We went to Cillo’s on our last night in Florence. We made the familiar walk with purpose, passing three or four other gelaterie with windows full of tall, whipped, over-bright yellow, pink, and green gelati along the way. When we arrived at his gelateria, only Kostantinos, a Greek architecture student, was behind the counter. We were pleased to see him, but still frowned and asked for Cillo, the 50-something owner of the gelateria, who strode out from the kitchen. He was there just for us. He’d been planning to take the day off until we told him when we were going home, our four-month stay at its end.
“Come stai?” How are you? Kate, one of my roommates, bubbled.
“Malé.” Awful. Cillo replied, shaking his head at the white linoleum floor.
“Perché?” Why? She asked, trying to maintain her earlier cheerfulness but faltering in tone.
“Perché voi partite.” Because you’re leaving.
What could we say to make him feel better? Nothing. What could he say to make us feel better? Nothing. Kate, Yanda, and I were downright depressed about saying good-bye to Cillo. The three of us had shared an apartment in central Florence since January and suddenly we had to say good-bye to each other and him. We were all strangers when we moved in together, but were friends by the end of the semester, and our trips to Cillo’s were part of the reason why. That night, we lingered in the shop as long as we could, trying to forget that we needed to go back to our apartment, finish packing, and get in a taxi at 5 am, which would arrive in a mere seven hours.
We dawdled over the familiar flavors, breathing in the sweet smell and trying to lock the strawberry red, various shades of chocolate brown, and snow-white yogurt colors of the dense gelati into our memories to augment the many moments we’d spent at Gelateria Cillo.
The first time we visited Cillo’s, I wouldn’t have guessed the owner would become one of our best friends in Florence. We went on one of my roommates’ whims for Nutella Crepes. Kate and Yanda adored anything covered with Nutella – a chocolate-hazelnut spread that is delightful on anything from bananas to melba toast – for a time we went through one to two jars a week. Impressive since I hardly ate any of it.
When we arrived, I was not excited – all I could think of was tourism. In the dark evening, the fluorescent lights of Cillo’s were the only ones visible for half a block of Via dei Neri. It looked like the big commercial gelaterie that lined the biggest tourist thruways, save for the lack of over-whipped colors in the front window. I wanted to go down the street a block to Gelateria dei Neri – a dark, old place that doesn’t whip their gelato and where I knew I could order in Italian. But, alas, we were going in. If I had to order in English, I knew I wouldn’t bother come back, so worst case I ate one half decent Nutella crepe. Which, when I thought about, wasn’t really a bad thing. Still…
On the surface, Cillo’s feels anything but traditional. White walls are accented with too-bright orange and yellow trim and counters. Over the doorway, an LED scrolling sign advertises GELATO ARTIGINALE, GRANITE, and CREPES.
It was evident within minutes of our arrival that the décor is misleading and conflicts with Cillo’s quiet nature. The shop was empty except for Cillo and his business manager, a tall, thin thirty-something in a suit, who we later discovered was responsible for the obnoxious color scheme. The ever-friendly Cillo always seemed a little tense when the unnamed manager was chatting up customers and shouting suggestions at Cillo as he made crepes and scooped. Cillo is a gelato artisan, concerned mostly with perfecting his recipes. His concern for the décor of his shop is little, if any. Perhaps he’d be just as happy selling gelato out of a blank storefront, I didn’t ask him, but I suspect it’s true. He opened his shop in Via dei Neri in 2007. He honed his craft making gelato in his hometown in Calabria for over thirty years before moving to Florence. Cillo makes each batch of gelato himself in a small kitchen at the shop. Each batch lasts only a few days, so Cillo comes in a few hours before opening to make a few fresh flavors every day.
His gelateria was usually empty in the late evenings, so we’d get plenty of time to chat. One night, Cillo grinned at me as she, Kate, and I enter the gelateria. He winked underneath his right gray, bushy eyebrow. Kate, as usual, caught him and turned to me, “You’ve already been here today?”
Cillo doesn’t speak much English, but he guessed the meaning of this conversation. “Si,” he answered for me.
Cillo would always rat us out. Even though we went to the shop together at least three nights a week, one of us had usually already stopped in for a bit of the tasty treat that has delighted Italians and visitors for centuries. Gelato, from the verb gelare “to freeze,” became popular in Florence in the sixteenth century. The exact origin of the creamy, milk-based frozen dessert is unknown, but the first recipes are generally credited to Bernardo Buontalenti who brought gelato to the court of Francesco de Medici around 1565. The Medici family ruled Florence and Tuscany for over two centuries and their legacy remains in Florence today; Gelateria Cillo is located just a few streets away from Palazzo Vecchio, the former residence of Francesco.
On one of our early trips to Cillo’s, one of us decided to order Crema di Cillo – the flavor named after our slim, gray-haired friend. In semi-confident Italian, Kate ordered Crema di SEE-lo. Cillo peered over the counter, trying to make eye contact with all of us at once.
“It is CHEE-lo. I am Cillo,” he said. After quickly correcting ourselves, I tried to pair fragola (strawberry) and crema di cillo, but Cillo insisted that fragola pairs better with yogurt. He refused to serve me any other combination. He, of course, was right. The sweet strawberry contrasted the tangy yogurt playfully. Crema di cillo, while delicious, is a muted vanilla-like flavor that would been overwhelmed by strawberry.
I ordered nothing but fragola e yogurt for weeks. My streak broke when Cillo made a batch of banana gelato, which was a dark, and slightly unappetizing, color, but this is how you can tell the artisans from the posers that cater to tourists. If the banana gelato is yellow, there is dye in it. The best gelato is made from fresh ingredients without dyes or preservatives. Each batch of Cillo’s gelato lasts only a few days. Cillo’s banana gelato is dense and gray, but it tastes like a frozen, sugared banana. And Cillo is proud of it. If he weren’t, you can be certain he wouldn’t serve it.
How would I ever find something like this back in the US? I wondered as I scooped a bite from my last little cup of Cillo’s gelato – I’d finally chosen a size larger than my usual piccola coppa (small cup) and combined strawberry, banana, and yogurt.
Cillo knew how much we appreciated his friendship and gelato. On the first day of May, I entered the gelato in the afternoon and, after the usual greetings, tried an Italian phrase I’d been practicing all morning, “E il compleanno di mio fratellino. Vorrei comprare gelato per la festa. Qualcosa di speciale. Anche, e una sopresa…Io non sono qui. Si?” It’s my little brother’s birthday. I’d like to buy gelato for the party. Something special. Also, it’s a surprise…I’m not here. Ok?”
To my surprise and delight, he understood every word. Usually, my accent threw him off a bit and we had a conversation that resembled a poor version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” But today, he knew what I was saying and who I was talking about – he adored my brother, who was also studying abroad in Florence, but made less frequent trips to Cillo’s.
“Una sopresa?” he replied, delighted, “Di cosa hai bisogno? Di mi.” What do you need? Tell me.
I ordered chocolate, Crema di Cillo, and dark chocolate to match the theme of our party: black and white, old movies. When he’d finished packing my liter of gelato, he insisted I take a bag of chocolate and vanilla twisted wafer cookies, too. “Come un regalo per lui.” As a gift for him.
As I exited the gelateria that day, gelato and cookies tucked into my bag, I wanted to cry. Cillo was so sweet – like a grandfather, a taste of home, and almost another family member. And I began to dread our last trip.
Our gelati finished and our bright orange cups tossed in the even brighter yellow trashcan, we knew we would need to leave soon. We were unsure what to say; we’d miss him, too. We made small talk and vague promises to visit as soon as possible in a mix of English and Italian, Kostantinos translated when necessary. Yanda insisted on taking pictures – we stood in front of the counter and Cillo graced us with his familiar you-know-my-gelato-is-the-best grin.