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In Rome, family-run Giolitti's dishes up Italian ice cream with a sense of history

In a tiny office on the other side of a wall separating him from a roomful of noisy customers, a young man places a telephone call to a friend who is a member of the Rome police force. The caller's name is Nazzareno Giolitti, and once more he needs assistance with the crowds attempting to press their way into his gelateria (ice cream store) on Via Uffici del Vicario. Inside, customers from around the world attempt to decipher the names of more than 40 flavors of brightly colored ice cream. The ice cream is displayed in a long glass case presided over by white-aproned men who speak only Italian. Customers order a cup or a cone of various sizes and combinations and squeeze their way out, making room for other pilgrims to the most famous ice cream store in all of Italy.

Those fortunate enough to find a seat in the large adjacent dining room are handed a menu with long lists of words occasionally familiar to a visiting American -- melone, menta, cocco, mandarino -- but more often, not -- lamponi, visciole, fragola, albicocca. A stranger is likely to study the tables nearby, pointing out to a waiter, fluent in sign language, the flavor chosen. When it arrives, the first taste may come as a surprise. If it's chocolate, it's one of several kinds, each subtly different from the other. It may, for example, be baci perugina -- a rich, puddinglike ice cream studded with bits of nuts. Whichever it is, it's almost certain to please.

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Also on the menu are color photographs of three giant, Italian-style sundaes, and, about the room, intrepid gelati lovers are gamely attacking one or another of them.

A recent tour of Giolitti's kitchen helped explain why, of the hundreds of gelaterias in Rome, this one sets the standard by which the others are judged. In a surprisingly small space, a handful of men and women produce the products consumed by thousands of customers a day. At a work table, a man and his son scoop the pulp from fresh oranges, filling the cavities with orange ice, as colorful and pungent as the fruit itself. Against a wall, a row of machines pasteurize, mix, and freeze the ice creams that are ``cooked,'' those containing milk and eggs. Another mixer processes one of the recently prepared fruits -- raspberries, melons, pineapples -- which will be transformed into what in the United States is known as Italian ice, but which bears little resemblance to anything sold here.

The kitchen is a collection of small rooms, and in one of them a baker is turning out fresh croissants. Giolitti is near Rome's Parliament, and, although ice cream is its claim to fame and the mainstay of its business, hundreds of breakfasts are served to local office workers.

From noon to 2, one of the display cases serves as a hot table, with small, individual pizzas, hearty Italian quiches, and a variety of sandwiches, all prepared in another hidden alcove. In other nooks and crannies, cookies, pies, and cakes, including tall, sugar-dusted pannetone, are readied for the case that flanks the entrance to the shop.

Taking a half dozen samples of newly prepared gelati, the young businessman leads the way back to his office. The cooked ice creams taste rich and heavy, more creamy than sweet, with subtly blended flavors. The ices are surprisingly strong, intensified versions of the actual fruit. None tastes exactly like American ice cream. They are all very good.

Leafing through albums of photos, and occasionally referring to a homemade genealogical chart, Nazzareno tells, with his younger sister Giovanna acting as interpreter, the story of an enterprise that began in 1900 with his great-grandfather.

In that year, Giuseppi Giolitti opened a small latteria, or milk shop, near the Coliseum, selling milk and eggs that he brought from his home village near Rome. As business increased, he added more shops, and in 1931 his son, Nazzareno (the present Nazzareno's grandfather), opened a milk shop where today's store is. He was notoriously generous, happily giving his profits to family and friends, but his wife, Peppina, was not, and over the years she managed to save enough money to buy what is now the large dining room. They survived the bad years of the war, playing hiding games with the Fascists, who would first sell and then confiscate the sugar needed to produce the few flavors of ice cream they had begun making. When the American GIs entered Rome, Peppina was at the door of the shop with their favorite dessert.

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Peppina's oldest son, Alberto, emigrated to America as a penniless 16-year-old and became a successful illustrator. His brother, Silvano, stayed home, and it was he who made Giolitti's what it is today. He left school after five years to spend most of his time working, and even sleeping, in the kitchen at the rear of the shop. In his teens, he began inventing the fruit ices that are still sold, and eventually the milk shop became a gelateria and pastry shop.

At this point, the interview is interrupted by a waiter bearing the three dishes pictured on the menu. In the center is the Coppa Olympica, perhaps 9 inches tall, created by Silvano in honor of the 1960 Rome Olympics. Smaller, but by no means small, are the Coppa Giolitti, invented by Silvano's father, and the Coppa Primavera, invented by his son Nazzareno. The Coppa Primavera consists of strawberry, mandarin orange, coconut, and pineapple ices, topped with pastry shells and fresh fruit. If one is daunting, three are impossible, and they are left untouched, in spite of the encouragement of Nazzareno's mother, who has accompanied the waiter.

Silvano also created incredibly intricate and accurate sculptures of such monuments as the Milan Cathedral and St. Peter's Basilica -- in sugar. Placed in the store window, they attracted crowds of new customers and established him as a local celebrity.

Today, Silvano's son Nazzareno, the fourth-generation Giolitti, carries on the family tradition, working long hours, six days a week, and inventing such new flavors as kiwi. The women still watch over the finances: Nazzareno's mother is behind the cash register, and his older sister manages the new store in a suburb of Rome. Another sister, Giovanna, a student of languages at Rome University, has traveled to several countries on family business, and works wherever needed in the shop.

When asked if he doesn't long for a vacation to get away from the store for a while, Nazzareno smiles and says that even when he goes fishing he thinks about new flavors. He is happiest, he says, sitting at an outdoor table in the summer listening to the comments of his customers as they eat his ice cream.

Later that evening, the Coppa Olympica once again stood in the center of a table, but this time six Americans, including two young girls from Texas, were ready for it. From time to time, as it disappeared, Nazzareno passed by, smiling, greeting visitors, looking, in jeans and sweater, more like a tourist than the head of a large, very successful business.

To an American used to high-speed, impersonal service and the notion that progress means constant change, there is something anachronistic about a store in the same place for over 50 years, run by the fourth generation of the family that began it in the days of the horse and wagon. But this is Rome, where such things are commonplace; and this is Giolitti, the name of a business and the name of a family. They are one and the same.

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