In Tuscany, there is a medieval hill town called San Gimignano. It’s beautiful, with yellow rock and stucco walls cradling houses that nestle cheek to cheek. The many public squares give inhabitants room to breathe free, and in one of these sits the gelato shop of Sergio Dondoli.
Gelateria di Piazza: the name unfurls over the entry. Inside, the air is redolent of herbs and burnt sugar. Kind, efficient women in white aprons take your reasonable handful of coins, and in exchange they pass you cones filled with sheer delight. The unspoken rule is that you receive two flavors; request only one and the signore quirk expectant eyebrows in your direction.
The flavors are a frosty flurry of color and sensation: rosemary with raspberry, blackberry with lavender, saffron with pine nut, almond and ricotta and sour cherry. During our stay, I became determined to experience every single flavor, but was so utterly seduced by the marriage of grapefruit with sparkling white wine that I tumbled into its arms on at least four separate occasions.
Many people, including Italians, come to San Gimignano for just one afternoon. The streets teem with visitors buying boar salami, gourmet dried pasta, and a variety of crystals with curative properties. Guests can tour the wine museum or eat caprese salad and truffled ravioli while gazing over the undulating farmland below. When night falls, the day-trippers depart and their long tour buses clear the square. For three perfect nights, after dark, the dusky walkways belonged only to J, me, and a few stray cats.
By our last day in town, I still hadn’t clapped eyes on the master gelato maker himself. I was thinking of our impending travel to Rome when J gave my hand a sudden squeeze. I looked up, and there he was: Sergio Dondoli, taking the sun outside his shop. J said, “This is happening,” and next thing I knew he was greeting the man in effusive, loud, and terrible Italian. We’ve parsed his grammar in numerous re-tellings, and the best translation we have is this: “Excuse me, group of old women? My wife is love the gelato! Speak English?”
This kind man, one of fewer than ten master gelato makers in all of Italy, opened his eyes and absolutely sprang to life. In a flash he had greeted me, wrapped an arm around my shoulders, given his trademark open-mouthed grin for J’s camera, and then bid us a fond farewell before bustling down the street to catch a passing friend.
As the gelateria’s website announces, “We all know what a personal oasis of freshness an ice-cream can be; what moments of joyous intimacy can be enjoyed in its company!” For me, there is no better gelato in the world than that made in Signor Dondoli’s shop, and no person alive who more closely embodies Willy Wonka than the impish genius in this photo.