“Everyone has their preferences,” said Maurizio Vivoli, the owner of Gelateria dei Neri, when I confessed to him that I have never tried his granita, only because I think it is odd to eat it in Northern Italy. Knowing the taste and texture of their gelato, it left no doubt in my mind that it would be delicious.
There I was in the laboratoria of the quant shop, interviewing him and his wife Lyudmyla Popova. This gelateria is one of my favorites, in all of Italy. That means a lot since; I have a preference for Sicilian gelato.
A year later, I find myself saying the same thing to my friends who are new in town. I like the gelateria for its variety and unique flavors. Cioccolato Messicano Pistacchio e Pepperoncino, one of my favorite flavors, for example, consists of rich chocolate ice cream spiced with hot peppers and pistachio. The contrast of the hotness and nuttiness brings out the richness of the chocolate and the peppers leave a pleasing tingle on the tongue.
Among other distinguishing flavors such as Ricotta con Fico, they offer the classics such as,
Ciocolatto, Pistacchio and Straccatella.
“Chocolate is one of the most popular flavors,” Said Popova who was taught by her husband the art of ice cream making.
They both proudly showed me the natural ingredients used to make the specialties. They pointed out that they only use Sicilian Pistachio’s to make the traditional gusto, taste. She scooped a spoonful of the dark brown green paste for me to sample. That is the natural color of pistachio. Beware of bright green imitations. The thick past coated my mouth with pure pistachio.
A scoop of 100 percent Sicilian Pistachio Paste.
While they showed me other top quality ingredients used, la miscela, the base mixture made of several ingredients including sugar and cream, mixed diligently by machine.
The base, is very important, it is the foundation of the all the crema, cream flavors. The base must be neutral in order to heighten the flavor of the ice cream; it must not overpower the flavor. “One cannot kill the other,” Vivoli explained.
La Miscela mixing.
The ingredients of the ice cream should not be individually recognized when eaten; instead the separate ingredients should blend together to form one distinct taste.
Making the Giotto flavor; hazelnuts are mixed into the base.
Vivoli and Popova are hands on when it comes to perfecting their product. Last year they bought, cleaned and froze 330 pounds of melons in order to make a quality sorbetto. This is just one of several fruits featured in the display case. On a hot day, I always search for the Gelato di Passion Fruit and Frutti di Bosco, fruit of the woods which is essentially several types of berries. I usually choose a satisfying #3 size serving for €2.50.
He used to drive a tour bus across Europe. He did this for 18 years. It was fun. He traveled, met and worked with a lot of people from different countries, including the United States. In the end though, he was alone.
That brought him to make a life changing decision; he decided to settle down and make a home for himself in his native Florence and bought the gelateria, in 1989. At that time it was named Green Ice and unfortunately was not making a profit.
The store was remodeled after the ice cream shops of the past. To achieve the classic look, he worked with architects and designed the shop using materials of wood, glass and brass.
After he married Popova in 2006, he passed on what he learned to her. Her past experience as a baker helped her learn the art of making gelato. In her native country of Ukraine, she made pastries and decorated cakes for a large company.
“At that time, the companies were large, not small shops owned by individuals,” she said.
She met Vivoli at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends. They dated for a year before they married.
Popova’s generosity and pride are evident in her work. For her, making ice cream for the public is just the same as making it for her family – there are no cutting corners for an extra buck.
“Gelato con passione viene piú buono (Gelato made with passion, turns out better),” she said
We discussed how most of the gelato sold in the historic center is made for show and money at the expense of quality and taste. It was just that day that I watched the uninformed tourist excitedly gawk at the piled high towers of gelato in a city center gelateria.
“That is impossible to make without some type of emulsion to hold the form. Ice cream at that high level melts,” she said.
She also makes the cakes in the winter time, along with the brioche that accompanies the granita. In the end she coaxed me to overcome my bias and eat iced lemon in the North.
There I stood in back of little laboratory, eating my breakfast thinking how a small space could produce such a surprise.
“How was the granita,” Popova asked me as I was leaving. “Buonissima!”
Via Dei Neri 20/22r
Hours: The ice cream shop is open every day from the mid-morning till late night, when they believe they have satisfied the last customer for the day.