It was our last day in Florence and the four of us were exhausted and ready to go home. Even shopping had lost its appeal.
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But we had never tired of gelato, Italian-style ice cream, during a two-week trip to Tuscany.
"I've got an idea," said our friend, Mike Adams, who had read an online story that morning about "Finding Great Gelato" in Florence. We had eaten gelato every day in Italy and the thought of one last adventure to find what could be the best frozen delicacy in the city re-energized us.
Gelato, which became popular in 16th-century Florence, is similar to ice cream but not the same. It's served slightly warmer than ice cream so it doesn't freeze solid, and it has less injected air so it's denser. Best yet, it has less fat, so we told ourselves we could eat all we wanted.
So on our last day in Italy, we set off on foot to find Vivoli, what Huffington Post writer Jeralyn Gerba had described as "a humble gelateria on a funny side street off Piazza Santa Croce."
She also mentioned a neighborhood restaurant frequented by third-generation Vivoli owner and head gelato maker Silvana Vivoli. Our plan was to ask Silvana to direct us to the restaurant for lunch and then return to top off our meal with her homemade gelato.
Vivoli was already packed with late morning gelato customers when we met Silvana, the gregarious gelato maker whose grandfather and great uncle had opened Vivoli as a coffee and dairy shop in 1929. Could she tell us how to get to the neighborhood eatery she frequented?
"Come on, I'll take you there," she said in English.
We four Pied Pipers - my husband Philip Conner, Mike and Sharon Adams from just outside Edenton, N.C., and I - followed her to "L'Antico Noe," a hole-in-the-wall restaurant we would never have found on our own.
Silvana, 48, wearing a white chef's jacket, black slacks and a green and white dotted headband, said she had to get back to the gelateria but could certainly stay for a glass of wine.
While we lunched on mouth-watering dishes like pasta with cheese and crushed black pepper, Silvana said her family's gelato is so good that the recipes are a secret. No one outside of the family knows the exact ingredients, which are not even written down. Outsiders are not allowed in the kitchen while gelato is being whipped up in large stainless steel vats.
During World War II, war-weary families came to Vivoli on weekends when her grandfather made gelato. After her father took over the business, and in honor of Silvana's birth, he bought what she called the "Ferrari" of giant stainless steel ice machines used to make the gelato.
Her father died a decade ago and now her 73-year-old mother is "the big boss" in the family, Silvana said.
Her brother-in-law works with them and Silvana hopes her nephews, ages 19 and 22, will one day take over the family business.
"I feel, breathe gelato since I was born," Silvana said. "Our games for me and my sister were to be in the kitchen to see how many eggs we can break and chestnuts we can peel."
"We don't use any mix. We start with eggs, sugar and cream and we chop the fruit," she said. "There are no additives or preservatives."
In a year, Silvana will have used 120,000 eggs, more than 34,000 pounds of sugar and 26,000 liters of milk.
On an average summer day, the shop will sell more than 250-300 kilos of ice cream, she said, or more than 660 pounds of the velvety treat.
Carla Marchitello of Delray Beach, Fla., is a Vivoli fan.
"I was here seven years ago and I knew it was the best," said Marchitello, who had just arrived in Florence and came straight to Vivoli's for a gelato fix.
Top sellers at the shop are vanilla and chocolate. Many of the flavors are seasonal. In the autumn, when we visited, fig gelato using fresh figs from the family farm outside of Florence, had replaced summer's popular peach gelato. Chestnut and hazelnut gelato are winter favorites.
Americans, Silvana said, prefer chocolate, pistachio and rice-flavored gelato. The Japanese like fruit flavors and rice gelato. Germans prefer eggnog and lemon gelato and the French, she said, like "everything."
For fun, Silvana said she'll experiment a few times a year with unusual flavors, like tobacco gelato infused with cigar leaves.
Beware of gelato that is brightly colored, Silvana warned, because that means it has additives. And if gelato is mounded high in a freezer display case, it has stabilizers and other preservatives.
But making gelato the way her father and grandfather did with all natural ingredients is expensive, she said, especially as the cost of ingredients continues to rise.
So Silvana agreed to expand Vivoli with a second shop - not in Italy but in the United States.
Vivoli II Gelato is a kiosk on the sixth floor of Macy's Herald Square on 34th Street in New York City. It opened a year ago in May.
"I didn't sleep for a month," because of the stress, she said. The recipe is similar but not identical. It could never be the same as the Florence location, she said, because it doesn't have her touch.
Silvana said in June that while she taught the New York group how to make gelato, "there's something that you can't teach ... the sensibility and passion."
Will there be others? "Now we go for this one," she said. "Then we see."
Connie Sage Conner is the author of "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel" and was a longtime editor at The Virginian-Pilot, in Norfolk, Va. She and her husband, Philip, live in Mount Pleasant.
Vivoli owner and head gelato maker Silvana Vivoli shows off the kitchen at her shop in Florence, Italy.×
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