In the heat of the dog days of summer, there are few things more refreshing than the typically Roman frozen treat: grattachecca.
This is shaved ice with a flavored syrup (usually fruit) poured on top -- anything ranging from cherry to mint, tamarind to watermelon. And its origins can be traced back to 50 or 60 B.C., and Quintus Fabius Maximus, a Roman General and statesman aligned with Julius Caesar. It is said he used to order snow to be brought down from the Appenine mountains outside of Rome, which would be drizzled with fruit juices.
The grattachecca is different from granita, which is an Italian "slushy" or icy beverage that's basically frozen fruit syrup the consistency of crushed ice, drinkable with a straw. (Granita can be considered the precursor to 7-11's -- and America's -- "Slurpie"). The grattachecca is all about the fluffy ice: shaved, not crushed, so it achieves the consistency of snow, light and ethereal. The really old-school spots shave the ice from a big block by hand. The name grattachecca basically means the 'queen of shaved ice' and most Romans I know would agree that this delicious solution to Rome's August heat is just that.
During the punishing summer of 2003, during which so many people in Southern Europe died from the heat, I was heading a restaurant kitchen in Trastevere. The worst of the heat began in June -- normally a pleasant month in Rome, but that summer it was reaching 100 degrees farenheit for what would be every day, in a row, for a month. Nighttime did not bring a respite. And add 10 degrees to the kitchen temperature, with several ovens on at all times, 8 burners going, and since we're in Italy, we mustn't forget the boiling cauldron of water for pasta. On my walk to work each day, from Largo Argentina to Trastevere, I was lucky enough to cross the Ponte Garibaldi right past my favorite grattachecca spot: La Fonte D'Oro, there since 1913 on the Lungotevere.
During my first summer in Rome back in '99, an older Roman resident introduced me to his nightly summer refresher: a glass of "coccolimone" juice from the Fonte D'Oro. It's coconut-lemon, with the tart fresh-squeezed lemons offsetting the sweetness and richness of the coconut. It's a perfect combo in hot weather, and my go-to grattachecca (I prefer it over shaved ice; Vincenzo took his 'neat'). Many of the other flavors seem too syrupy and sweet to me. Coccolimone, however, is juuuust right. It even sounds refreshing...KO-ko-lee-MOH-nay. That summer of 2003, I had one almost every day. The crunchy ice would be melted by the time I go to the restaurant, but I was certainly refreshed and ready to start the long, hot evening ahead of me.
Side note: The closest approximation to a grattachecca in New York City can be found in Chelsea Market, at the People's Pops stand. They usually have a couple of freshly-made seasonal flavors on hand at any given time. Tiny, but tasty.