My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out that, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, or the castles and cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this part of my “Jams Are Fun” series — about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it — takes place in a tiny hill town on Italy’s Cinque Terre.
The Cinque Terre — five charming, traffic-free villages on the Italian Riviera — is a delightful place to be on vacation. But when it comes to updating the Cinque Terre chapter in our Rick Steves Italy guidebook…meh, not so much. Anytime a researcher is dispatched to the Cinque Terre, they return with tales of woe. It turns out this lovely strip of coastline is a minefield of allegiances and grudges that can only exist in a tiny town. And the most intense conflict I’ve stumbled into anywhere involves — of all things — gelato.
A few years ago, I hiked from Vernazza over the bluff to Corniglia — the Cinque Terre’s resident hill town, perched on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. On the outskirts of town, I stopped off at a hotel I needed to update for our book. As I was leaving, the owner stopped me. “Listen,” he said, conspiratorially. “If you want some gelato, I strongly recommend the first gelato place on the main street.” He made severe eye contact with me. “Not the second one! The first one. You understand? This is important.”
A bit puzzled, I left with a noncommittal “grazie for the tip” and headed into Corniglia. Sure enough, on the main street through the old center of town, two rival gelaterie stood next to each other. I thought nothing of it, and proceeded to update our listings with several hoteliers and restauranteurs. Strangely, as I made my rounds, a few other locals also weighed in — completely unsolicited — on which gelateria was the better one.
Curious — and ready for a snack — I dropped in at the gelateria that we recommend in the book. I was warmly greeted by Alberto, who couldn’t be more excited by my visit. He showed me a photo of himself with Rick, and a cover shot of our book that he likes to put in the front window. He forced several samples on me, and dished up a tipsy cone piled comically high with scoops of different flavors. He even pulled out a little plastic container and offered to load it up with even more gelato for later. (Facing a long, hot train ride back to the next town, I politely declined. He almost forced it on me anyway.)
As I was leaving, Alberto pulled me in close. “Before you go,” he said, “can you do me a very big favor? That gelateria next door…” He practically spat on the floor as he said it. “They put up a picture of your book. But they are not recommended! They are lying! You must do something about this. This must be illegal! You have a responsibility to stop them.”
I walked past the other shop’s window. No Rick Steves sign. Oh, well. But Alberto chased after me. “Aha! They take it down because they know you are here. Please go in and tell them to stop!”
“Look,” I said, “if they don’t have the sign up when I’m here, then what can I do?” (In fact, there’s nothing I can do in any case. We’ve seen this from time to time: Once a place recognizes the touristic currency of a Rick Steves endorsement — whether they are actually recommended or not — there’s basically nothing we can do to police them. We just hope that our readers are actually using our book’s tips, rather than trusting random signs.)
Clearly, the gelato situation in Corniglia is a Big Deal. Somehow, all of this little town’s frustrations, conflicts, and grudges, dating back many generations, have boiled down to these two little neighboring shops. And I had been enlisted to play Solomon. I managed to escape that trip without any more conflict…but I could never forget the gelato controversy that raged in little Corniglia.
Flash forward a few years. I’m back in the Cinque Terre, and back in Corniglia, updating our book. This time, I’m prepared. I arrive in town with my shields up. I will not be drawn into Gelatogate. I will do my work and leave…as quickly as possible.
The day goes well. I make my rounds and am ready to head out. I’ve saved the gelato for last — partly to forestall further conflict, and partly to treat myself before the train ride home. But just before that, I’m updating one last restaurant. The restauranteur is warm and gregarious. We talk about his menu, and his enthusiasm and pride lull me into a sense of normalcy.
But then, when I have one foot out the door, like a coiled cobra — he strikes.
“Say…did you see the new gelateria at the start of town?” he asks me, conversationally…but a little too eagerly. Uh-oh. I know where this is going.
“It’s a very good one. You should see it.” His tone shifts from casual to severe, as his laser-beam eyes pierce mine. “You must see it.” The next few moments are a blur, as somehow I find myself following him down the street, to where he physically plants me inside this new gelateria.
Aren’t two gelaterie more than enough for this tiny town? Do they really need a third? This is what I’m wondering as I get the hard sell.
I ask a few probing questions. And finally they ‘fess up that this is, in fact, a second outpost of one of the original gelaterie — the one that’s NOT in the book. I admire the bold gambit. Now there are two clone gelaterie, across the street from each other, before you even get to Alberto’s. (It also means that Alberto’s is, technically, no longer the “second one.”)
Scanning the flavors in this new interloper, the many skirmishes of the gelato wars become clear. Alberto’s shop has a delicious honey flavor, which we recommend in the book. This shop, too, has a honey flavor. Alberto is very proud of his basil flavor — new for this year. This shop, too, now has a basil flavor. Like JFK and Khrushchev, these two gelato makers are keeping pace with each other as they slowly…slowly…escalate the gelato wars.
Case made, the restauranteur tries to close the deal. “So…you will put this gelateria in your book?”
I hedge. “Uh, I’ll think about it.”
“Think about it!?” the restauranteur demands. In an instant, the tone of our conversation has turned sour and confrontational. “What’s to think about? It’s the best one. The best one!” (Mind you, he is — as far as I know — not the owner, nor in any way professionally involved in this gelateria. He’s just a very, very, very concerned citizen.)
I try to explain myself. But he won’t let me finish. “The last time Rick Steves was here, I took him to this gelateria. And it’s still not in the book. That was nearly two years ago! What is taking so long?”
I bail out of the shop, as politely as possible, and try to ignore the now-furious restauranteur as he hangs his head, Charlie Brown-style, and theatrically sulks back to his own restaurant — stomping his feet like a frustrated toddler.
It’s awkward, sure. But at least I get to leave town. For these poor villagers, this is just the latest salvo in the gelato wars of Corniglia.
I’m sure you’re wondering: Which one is best? Easy: Alberto’s. How do I know? Because on both trips, I tasted both. And Alberto’s wins the taste test, hands down. So if any Corniglia gelato warriors are reading this, now you know: If you want in the book…make better gelato.
To find quality ice cream on your own — whether you’re in a tiny town or a huge city — check out my tips on how to find Italy’s best gelato.
And you can also read more posts about the Cinque Terre from this trip.