Maria + the Magic of Fatamorgana

October 9, 2013

I’ve given a lot of thought to paths lately. The natural paths that we take through life, the choices we make, the junctures we arrive at. How things come to be.

There is a saying in Italian that goes a little something like this:

Thoughts become words, become reality, become habit. 

My translation is something like our “if you can think it, you can do it.” The thinking seems like the easy part, from where I stand. It’s the doing – and all the thinking that “seems” to have to take place before the logical doing that I find kinda daunting. Sometimes I’m energized by my ideas, the creative process, the prospects of actioning something uniquely your own. Other times, when I realize there isn’t a road map, panic starts to claw at the insides of my brain.

Before leaving Italy, early last week, I had the opportunity to meet a woman who inspired me to think less about all that thinking and do more listening. To take a deep breath and be brave in these moments of panic and instead to move along the path that seems most natural to me – without strife or struggle – and to ponder my projects and aspirations in a way that extends into the great beyond. To encompass all that I am and have been into what I will become. She also inspired me to eat more gelato. A lot more gelato.

Her name is Maria Agnese Spagnuolo and she is my new hero.

It was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon in Piazza Zingari (plaza of the gypsies) – which meant that you could hear the ordinary echoing sounds of voices in the corridor of streets surrounding the plaza, the beep beep of scooters zipping about between cars and pedestrians, the clinking of glasses and flatware as tables were cleaned and set for lunch and, of course, the hushed conversations that can only unfold between friends over a gelato.

Unlike other parts of Rome in September, there weren’t throngs of visitors snapping pictures or speaking loudly as they struggle to navigate a maze of cobblestone streets and, instead, the piazza was filled with families, couples, friends whom had found this secluded spot not far from the coliseum to enjoy an afternoon pause. Just days before, summer had decided to tap out and allow fall to do its good work ,so cloud cover danced over Rome. (It is of note that the arrival of fall does nothing to peter the consumption of gelato – if anything, traffic increases as flavors change with the new inspiration of the season.) It is in this little piazza that Fatamorgana – Maria’s unassuming yet beloved gelateria sits, near a brass tap that bubbled away as friend and filmmaker, Brianna Torres, was working her camera and running the show, capturing shots and setting up the scene so she could best capture Maria’s story for a documentary film she’s working on (stay tuned!) I perched on a beat-up blue milk crate, wearing melon-sized headphones and holding a digital recorder with both hands, ensuring that we caught the entirety of her translated story; I wouldn’t be able to take notes, but couldn’t have been happier for  I’d get to hear everything she had to say about becoming one of the most creative, and celebrated gelato makers in all of Italy

Maria’s story is not like some other chefs; it doesn’t entail a story of struggling through kitchens, cooking off the apron tails of modern masters to learn her craft then announcing her own departure, almost expectant of her brand of success. She didn’t have an epiphany about just how profitable gelato could be in Italy, or how exotic she could make frozen creams. He story is much more elemental than that and as she began to speak, with her business partner doing her best to translate into English, her picture – her path – began to be painted.

Maria grew up in southern Italy, on her family’s farm not far from the ocean and, like many Italian children, she came to understand the connection between the land, her community, her family’s dinner table, and her life.  She spent days in the fields, the orchards, letting the ocean breeze whip curls against her face, and growing an appreciation for the natural world  tasting berries off the bush and plucking bounty from the ground. From a young age, it was apparent that Maria had a knack for going into the orchards and picking the ripest, sweetest fruits and she would carry them back into her family’s kitchen with little arms so that her sister and mother could cook them up, and teach her all about the power of chemical transformation. I can’t quite accurately describe the clarity and joy that spreads across her face as she describes these years as a wee one to us but it is clear that her youth the seed of her craft was planted. But to suggest that the essence of cooking allowed it to grow would be denying the essence and grace of her being. 

It wasn’t until Maria was an adult that she was diagnosed as celiac – unable to digest gluten, or protein, in wheat and other grains. This meant no traditional semolina pasta, and no pizzas for certain but also most conventional gelatos for gluten was used as an ingredient to thicken the cream. My belly deduces that being an Italian unable to enjoy pasta, pizza, or gelato is effectively a non-functioning member of modern-day Italian institution, but Maria didn’t fall into this category for long. She couldn’t live without gelato (of course! Brava!) and was driven to use her intuition, her mindful connection to the natural world, and her desire to use exclusively the best, most pure and natural ingredients to craft the ice cream of her dreams.

As a woman, and un-seasoned chef, brimming with whimsy, striving to redefine gelato in a saturated landscape married to tradition, and speculative of change it is certain that what happened next involved a heavy dose of bravery, though her poise as she chats with us speaks nothing of determination or struggle. Maria merely followed her “percorso naturale,” or natural path, and she succeeded in launching the creative, and frankly revolutionary Fatamorgana. Her kind, clear blue eyes — focused into the distance on each question we posed — indicate a woman whom is listening intimately to …something. Her hands – unblemished and strong – don’t fidget in her lap and instead hold the other carefully and calmly. With these hands, her thoughts became reality became habit, and these habits became the over 300 gelato recipes – some traditional, others entirely unconventional – that make up the repertoire at her gelato shops. She still touches each batch, recognizing it is in her hands that each flavor comes to life for she can feel how each recipe must change each day; some days the berries are sweeter than other days, some days the caramel is slightly more viscous, the air in her kitchen more humid, the fat in her milks and creams slightly higher depending on how happy the cow.

In nature, a fatamorgana is a mirage; an optical phenomenon that distorts the object it is based on so significantly, it might be beyond recognition. In Italy, today, Maria is the fairy of the phenomenon and her shop is the mirage; as the dark clouds parked directly over our make-shift studio in the piazza, she tells us that the reason she loves gelato is not because she “loves gelato,” (as all Italians and wanna-be Italians do.) Rather, she loves to gelato because -in a way – each flavor is a moment, an experience, and essence, a story frozen in time. Literally. She says she loves to make gelato because her craft gives her the license to take all things in the world – no matter how hard, course, stubborn, tangled – and make them smooth, palpable, enjoyable, distorted beyond recognition yet still essentially the same.

I couldn’t stop smiling as those dark clouds broke and little sprinkles of rain turned into big sloppy drops, insisting that we pack up our equipment and run inside, the ice cream cases, glowing against the dark ambience of the now-rainy afternoon cast a kind of halo over their contents, making me feel as if we were in the presence of something important, enjoying a moment that was destined to be savored. Maybe in that moment I understood – at last – what gelato in Italy is meant to be; a savoring of each moment. If this concept is at the core of gelato and its traditions, then Maria’s very person – in addition to her culinary genius – belonged in the most lovely museum of modern art for she had achieved the transcendence that all cooks must want for their food; we hope that it lasts long beyond the bite, and evokes a pleasure that is perhaps the most profound enactment of our connection with the world.

Inside, her curls still dripping wet from the last moments of our outdoor interview, Maria reached for tiny fluorescent spoons to serve up tastes of all the flavor stories she had frozen in time, urging us to eat her stories and sensations for ourselves.  Beaming, with a twinkle in her eyes, she spooned the story of her childhood with traditional, rich pistachio, toasted almond + orange, cream of carrot, artichoke vanilla, wild fennel and peaches with wine. Creamy tzaziki, caramel-y dobosh torte, spicy hazelnut dukkha, fresh Andalusian gazpacho and sweet baklava creams paint the pictures of her travels. Subtle lavender + chamomile cream, crisp mojito + cherry, sharp pecorino + fig and sultry cognac + nutmeg creams change with the seasons, freezing the moment of their arrival. 

I can’t remember a gelato cone that I have enjoyed more than the almond + cardamom, Kentucky tobacco + chocolate and cherry + beer stack that I ate as slowly, yet eagerly as possible. As I enjoyed it, I caught Maria appreciating my grin which warmed my heart and bridged the gap of communication where my Italian skills were lacking. I could tell her over and over that this experience had been delicious, but I couldn’t find the proper words to let her know that I understood her mission, appreciated her perspective, honored her goals and aspirations, and truly enjoyed her presence. None the less, it was as if she could see on my face, that this little pause, this day in my travels in Italy, this lesson on life, and love and good taste would last forever in my mind, and across my lips. 

Maria sent me home with one of her cookbooks, which I grasped tightly to my chest as I made my way home through the labyrinth of the metro, then the train, and into the night beyond Rome, where the magic of the tiny shop seemed to be eaten alive by this sizeable city. I can’t wait to experiment with in the months to come; I’ll crack into its pages when the thrill of that last cone has worn off (though I don’t imagine that this will happen soon.) A big thank you to Maria, Fulvia and Francesco for hosting us — I can’t wait to see what’s new in the shop next summer!

Stay tuned for Brie Torres’ documentary on Maria and the magic that is Fatamorgana. And, if you’re in Rome, do hunt down one of her six Fatamorgana shops — enjoying one of her cones is not an experience that you will soon forget. 

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