinto Vizio, in Perugia, near Warner Village, the movie complex.” I think he said the name means Five Vices. Can that be right? Can there be that many vices related to Gelati? “Tre, Bar Alise, by the train station in Castiglione del Lago.” I write them all down. Write off Primo ever coming and step out into the piazza. And, there he is. He’d almost slipped into the cafe on the other side of the piazza. He was that close. Aren’t small towns great?

snoopy means gelati in Cortona, italyTHE GELATI CHALLENGE

CORTONA, Tuscany, Italy – The next day Midge and the two girls and I decide to zip up to Cortona for a bit of adventure and gelati. I called our friend Elida to see if she needed anything there or if she wanted to come along and see sites with us. She lives here in Panicale all the time and is always up for an adventure. Ma, no. Not today, she has stuff to do. I mention that Andrea’s top Gelati shop is in Cortona and she agrees that Cortona has the best gelato. Except she thinks it is Dolce Vita. Says she makes the forty minute one way trip to Cortona just to get the gelati at Dolce Vita. Wellll. It is clear what must be done. It seems a taste-off is in order. We’ll do one gelateria on the way into Cortona, one on the way out.

I love having a simple-minded travel goal. So easily amused. We spot Dolce Vita not long after we park the car. It has four seats at a tall table. Each seat is shaped like a giant fiberglass ice cream cone. But it is the gelati that steals the show. Incredo presentation. Incredo. Mountains of each exotic flavor and huge piece of the kind of fruit represented capping each mountain to make it blindingly obvious, even to tourists, what is on offer. Halves of papaya, for example, grace the peachy pink tub of that flavor on the left, and whole bananas sit atop the container right in front of us. Bingo. That is the one Midge has been looking for! She’s in for all banana all the way. Graysie has the purple/blue blueberry and pairs it with the bella papaya. Katie has a nice contrasty combo of dark chocolate and watermelon. I have a cherry swirl thing with frutti di bosco (forest berries, they say, meaning raspberries and blueberries and black berries and such).

Love mine. But, hey, its gelati. How far wrong can you go? Midge is over the moon on the banana. Graysie likes hers but isn’t raving. Katie only likes her chocolate. I, on the other hand, tried her watermelon and loved it. And I’m not a fan of the actual melon itself. I thought mine was great. Especially the very frutti one.
the piazza in Cortona, italy
We fiddled about, shopped – it was market day – took pictures, enjoyed the sunshine and just got a kick out of being out and about. We got some pizza in the piazza for lunch and tried to work up an appetite for Gelati #2. Snoopy is right beside the market, and as it was closing up for the day, we ducked under the awning of a place selling belts and shoes and dresses and checked that Snoopy dog out. I’ve been there before many times but this time we were there for serious research. Midge said she was full, full, full and none for her thanks. Graysie had the green team of mint and green apple. Katie had futti di bosco and lemon. I did the frutti again and put it with Moro (black berry).

First, the gelati here is nothing to look at. Well, they were till I’d seen Dolce Vita beauty pagent of gelati. The tubs of gelati at Snoopy just lay there, great colors, just no art to it. Which is fine, but I missed the over the top Dolce Vita presentation. But, on taste they may have outdone themselves here at Snoopy. Bright, tangy, tasty. Katie’s lemon was sour and refreshing as biting into the fruit itself and my fruits were just knock out. I didn’t think I would like Graysie’s green on green combo, but I did; it was quite wonderful.

Which gelateria won? They were both great, and if pressed, I would have to say we were the winners. To be there in Cortona on a sunny summer day, licking gelati off our knuckles from one end of town to the other. OOOH, can I try a bite of what you’re having?

around Cortona town on a sunny day in Tuscany, italy<img decoding=See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

P.S. Primo and the Pickup ? This whole Italian ice cream adventure started with me looking for a pickup. Well, I really found one. Except it was what a pickup might hope to be when it grows up, a ten ton big rig that had to be backed through a crooked tunnel to get to the street below our place. When I tried to gratefully, happily pay them, Primo’s son Sergio held up both hands in a classic No, No, gesture. I had the money in my hand. I said, “but it is such a favor” and Sergio pointed at me, like I had raised my hand and really gotten the correct answer, and said, “Preciso.” Exactly. You got it. They wanted it to be a favor. And it was. Thank you.

Hello, Spello. I see your streets are paved with gold.

The festival is crowded but civilized. We walk wherever we want and see things along whatever path strikes our fancy. Until, suddenly, we’re swept up toward a church and in the distance we can hear a band forlornly playing as the host approaches.

spello during corpus domini. spello, Umbria
SPELLO, Umbria, Italy–Midge knows a short cut. There is, evidently, some shopping that has taken place near here. Ceramic-related shopping she thinks. Its early and we take back road after scenic back road through one sleepy town after another. Us and the occasional spandex and logo covered bike rider/professional racer wannabe. Is there any other kind of biker these days? No matter, we’re happy to share the Sunday morning with these few brightly colored fellow travelers.

As I write this later in the garden, bees are buzzing, an orange butterfly lands on my knee. The hummingbird-like bug is putting his long needle nose in the sweet purple lavender, but Focus Stew, Focus. Get us to Spello, already. It is not that far from Panicale but we are such slugs that we’ve never been right there so we’re staying sharp looking for signs. We’re south of Perugia, south of Assisi, but it is before Foligno off 75. I see it! We’ve been driving on the flat agricultural plain around the lake when suddenly, there is Spello looking down on us from its cliff, the houses uniformly pale pink, the color of Bruno’s cactus blossoms. There’s the exit. Gulp. There’s the gridlock. This town is not asleep. It is wide awake and neck deep in cars. We bump up over a curb and onto an available sidewalk, lock up and step away from the Fiat Bravo. Someone right behind us does the same and suddenly those two blocks of sidewalk are filled too. To fortify us for the flowers we sit for a minute in a huge café under a resort hotel. Everything is better after a cappuccino and one of those fruit tarts. We follow crowds across the street and it begins. Just like that. Quiet coffee to full emersion in a festa in a matter of a few feet.


streets of Spello, Italy are paved with gold during corpus domini
Did I say what we are doing here? Meant to. Happily, it is spring, flowers are everywhere and it is Corpus Domini. Even the catholics among us are not solid on what that all entails. Sounds like Holy Body. But we think it is more in the body as in the host at communion and why not have a flower festival for it? Because, here in Spello they have covered the streets with major sized, highly detailed art made over night from flowers, seeds and petals. Like someone had steamrolled over a Rose Parade float. Its all biblical themed, huge, happy, bright and hard not to be knocked over by the scale. Several are 30 or 40 feet long? I didn’t measure them but they are big, trust me. The teams that did them are proud but not really standing tall, often sitting or laying down. tired flower arrangers of Spello, Italy during Corpus Domini celebrationWe think they’ve all been up all night doing this. I read one brochure that claimed 2,000 people would be up all night, including several hundred 3-14 year olds. Tradition! And it specifically said they would not be playing about. Flowers to gather, dissect and arrange artfully. During the show there are step ladders and metal viewing stands here and there and people go up, snap a photo, come down and someone else goes up. Some of the teams are spraying their art if they are in full sun to keep them fresh. There are flowers not only below us, but beside us in doorways and over hanging from balconies. And above that, bright blue skies. What a day we fell into here.

The festival is crowded but civilized. We walk wherever we want and see things along whatever path strikes our fancy. Until, suddenly, we’re swept up toward a church and in the distance we can hear a band forlornly playing as the host approaches. A tower full of bells begins to ring, priests trudge by carrying loudspeakers on a pole, someone is chanting, someone on a scratchy recording is singing and eventually the band is right in front of us. Tubas, trumpets, clarinets prevail. The priests wear white and gold robes, Caribinieri are in full dress and that means the Napoleonic hats with red plumes. Canopies, big, tall, old painted canopies sway by protecting the host and everyone shuffles, shuffles, shuffles through the flowers underfoot. One by one, foot by foot, the dirge plays on. The procession rocks from left foot to right in solemn obliteration of the flower designs. Strangely, it does mess them up but it doesn’t ruin them. And the designers, some more than others, rush to pat things back together. In the end it doesn’t matter too much, flower petals are ethereal and destined to dry up and blow away, anyway aren’t they? Luck was with these artists this year as it was perfect out all night, not a hint of breeze and for the first time in a week, no evening showers. (All this weather wonderfullness was reaching its high point after church at 11. By five that afternoon it was pouring buckets, so good timing all around.)

We followed the procession to the park where plant sellers of every stripe were tempting the crowd successfully with their wares. Shoppers were carrying people sized rose bushes to their cars all around us. We found a table of seriously exotic cactus and picked one for Bruno that looked like a pale green softball with long needles marching around its stitching and two big candle-shaped flower buds sticking straight up from the top. Wonder what that will be like when it grows up. We’ll see what Bruno thinks of that.
wonderful colors of spring flowers in Spello display, Spello, Italy
The medieval festival in Bevagna starts today and its just down the road. But, this has been such a star crossed, by the numbers, perfect kind of day that we think we should just go sit in the garden and think about all this. But you know that porchetta place in Corciano? We go right by there . . .

Next time: Andrea shares his Big Three in Gelati. We’ve only been to one so far but we’ll fix that and report back when we have compared at least two of them. They are going to have to do some hustling to beat the peach I just had at Aldo’s!

balcony street watcher in Spello, Italy during corpus domini celebration

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland


Competitive Saturday morning. Even though it is way early, we’re jockeying for position at Biano’s. Women have several choices in town but guys pretty much have Biano. And here he comes with the newspapers under his arm right now.

PANICALE, Umbria, Italy– Competitive Saturday morning. Even though it is way early, we’re jockeying for position at Biano’s. Women have several choices in town but guys pretty much have Biano. And here he comes with the newspapers under his arm right now. He turns his head away from the even earlier bird and mutters “We’ll get our coffee in a minute. Or we can just go now?” I wave him off and tell him to get to work, we’ll do it another day. I was so glad to be here that even being number two couldn’t mess with my Zen attitude. And strangely it paid off because it gave me plenty of time with La Nazione. There in the Umbria section, the whole front page was covered with photos and news of the flower petal art display going on in Spello the next day. Never been to Spello. Its streets appear to be filled with elaborately detailed mosaics of religious subjects all done in flowers. Must do this. Right after the trim. Hey, I needed that haircut didn’t I? Ok, ciao, ciao. Time is predictably flying because even having a early morning haircut is fun. Tourists. So easily amused.

Kiki and Fabiola in Panicale's Piazza with some Italian cappucchino to goPASS ME DOWN THE LINE, PANICALE

Leaving Biano’s I head home (go left) even though like Moses, I can smell the coffee in The Promised Land, just across the wide piazza (to the right). I’ll go get the girls up and come back with them. I told you I was feeling Zen. Friends before coffee? Where did that come from? Bronzed goddess Daniela and I fall into step together and do the usual weather chat. What I really want to say is How DID you get that tan? She seems to be in Bar Gallo all the time and always fresh as a daisy and dressed like a perfect fashion model. When does she tan? When does she shop? She peels off at a store and Linda takes her places coming out of her storeroom on one side of the street aimed for her store on the other. Arms full of vegetables in a plastic crate, hair flying behind her, she keeps moving but laughs and says over her shoulder, “We are all running down the corridors of the castello, no?” Well, yes. The town is so small, the walls enclose the houses that all connect one to the other and the “streets” are narrower than most office hallways. It is like we are all in the same building bustling about.

At home, I find that Kiki has gone to the bar because she assumed I would go there. She’s doing that foreigner thing and getting coffee to bring back to the house. What will they think of us? So, I head back and find her coming up the street with coffee in a tray held waiter-like over her head striking a pose and interrupting her gossipy walk with the also amazingly tanned and fabulous Fabiola who works at Linda’s. Again, when is the tan happening? No matter, we’ve got coffee to drink.

Lucci is a favorite friend of ours in Panicale, Umbria, ItalyLuccia is our friend Nico’s cousin. He designed our garden and she brought us wild strawberries she picked in the forest to plant in the garden. She and her sister are walking Denise home when they stop to talk to the three of us. Denise is Danish and we are American but its all non stop Italian, multiple conversations flying about, bouncing off the old stone walls. I’m talking to Lucci and as is often the case, with her she holds someone’s hand while she talks to them. Clasps it, warmly, fondly in a way that you know she is focused on only you. We talk of many things but it always comes quickly back to gardening, flowers. We say we are thinking of seeing the Corpus Domini floral displays the l’infiorata in Spello. Is it worth seeing? In unison, three heads tilt back, all hands rise palm up and they all sigh “Ah, Spello”. Evidently its ok. Earlier, after pizza in Paciano, we saw friends of Kiki’s scrambling about getting teams busy drawing chalk designs on the sidewalks there but here in Panicale hours later we don’t see anything happening. Will there be floral displays here too? Well, maybe. Depends. It is nearly 11 pm here and they will have been working since 2 in the afternoon in Spello the paper said.

umbrian rain. yes even in sunny italy some rain must fall. “Yes”, Lucci agrees “It should be like that, but here we are just four cats.” Siamo solo quattro gatti. What is with the magic number four? Quattro parole means short conversation and as always quattro gatti paints a perfect picture of deserted town piazza. We decide we need to see the display the next day. And see it in Spello. And hope that it doesn’t rain tonight like it has almost every evening. Even if the sun is out when it rains like in the photo, it would still make mess of the displays in the streets. As we part, I agree to come see Lucci’s terra sometime. Her earth. I say “garden?” “No, it’s more than that” she says and her sister nods. “Come see”. I will, I will. Sogni d’oro. Golden dreams.


In the morning we three early risers slip into the piazza and there aren’t even four cats. It is just our footsteps we hear on the stones. Last night, after a wedding, the piazza was a happy riot of noise and action and friends dressed up in party clothes. Hardly recognized Nico in a black shirt and yellow tie. He is a retired professor and a hardworking artist and I didn’t know he had a tie. Molto chic. But that was last night. At Bar Gallo this morning it is just Aldo sorting sodas into the cooler and his wife Daniella serving coffee to the only customer: Biano the barber. Kiki and Midge cover him in compliments about my long, long overdue haircut. Maestro! Complimenti! Un Capolavoro! No, no he grins. I am merely a humble local artisan doing my work he says putting his hand near the marble floor to indicate his place in the haircutting world. And what is this? One more cat. Bruno with his Cheshire smile. Covered with paint. Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation today? Yes, but my wife is hardly speaking to me, he shrugs. Could be all the better vacation the men all reflect sagely. I show everyone the window on the back of my camera where I’ve got a photo of the plant Bruno brought by for Midge.


umbrian flower explosion

That cactus Bruno loaned us must be forty or fifty pounds of Stay-Away-From-Me-I’ll-Stick-You-I-MEAN-IT plant. Piante Grasse they say here when they mean succulents like this. Or maybe just this kind? Not totally clear on that. This particular one is a big green cactus with long, eight inch flower buds. We have a really good sized one Bruno gave us years ago and it is ready to bloom. But his, even bigger one, is ready to bloom a day earlier and since he’s going to Tuscany tomorrow and would be gone when it is blooming he wants it to be appreciated. We drove out to his house yesterday to pick it up. Driving back we were showing it to everyone along the way. And this morning it had bloomed and covered itself with pale pink stars as big as apples. So, here we are. Aldo, Daniella, Biano and Bruno. How lucky are we to know these one, two, three, four cats and have them all to ourselves this quiet Sunday morning?

umbrian flower explosion

We thank Bruno for the flowers and Biano for the coffee and strike out across the still deserted piazza with purpose in our step. We are going to see yet more flowers.

The coffee paying thing is a fine game, by the way. They play it endlessly here and always act like it was their very first time. Biano told Daniela he was paying for everything when he saw us come in, before he said hi or anything. Quick as a snake. And when he saw Bruno come in, he said And Bruno too. Later, when we and Bruno try to pay before leaving Daniela points at Biano and Bruno grumbles Ma, no. Si, si. Grazie! It is an endless battle to see who can be the quickest and the most generous. Show up anywhere near the bar and you will be offered coffee. No coffee? Are you sure? Prosecco perhaps? But not this morning, we’re off on a road trip.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland


It’s a bird . . . it’s a plane . . . huh. It IS a plane. Hi, hi, it’s Stew and Midge – winging our way by Ryanair, from Stanstead outside London to Ciampino in Rome. So, how WAS Ryanair you ask?

Midge and Kiki in our Umbrian Garden. Salute.PANICALE, Umbria– . . . It’s a bird . . . it’s a plane . . . huh. It IS a plane. Hi, hi, it’s Stew and Midge – winging our way by Ryanair, from Stanstead outside London to Ciampino in Rome. So, how WAS Ryanair you ask? Well, gosh, everyone just put the total fear in us of Ryanair. Said it would be gritty and more bare bones than we could possibly imagine. We prepared for the el-cheapo worst. But, it was fine. Can I say this? Will anyone believe me if I say our Ryanair flight was much better than the AA flight we took across the pond. Those AA seats were of finest Corinthian Masonite mixed with construction rubble. Our Ryanair flight on the other hand had comfy leather seats, was clean, clean and clean. Ciampino and Stanstead were both fine. Seemed new and with every service I would expect. And for us, Ciampino was fast. Much calmer than the regular Rome airport. Starting from Ciampino clipped an hour off any drive we have ever taken from Fiumincino. Fiumicino is clear out of town over on the Mediterranean for crying out loud. Ciampino is on the East and just way easier to get to A1 from there. Two hours from Ciampino to Panicale vs at least three hours on any other flight landing at Fiumicino. Maybe just luck. No idea as we have only taken that flight this one time. More news as it becomes available.

We kept following the A1 signs north (Firenze/Napoli) and at a certain point it looked like we could keep following the big green signs north that said Firenze but we also could see an A1 sign to Firenze and we took that. It ended up saying Napoli/Orvieto and was three faultless lanes wide and no trucks to speak of until we got to Orvieto. It may be that we took A1 sooner rather than continue on the “annulare” around Rome. They run rather parallel. Around Orevieto we recognized where we were and started getting regular truck traffic. Regardless, at that point we were the horse sensing his dinner back at the barn and we were galloping down the road. Andrea, (Masolino’s restaurant next to our house) put the kettle on, we’re on our way. Let the festivities and the double kisses around town begin. We’re almost home. We will know we really have arrived when we have settled in and are having lunch in the garden with Kiki. And that is just what we did the first day as you can see. Look how tall the rosemary has grown since we’ve been gone. Do you think it missed us? We can hope.

Can’t tell you what a rush it was to see the New York Times article about Panicale taped to the door of Aldo’s Cafe here. Felt like a part of us had arrived before we did. So negligent in writing. Pouting about needing new experiences on the ground? Maybe that was it, also we were moving and having a graduation for our youngest daughter. When did life get so crazy busy? Our family motto requires it: Having Fun as Fast as We Can. Words to live by. Up to a point!

Ok, I love it when we can really say:

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland