The Illustrious Sergio Dondoli

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.

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62 responses to “The Illustrious Sergio Dondoli

  1. Is this recent? Is this the reason for your absence? Or is this a memory from a while ago?

    This makes me glad to be [partially] Italian. It bodes well for my gene pool. The first pic is primo. I licked my monitor but it wasn’t the same as being there.

    • I wish. Oh, how I wish. This memory is from our honeymoon almost two years ago. No, I’ve been here, just not writing because I was fighting tough family news and what I think was the resulting 3-day stress-induced headache. Like we do, ’cause we’re adults. BOO.

      On a much lighter note, I’ve married into Italian-ness, and I love it. Food, exuberance, and an excuse to move my hands a lot when I talk!

      • I married into Irish. No disrespect, but I think I got the raw end of deal. The Irish are masters of the written word and I love their music but, oh, holy Christ, keep them out of the kitchen.

          • High five, fellow Irish bride!

            I shine when it comes to Latin food. Tacos, rice and beans, chicken soup, ropa vieja, flan… and I bake like a (delicious) bat out of hell.

            Just don’t ask me to invent something, Chopped-style. That’s where J is king. And on our third date, he cooked me homemade pasta. That’s when things got real.

    • When we were there, people kept recognizing our last name (Saia) as being native to Sicily. They assumed Italian surname = Italian fluency, and we left a trail of mildly disappointed locals behind us. I was wondering where “Zande” originated…

          • Because I’m living in Brazil now… and all my attempts to convince 200 million people (who’re all better dancers than me) to switch to English aren’t working as i’d hoped πŸ˜‰

          • Ah yes, and as it happens we’ve enjoyed whole conversations about your experiences in Brazil. *sigh* This is one of those simple but elusive facts that my runaway brain just won’t grip onto…

            Also, I am convinced that speaking Spanish makes Portuguese harder to learn, instead of easier. The words look so similar on the page, but the pronunciation slays me.

  2. This post is perfection. Satisfies my travel craving and teases me with thoughts of gelato. I’m dying to try those flavors you mentioned… they sound absolutely heavenly. And you met a gelato master!!! that is one to be revered, for sure. A true saint!

    • I love that Italy has a secret about ice cream that no other country has duplicated. At the same time, I hate that gelato shops in the U.S. don’t hold a candle to their cousins overseas – it’s such a tease! Perhaps I should invest in a home ice cream maker.

      • It’s so unfair. I haven’t made it to Italy yet and I can just. taste. the gelato on my tongue… I know it has to be a million times better than what we get here. And with flavors like blackberry lavender, how can it not be? Gah that’s just tempting right there.

          • Oh.
            My.
            God.
            This is not fair I’m starving at my desk right now. And even if I wasn’t… I would gorge on that at any time. You need to go back into that business pronto.

  3. JEALOUS!!!! Btw… In the south west of Ireland, (Dingle town to be exact) stands an ice cream shop where they make homemade ice cream from the Kerry blue cow… a breed supposedly more extinct than the panda πŸ™‚

    • That is so freaking cool. If I were the owner, I’d call it “The Kerry Creamery.” (Not especially creative, but I like alliteration!)

      …I used to date a boy named Kerry. That relationship is now also extinct. πŸ˜‰

  4. Oh my gosh, those pictures are beautiful! I think your description of everything might even be better than the gelato, though.

    • That makes me so happy! I now know of two friends who have been there – it’s the best kind of small world. By the way, are you keeping your ice cream intake up during your walk? I hear the fat in it is excellent for the joints.

  5. That photo of you and that animated Italian man is so cute! I have to say I’m very jealous of your trip to Italy. We want to visit Calabria-a small town south of Rome. My great grandparents were from there and we would love our daughter to experience that part of her heritage.

    And the gelato — wow. I live for gelato.

    • You know that cliched question about, ” Which person would you want to sit down and talk with for an hour?”

      He might be mine. I mean my grandmothers, several authors, and Ellen DeGeneres are also in the running, but what an enjoyable hour he would provide!

      It was the best trip I’ve ever taken, despite seeing the fewest sites/ruins/museums of any trip I’ve been on. Just being there is a special kind of magic. I hope you make it with your daughter – it would be a memory for a lifetime!

  6. I DIE over gelato. But this sounds so so good… rosemary with raspberry, blackberry with lavender. Signor Dondoli gelato: BUCKET LIST..

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever had gelato. For someone as non-international as me, what would you recommend I try? Keeping in mind that it has to be something I don’t have to get on a plane for. Anything sold in stores any good?

  8. Oooh, sounds like a delightful trip! Now I must hunt down gelato… in Georgia, USA.. My hunt may be futile. Best gelato I’ve had was in Florence, Italy, but I didnt have the luxury of exploring small towns for several days at the time.

    • We were only in Florence for one night, but it’s a marvelous city! I remember drinking a bottle of wine that a server described as β€œtasting like a barn” and it was surely the best vintage I’ve ever had. When were you there?

      And also… I’ve heard that Talenti is the best gelato to be had in supermarkets – Harris Teeter has it. I will do MANY taste tests this weekend and report back!

      • I was in Italy in 2006 with a tour group, and we were in Florence for three hours… I was 12. I want to go again now that I’m older and can truly experience it.

        Yes, please do! πŸ˜€

  9. My favorite country in the world – thanks for the memories, they came back pretty quick. My wife and I backpacked through the country a few years ago, we ended up spending a lot of time in cinque terra (hope I spelled that right), swam every day, cooked in a little apartment, I drank about three bottles of wine a day, and we hiked along the villages and the olive groves, wondering if we were going to slip over the cliff into the water… and wondering what would be so bad about that, however dangerous. It was awesome. Thanks for the memories, Jennie S.

  10. It’s good to have these warm memories and taste/memories ( I may have made that up) for stressful times. It’s just plain not fair that I can’t go sit in the gelato place all day every day for as long as I choose. 35 years ago, sigh, my honeymoon was in Missouri.You young folk know how to live!

  11. Grapefruit and sparkling white wine? Sounds divine! πŸ™‚ I haven’t made it tomTuscany yet, but I adored my time in Capri and Rome. And oh gelato…..and sunshine…..and Italy. Love.

  12. Willy Wonka is a perfect description for this man! And I love how J took advantage of an opportunity, and made the encounter happen. Good man!

  13. Love, love, love this post Jennie! I’m catching up, finally, on posts… after a long, horrendous few weeks. That said, finding this post waiting, makes it a little sweeter. I’ve actually been to this gelato shop! It was every bit as divine as you say, but I didn’t take the time to consider the gelato master… Oh, you wise, wise woman! This is just sublime. Thanks for sharing your experience; it’ makes me smile ear to ear…. and want gelato!

  14. Pingback: Doing the White thing (Venezia 85) | a photogenic world·

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