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Feature

Just One Cornetto

Words by Vesna Maric

Nothing makes a sunny Sicilian afternoon like a creamy gelato - and theirs is the best in the world, says Vesna Maric. Photography by Rafael Estefania

Just One Cornetto

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Gelato. You can even taste the word on the tip of your tongue. Whether it’s nocciola in Naples, vanilla in Venice or raspberry in Rome, ice cream is everywhere in Italy. A walk down any high street in the after-dinner hours reveals the entire population, young and old, licking their favourite flavour. And with good reason. Italian ice cream is to die for. Forget the architecture, the pizza and the weather, for me any trip to Italy involves hanging out in the many and varied gelaterie eyeing up the pistachio, chocolate, coffee and amaro flavours. I’ve been to so many I’ve lost count. But I’d never been to Sicily nor tried the sun-kissed island’s ices until now. And it’s here that I finally found it.

The best ice cream in the world.

The legend here goes that in Roman times, servants would bring snow down from Mount Etna to Taormina and Catania and flavour it with nuts, berries and honey for the privileged nobility of the island. Today, Sicilians have a similar treat named granita: crushed ice in almond, coffee and lemon flavours, with additional seasonal delights like mulberry and watermelon. And they eat it all the time. There’s granita or gelato for breakfast, in a brioche with a morning espresso; there’s a scoop after lunch; then there’s the lick and stroll during the evening passeggiata (stroll); and finally the midnight pick-me-up cone on those hot summer nights.

I’d heard that the best of the island’s artisanal ice cream came from an area known as the “Baroque Triangle”, made up of the towns of Noto, Modica and Ragusa at each corner – and so called because of the dazzling ornate architecture, whirling church spires and extravagant facades. So that’s where I headed.

Noto is the smallest of the three towns, but its enormous San Nicolo Cathedral is a prime example of the area’s rich architectural heritage. I walk along main Corso Vittorio Emanuele that stretches through the whole town, broken up by elegant squares. I climb a steep labyrinth of small lanes snaking up the hill behind Piazza Municipio where the cathedral dwarfs the town further. Here Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni filmed some of his bizarre L’Avventura, Monica Vitti strolling past this very cathedral in a post-coital daze.

As evening comes, locals sit on the cathedral steps licking some well-chosen scoops. Two famous gelaterie in Noto, Corrado Costanzo and Caffè Sicilia, have been pronounced as the world’s best by numerous travellers, journalists and gelato experts, so I decide to ask the town’s residents for their opinion. “Why of course, it’s Corrado Costanzo’s,” a middle-aged woman tells me. Her friend interrupts. “Or it could be Caffè Sicilia. The seasonal flavours are divine in Caffè Sicilia; taste the sorbetto di mandarino (mandarin sorbet),” she says. “Yes, it’s true,” agrees the first woman. “But try Costanzo’s rose or jasmine ice cream. You’ll be blown over.”

Passeggiata is peak serving time and both shops are packed when I visit. Both are traditional in decor – a large fridge in the middle, some tables, sweets and liqueurs behind the bar. They’ve served the population of Noto, and beyond, for over 50 years, and the locals remain loyal. At Corrado Costanzo I try the jasmine and rose. The gelato is scooped up with a spatula and kneaded with the utensil for ultimate creaminess and flavour. The artisan has to be at the top of his trade to find the perfect balance of these floral essences. Get it right and you’re transported to a fragrant orchard. Get it wrong and you’ll be carrying the overpowering taste in your mouth for days.

The jasmine is perfect: the first lick reminds me of Tunisian summer evenings when the men stroll with jasmine flowers behind their ears in a seductive bid. The rose is delicate and exquisite, reminiscent of Arabic sweets or Turkish delight – perhaps Corrado is paying tribute to the Arabs, who revolutionised the ice cream concept. They used milk as the main ingredient, sweetened with sugar cane rather than fruit juices, making ice cream a favourite dessert of the Caliphs of Baghdad in the 10th century.

At Caffè Sicilia people gleefully wait for their scoop then umm and ahh as they eat. I order the mandarin sorbet; the taste is refreshing, a tinge of citrus sourness in the cool sweetness, perfect for a hot summer night.

I should stop. Could any other gelato be better than this? But still I head over to Ragusa, stopping along the way at Modica, a place known not for its gelato but its chocolate. I visit its most famous shop, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where the chocolate is made using pure cocoa, cooked at a lower temperature and rolled out by hand with rolling pins. The result is exquisite: grainy, textured, slightly crunchy and pretty delicious. Take your pick from orange, cinnamon, vanilla and chilli.

Hard though it is to separate a girl from fine chocolate, I tear myself away and continue on my gelato odyssey to Ragusa. The town is divided into “Lower” and “Upper” Ragusa, scattered over a hill. Descending the serpentine road that connects the two, I pass magnificent, elaborate churches and mansions. Quiet, narrow streets hide breathtaking old houses in rainbow colours. But I can’t stop, I’m on my way to Gelati DiVini, an ice cream parlour that opened less than a decade ago on Piazza Duomo in Lower Ragusa. On my journey more than a few Sicilians had told me that I would taste ice cream I’d never forget here.

The experimental array of flavours takes my taste buds by storm. I sample the exotic pine nut, followed by the carob, then toasted almond and spicy chocolate. But it’s the Italian sweet wine flavours that really get my tongue in a twist, the likes of Brachetto d’Acqui and Passito di Pantelleria. Truly amazing!

But what makes this particular gelato unmatchable is not merely the taste itself but where I am tasting it. The beautiful streets of Ragusa, and towns like Noto and Modica, the views, the evening sun and the chatter of Sicilians on their passeggiata combined with the sweet, cool sensation of the ice cream make this gelato, right here, right now, unquestionably the best in the world.

WHERE TO TASTE

CORRADO COSTANZO

9 VIA SILVIO SPAVENTA, NOTO, TEL: +39 0931 835243

CAFFE SICILIA

125 CORSO VITTORIO EMANUELE, NOTO, TEL: +39 0931 835013

GELATI DIVINI

20 PIAZZA DUOMO, RAGUSA IBLA, TEL: +39 0932 228989, WWW.GELATIDIVINI.IT

ANTICA DOLCERIA BONAJUTO

159 CORSO UMBERTO I, MODICA BASSA, TEL: +39 0932 941225, WWW.BONAJUTO.IT

15 April 10