I arrived in Rome at the end of a hot June, to study Italian for a month the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I hadn’t brought much with me.
“A carry on?” my mom had asked as she watched me pack. “You’re going to the most fashionable place on earth and you’re only taking a carry on?”
I was lodged with an Italian host family, Enia and her daughter Ghita, in their apartment on the outskirts of the city. In the mornings I descended at the Circo Massimo metro stop and walked the few blocks to my school, and after class trekked to the center of town with a pair of Turkish girls and a 6-foot tall Norwegian named Greta whose yellow hair hung nearly all the way down her back. Her heavy black eyeliner glistened and ran in the heat. Packs of Italian boys would follow us (well, her) as we emerged from the metro station adjacent to the Spanish Steps and wandered to Trevi Fountain or past the shops on Via Condotti. Sometimes we went out for dinner or reconnoitered later on Campo de’ Fiore or at Trinity College Pub to practice our Italian with men named Daniele, Andrea, and Michele.
That summer, time slackened. Despite the long slogs in the July sun, in the Birkenstocks and clogs I wore everywhere, I felt the pleasurable weightlessness of being a novitiate, untethered to anything or anyone familiar.
But food gave my days routine. During the morning break from class, we trooped downstairs to the café to eat cornetti, drink cappuccinos, and smoke cigarettes. After school, we crossed the street to the pizzeria and paid a euro and a half for squares of pizza with a shatteringly crisp crust, which we ate sitting on stools at the tiny bar. Once a splotch of grease fell on the leg of my pants and my friend Elif poured salt on the spot so it wouldn’t stain. In the late afternoon we ate feathery lemon granite while lying in the grass around Castel Sant’Angelo and smoking.
I did my grocery shopping at a tiny market across the street from the Cencis’ apartment in EUR, greeting the man behind the counter in my graceless Italian and then pointed at the cheeses, cured meats, and fresh pasta I wanted. I liked to sneak bites of the fresh pasta. “Basta così”—that’s enough—was the first Italian phrase I mastered.
There was another student, Melissa, also staying in the Cencis’ apartment. We didn’t spend much time together, though I tagged along with her on an expedition to scout for counterfeit designer bags around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. It was worth it, only for the pasta she and her friends (both named Ana Maria) made for us when we got home late that evening, hungry and contemplating a barren pantry. The pasta was simple, but like none I’d ever had before: slick, chewy spaghetti flecked with cubes of crisp pancetta.
I spent another evening in the kitchen with Melissa, watching as she prepared arancini—stuffed rice croquettes, Sicilian in origin. She stirred tomato sauce and peas into a risotto, formed the mixture into balls the size of small oranges (hence the name), tucked cheese into some and ground beef into others, then breaded and deep-fried them. Melissa permitted me nearly as many as I could eat, first hot out of the shimmering olive oil and then cold, straight from the refrigerator.
Flavio, Ghita’s long-term boyfriend (“Fidanzato, not ragazzo,” Melissa, who was more attuned to these things than I was, instructed me), was the other frequent occupant of the Cencis’ galley kitchen, which opened onto an airy courtyard. Flavio had swooping dark hair and prom king blue eyes. That summer he’d broken something—an arm? an ankle? I don’t remember; whatever it was didn’t stop him from turning out batches of pillowy zeppole—sweet fritters—and the most delicious monochromatic dish I’d ever tasted, pasta e ceci. It was a buff colored stew of partially-pureed chickpeas and tender bits of pasta, perfumed with rosemary. The trick was in the soffritto: celery, onion, and carrot cooked in a pool of olive oil until they melted.
Ghita’s activities in the kitchen were limited to making coffee in the moka or scooping ice cream after dinner. But when she returned from Sicily, where she’d spent a long weekend visiting her father and stepmother, she toted small paper cups of what appeared to be hot pink, opaque jello. Gelo di melone, she called it, or gelu di muluni in Sicilian dialect.
The gelo was more jelly than Jell-o: it quivered rather than jiggled. It was garnished with bittersweet chocolate shavings, to mimic a watermelon’s black seeds, and shelled pistachios, which had softened over the course of their journey from a Sicilian pasticceria to Ghita’s apartment in Rome. It was sweet in the extreme, but also faintly floral, and there was a warm quality to the flavor, which came from the addition of cinnamon.
I returned from Rome in new clothes and a new tan, my suitcase stuffed it with boxes of pastry, bottles of grappa, baci from Perugia, and even a jar of bagna càuda, which broke in my luggage. Miraculously it didn’t damage any of the uncharacteristically fashionable clothing, bought during the summer sales in Rome, which I also brought home with me.
But gelo di melone—for which I did not have a recipe—became the talisman of my trip. I scoured the Internet, which was a much sparser place at the time, for the formula. For years the only version I found was on an amateur cooking and ancestry website. Though I attempted it several times it was always a spectacular failure, culminating in the instance when I made it in a batch for a potluck. It didn’t set up properly, and on my way to the party, the lumpy, half-set watermelon juice sloshed out of the Pyrex and seeped into the grey upholstery of the passenger seat. The tenacious stain remained when I sold the car several years later.
About fifteen years have passed since then. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of recipes for gelo di melone online now. After several summers of practice, I can make a decent version that reels me back that kitchen in Rome. In the process, I’ve gotten to know my way around a watermelon. Pushing its cold, wet-crisp flesh through a sieve to collect the juice in a bowl below is a familiar feeling now. So is the sight of the juice as it transforms into jelly on the stove. It begins as a vivid but flat pink, and simmers its way to a muddied rose color that begins to glisten as the slurry of cornstarch dissolves.
Sometimes I garnish the gelo with pistachios and chopped chocolate, sometimes not. I have not yet found jasmine flowers to steep in the mixture or use as garnish, which is a common variation. Nor have I topped the puddings with zuccata, Sicilian candied pumpkin. It seems an odd combination, pumpkin and watermelon. But one thing I have learned over ten or more summers of juicing watermelon for gelo di melone is that there is in fact a subtle and surprising orange squashiness to its aroma and taste. In fact they belong to the same plant family, Cucurbitaceae. I suspect this is why cinnamon—a legacy of Arab rule in Sicily, centuries ago—feels at home in an otherwise summery dessert. The simple watermelon, that cheerful fruit, still has the power to surprise.
The mystery and surprise of gelo di melone triggered my interest in Sicilian food. Its primary components—seafood, chocolate, spices, couscous, citrus, vegetables pistachio—are a road map of the island’s geography as well as the cultures—Italian, Greek, Spanish, Norman, Arab, North African—which have at various times throughout history passed through and colonized the island. In the process of exploring Sicilian food, I taught myself to make pasta alla Norma, fried more arancini than I can remember, begged the recipe for pasta con le sarde from a well-traveled friend with a backyard full of wild fennel, and even attempted scaccia Ragusana, a layered cheese and tomato pie.
A decade after my summer in Rome, I was back in the city for a friend’s wedding. The city—with its clattering metro, shock of decay, and glowing terracotta buildings—was still poetic, but also more fixed. I knew where to go for the best supplí, olive ascolane, and gelato, accompanied by friends who lived or had grown up there. But Sicily was still shrouded in mystery, and it made a convenient detour from Rome. During four days on the island, I ate my way through the list of the Sicilian foods I had grown to love or was curious to taste: pasta alla Norma, caponata, milky almond granita, tuna with peppers, macco, sarde impanato. But gelo di melone was nowhere to be found.
In Palermo on our last night, my husband and I walked along the island’s edge to Kursaal Kalhesa, a restaurant housed in an old city wall. We ate dinner in the starry courtyard fringed with palms. Evan had a cannolo of beef stuffed with caciocavallo cheese and I had sea bass with pistachio couscous. And for dessert? A bavarese of watermelon—very like a gelo, but enriched by cream—served alongside a spray of jasmine sauce and another of cinnamon. It was less sweet than I remembered, and much more modern. While I’d been harkening back to a memory, gelo di melone had moved on.
Every summer, I continue to tinker with my own version of gelo: testing methods to choosing the sweetest, ripest watermelons; fiddling with the ratios of sugar and cornstarch; scanning the Internet for new versions of the recipe. I tried out a new trick the last time I made gelo di melone: wetting the molds before filling them with the prepared mixture. I placed a plate over the top of the ramekin, flipped it over, and voila: the pudding slipped cleanly from its mold. Glossy and pink against the white plate, it quavered and trembled, but was completely intact.
Kristen Schroer lives with her family in Los Angeles, California. She was formerly an assistant and genre editor with Lunch Ticket literary journal and has work forthcoming in Offshoots 14—Writing From Geneva. Kristen is working on a memoir about the early days of motherhood.