ROME -- Named for a saint and naturally tasting heavenly, San Crispino gelato already was a pass-the-word must for devotees of the Italian treat.
Then a Roman bus driver gave Elizabeth Gilbert the buzz -- "The Best Gelato In Rome" -- and San Crispino became enshrined in her how-I-found-the-real-me journey-memoir, "Eat Pray Love." Fans have been making pilgrimages for melt-in-your-mouth inspiration ever since.
In the book that's now become a movie, Gilbert recounts her rapturous encounter, not once, but three times in one day, with the gelato. In a single, mouthwatering paragraph, she waxes enthusiastic about the flavors. First she had the honey and hazelnut combo, then she returned for a pairing of grapefruit and melon and again for an exotic nightcap of cinnamon-ginger.
While playing just a bit part in the movie, gelato is getting a big boost from the film's ads, with Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert, with a puckish look on her face and a cup of (presumably) San Crispino in her hand as she sits on a stone bench in Piazza Navona.
Gelato worshippers intent on finding this Roman temple of gelato, however, don't get much help from Gilbert. She doesn't say just where she had her frozen treat.
Did the love affair begin on Via della Panettieria, a narrow street near Trevi Fountain? Or at the San Crispino franchise -- horrors! yes, the "best" gelato in Rome is franchised -- on Piazza della Maddalena, a tiny square behind the Pantheon? Or perhaps at the gelateria where the two brothers who founded San Crispino opened their first location in 1992 on Via Acaia in the working class San Giovanni neighborhood?
Wherever Gilbert had her gelato epiphany, "We are happy we were cited in the book and especially that she liked our gelato," Pasquale Alongi, one of the brothers, said as lemons were squeezed for San Crispino's "limone" gelato in the "laboratory" on Via Acaia.
"When we make lemon flavor, we use only good Amalfi lemons," said Pasquale. "If we don't find them, we do not make the lemon flavor."
San Crispino's lemon gelato coats the tongue with silkiness bordering on sensual, yet presents enough pizazz to almost cause a pucker.
And there are no cones at San Crispino because, as Giuseppe explained it, cones are "contaminated" by greasing agents used in baking pans and thus shouldn't come in contact with gelato. "We lose 30 percent of our customers when we tell them we have no cones," he said in his store near the Trevi Fountain.
"The owners have a purist approach, everything natural, no intense colors, no flavorings," said Francesco Amore, the San Crispino franchisee near the Pantheon who said he became a "disciple" of the gelato when a friend introduced him to it.
For Italians, gelato is more than a sweet treat. "It's a moment for us to get together," Amore said, venturing that Romans are loyal to their gelato shops in the same way they grow up with lifetime loyalties to one or the other of their local soccer teams.
And that love has been a lasting one. Some 2,000 years ago, historian Pliny the Elder cited a recipe using snow, honey and fruit nectar. Around the same era, notorious Emperor Nero was said to have devoured frozen fruit drenched in honey.