Gelato - as it once was by Julie Watson
“Scusi c'è una gelateria qui vicino?” I enquire at the hotel front desk. It’s the last evening of my return visit to Milan and I still haven’t had the pleasure of Italian ice-cream again. With a knowing smile, the receptionist points in the direction of the nearby square. “Si Signora, nella piazza a destra. Si chiama Grom .”
It’s called Grom? Now in my senior years, scepticism comes quite naturally to me. But I suspend my disbelief and thank him, while privately doubting that a gelateria that sounds like a road haulage company will serve good ice cream.
Stepping out of the air-conditioned lobby is like immersing myself in a warm bath. Siesta time is over; the city is coming back to life. And the shops have re-opened – sylphlike young women are already strolling out, talking animatedly on their mobile phones, Armani and Gucci carrier bags swinging from slim wrists and carefully manicured hands. I don’t think fashion shopping is on my itinerary any longer - my own ‘sylphlike’ figure abandoned me a while ago - but it’s nice to know that it’s still taken seriously here in Milan.
I turn right at the corner – sharply ‘a destra’ - and need to skirt the edge of a sea of outdoor café tables spilling in all directions across the pavement. Most are occupied by youthful Milanese, wholesome and healthy-looking, sitting with one of their five a day in front of them. Is drinking fruit juice a new trend, I wonder? Peach, orange, pineapple, pear – casually scattered across the table tops their colours reproduce the happy mood of a Miró painting, but then I notice a defiant Peroni beer, and the illusion is broken.
That essential fashion accessory, the mobile phone, is ubiquitous, lying at the ready or held in use. One, in the hand of a young Adonis, starts to tinkle. I notice the T shirt sculpting his well-toned torso and my eyes are momentarily held. “Ciao Bello” I murmur to myself, while enjoying the fleeting image of returning home with a toyboy on my arm.
A waft of warm air stirs the café awning as I pass on my way. Since I arrived I’ve been wondering if I will find Milan changed. it’s nearly 20 years since my last trip here. A part of the older and more worldly-wise me is prepared for disappointment. I remember some cautionary advice about return visits: if you go to a place twice, each time it’s a different story. But the world is a finite place and revisiting a haunt of the past seems to happen more often as the years go by.
I reach the square and there is Gelateria Grom, proudly displaying its claim to ‘il gelato come una volta’. Ice cream as it once was. The promise fills me with hope, but I’m surprised to find a line of people standing outside the small ice cream kiosk. A queue? Since when has queuing been part of Italian culture? Secretly I’m reassured. Ice -cream that you need to wait for must be worth it. I survey the scene: a gaggle of laughing schoolfriends, an entwined couple, some parents with bambini in state-of-the-art buggies. It’s a cross-section of Milan society, all hungry for gelato. I add myself behind the last in the line and study the ice cream list. It’s impressively long and a masterpiece of inventiveness. My eyes flit between the ‘classici’ and ‘speciali’, trying to take them all in. Some of the specialities induce thrills of mouth-tingling anticipation - chestnut, ricotta and fig, cassata, one with extract of liquorice and the wildly exotic flavour of the month - cream of saffron. Am I feeling bold enough?
The quickened tempo of rising voices in the queue ahead distracts me from my decision-making. Someone is trying to push in or someone is suspecting someone else of trying to push in. Orderly line formation is proving a challenging concept. Despite the general air of conviviality, everyone has been keeping a sharp eye out for wily queue-jumpers, and a small argument has started up. I’m relieved to hear the sound of Italians engaged in lively exchange of opinion again. It takes me back and feels more familiar to my senior ears. After a moment the eruption subsides, voices settle back into a steady conversational rhythm and the ice-cream queue radiates confident expectation once more.
Little by little, the unruly line is swallowed into the mouth of the kiosk. We ripple forward like a caterpillar, each segment holding its place. From the exit people are appearing, loaded with full tubs and towering cones. My turn is fast approaching. Hopefully Grom will not disappoint. The woman in front has placed a large order. I am grateful and use the opportunity to review the list for one last time. Then I’m at the counter, squashed up against the glass and feeling like a pressed flower.
“Prego Signora?” Help! I hesitate for a fatal moment, and miss out on the flavour of the month experience, instead ordering a safe double classic - pistacchio and cioccolato, and just a cono piccolo per favore.
Then with Olympic gelato held high, I emerge, feeling mildly victorious anyway. There is a small space on a bench nearby, between a mobile owner and a fellow cone carrier. I squeeze myself into it. My Ice-cream is already protesting about the heat and escaping in drips. Time to act. I raise the cone. My tongue reaches out. I close my eyes and smile – ‘gelato as it once was’ - there are some things which, thankfully, haven’t changed.