La Grattachecca: experiencing Rome’s very own icy drink

La Grattachecca: experiencing Rome’s very own icy drink

Follow the famous shaved ice drink along the Tiber river and into Rome’s most characteristic neighborhoods. A sophisticated way to cool off during the summer heat and enjoy a bit of Rome’s culinary history.

I discovered my first grattachecca while wandering along the Tiber in August. I decided on the classic coconut flavor (cocco) and sat down along the river. When it is hot in Rome it is almost too hot to think. The heat reaches its peak in the summer months of July and August for this reason many Romans flee the city for Sardinia or the coast. This is an advantage for the visitor because the city is much easier to navigate and the traffic far less chaotic yet still entertaining to observe.

The grattachecca has a long history in Rome and should not be confused with other Italian ice drinks such as the granita. What makes the grattachecca special is that it is still made the old way: by shaving a large block of ice called the checca with a raschietto (a tool that looks like a wood plane) then pouring aromatic syrup over the ice. Some kiosks have adopted machines to do the job of chopping the ice but there are still traditional locations that shave the large block of ice and use artisan fruit syrups and fresh squeezed juices.The choices of flavors are many, including: lemon, banana, tamarind, kiwi, coconut, and multi flavor mixes. I would recommend seeking out the original grattachecca locations and seeing what each vendor offers – in Rome there is no such thing as a standard culinary experience.

There are several time-honored institutions in the most characteristic neighborhoods of the city. A favorite being Sora Mirella at the end of the Cestio Bridge leading into the old working-class Trastevere neighborhood. It is open until 3am on weekends to satisfy the busy nightlife in Trastevere. Recommended flavors are the freshly squeezed lemon and the frutti di bosco, a cherry mix which translates as fruits of the forest, luxuriously topped with choice of fruit. The Trastevere neighborhood is considered by many the heart of the city. Both Romans and tourists enjoy strolling through the small cobblestone streets and stopping at the many cafes and home-style restaurants.

An equally popular Trastevere institution is Fonte D’Oro along the Tiber at the height of Piazza Belli. This place has been kept going by the Crescenzi family for generations. The hit is lemon syrup with black currant juice topped with coconut pieces.At the heigh of Italian cinema this was a favorite summer stop for actors such as Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Magnani. The kiosk owners claim the patronage of a multitude of VIPs from Leonardo di Caprio to President Obama.

In the Prati neighborhood near the Vatican you have the Sora Maria kiosk at the cross of Via Trionfale and Via Bernardino Telesio. This kiosk has been operated by the Sciarrone family since 1933. The family specialty is citrus, large lemons from Sorrento and oranges from the coast. The owners like to say they have served many cardinals and popes. I would recommend getting a grattachecca before facing the line for the Vatican Museums. Who knows if Pope Francesco has enjoyed his grattachecca yet, the answer is probably yes. In Rome, the clergy’s culinary expertise is well known.

Another grattachecca spot in a charming neighborhood is Chiosco Testaccio, which literally means kiosk of the Testaccio neighborhood. The owner Roberto shaves the ice with his own hands. The amarena (black cherry) flavor is the local favorite, said to excite and soothe at the same time. The Testaccio neighborhood is full of surprises, a neighborhood with a special air about it where the Romans go for intimate meals with friends or lovers. By night Testaccio is also a great place for going out with many wine bars, discos and live music venues. Via Monte Testaccio offers a line of  clubs sure to satisfy particular tastes.