18 June 2008

Too sweet times two

It occurred to me after this weekend that I made the same mistake twice, once in Paris and once in Florence: I wasn't choosy enough about my street food.

The day we arrived in Paris, I was jonesing for a good crêpe. Dinner had been eaten, and I still hadn't had one; the situation was getting desperate. We were strolling the Champs-Elysées in the evening, and I decided to go for one of the little stands to the side of the avenue, even though I had my doubts when I saw that the crêpes were pre-made. Overcoming my doubts, I thought: it's Paris--all the crêpes are good, right? But sure enough, my lemon-sugar version was so terrible that I had to throw it away without finishing (which, if you know me, means that it had to have been really really bad): gummy re-heated pancake, too much sugar, not enough lemon to cut the sweetness. It was like eating pure, chewy, sugar.

By the time we had to leave, the next evening, I realized I still hadn't had a good crêpe. So as we headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and get a taxi to the airport, I stopped at a place near Saint-Michel, dangerously at the heart of the touristy area near Notre-Dame. But there was a line (not always a good indicator, especially if they're tourists, but still a positive sign) and the guy was making crêpes to order. Plus, the chocolate was pure dark chocolate, a bar broken up and melted onto the pancake, so I knew my favorite, the banana-chocolate version, would likely be good. It was better than good, it was delicious, a perfect harmony of fruit, bitter dark chocolate, and warm crêpe.

But I did not learn from my mistake. In Florence, after having dropped my luggage at the hotel, I was supposed to go find the Mister, mid-presentation, at the Palazzio Vecchio. But first I had to eat lunch. I ordered a slice of pizza just so I wouldn't feel guilty about eating only ice cream for my meal, because what I really wanted was a good gelato. I again made the mistake of choosing the first place that I saw, on the corner of the piazza in front of the palace, despite my misgivings about the gelato's rather insipid look. It's Italy, right? All the gelato should be good.

The coconut and melon flavors that I chose weren't horrible enough to throw away, but they weren't that great either. My idea of a good gelato is pure, intense, condensed flavor. It should bowl you over. But these were just overly sweet ice creams with a hint of coconut, a hint of melon. The coconut too pillowy, the melon too grainy, neither the texture nor the flavor made it special.

Fast-forward a day and a half. I still hadn't eaten a good gelato (although, thanks to the generosity of the conference organizers, I had eaten a delectable meal at Rossini). We were heading home from dinner, and in the morning we would be catching the bus to the airport, and I didn't think 8 o'clock in the morning would be a socially acceptable time to eat ice cream. So it was then or never, but my hopes were dim, since it was nearly midnight. Yet, we saw a glimmer in the dark, the warm colors of an ice cream parlour across the street from the Ponte Santa Trinita, and a line of Italians waiting to order their cones. A good sign indeed.

I ordered a small dish of the pear gelato, and it was heaven. Like eating a perfectly ripe pear, an explosion of fruit in the mouth, the cool, dense texture of ice cream. I could leave the city a satisfied gelato-eater.

So I hope my lesson is learned, next time I want to eat a city's signature sweet without trusting my better judgment. Go where there's a line of locals, where it's made to order, where the flavors are home-made.

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