I have always associated the figure of Mr. Franco (whose last name Vitto I only discovered in recent years) with two things: delicious ice cream and austere elegance (I’ve never seen him without a button-down). It only seemed, now that I am almost thirty, dutiful to pay homage to this figure, to our town’s most iconic ice cream, the spumone. My town, the town in question, is Conversano – 219 meters above sea level, 15 miles south of Bari and seven minutes from the cliffs of Polignano a Mare.
Conversano is part of the lesser known Puglia, but equally capable of surprising. Conversano, and I am not saying this just because like every true Italian I feel a deep connection with my own town, is a magnificent city: its square, dominated by the Castle and Cathedral, is one of the most evocative squares in the region from which, almost every day, you can see the sea. And then there is Castel Marchione, which is the summer residence of the Count of Conversano, and the noteworthy food and wine traditions are well represented by the well known, local, Ciliegie Ferrovia cherries and the Michelin star Pashà restaurant. But I don’t want to bore you, a Google search will do the trick and put this small town on your travel bucket list.
Together with Luca A. Caizzi – photographer and creative director of C41 Magazine – I will introduce you to spumone through a simple story. The story of Franco and his cafe, Caffè dell’Incontro, a temple of the caffe and, above all, of ice cream.
There is a cafe, a special one, in every city that every Italian has in their heart. For its atmosphere, for its people, its service, or for a particular product. Usually, in the best cases, all three together. The Caffè dell’Incontro is undoubtedly one of them. A second home, which welcomed me for countless afternoon snacks or an ice cream cone on warm summer evenings.
When we meet Franco Vitto, it’s a hot day of a strange summer, the one after the lockdown and just before, the “second wave” that we didn’t know about quite yet. Meeting Franco, a stable figure from my childhood, a kind of monument for the people of Conversano and for many foreigners, brings us back to normality. If it weren’t for the masks, the feeling would be that of a classic summer in Conversano: the one in which you go to Franco for a double cream cone, bacio and hazelnut, a coffee granita with cream (a double, because it’s too good and light not to), or a glass of almond milk prepared with typical Toritto almonds.
We immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the Caffè dell’Incontro. Located in front of the Town Hall of Conversano, it’s very often a place for fleeting meetings between local politicians or long coffees with friends. Its furniture is classic: marble counter, vaulted ceiling painted white and black Thonet chairs. In the bar there is rarely a musical background: silence reigns supreme, broken only by the gentle voice of Franco and his collaborators and by the sounds of cutlery and cups, and the chit chatter of the customers waiting for their turn.
Now that the stage is set, you can envision the cafe and we can turn back to the center of attention, the spumone. It is said that the spumone was served in the banquets of rich families in Naples in the nineteenth century, a recipe that slowly spread throughout the south and, above all, in Puglia. Arriving also in Conversano, where it evolved into an ice cream composed of an outer layer of hazelnut ice cream, filled with a heart (or mousse) of cream, chocolate drops, toasted almond grains and an Apulian liqueur, then closed with a layer of chocolate ice cream. The ingredients are placed in a truncated cone-shaped metal container, called the “bomba” (you can guess what that means), and left in the refrigerator to solidify. When it is ready to be sold, it is taken out of the container and wrapped. It is therefore not an ice cream to eat while walking, but one that has to be enjoyed sitting down at a table, usually after lunch: from this “bomba“, about four slices are extracted, making it into the ideal dessert for a family. I have lost count of how many Sundays were made special by the spumone and how many family memories are tied to it: the times I drove with a cooler and ac blasting just for it to arrive intact to my Aunt Maria and Uncle Franco’s home in the nearby town of Alberobello. Today, after ten years of living in Milan, the spumone is still one of those things that I miss most of my childhood home.
It’s not hard to see why it’s such a successful dessert, and why I (like all others who try it) become so infatuated with it. The taste of hazelnut is intense but delicate and perfectly contrasts the bitterness of the dark chocolate. With a single spoonful, once the more solid layer is overcome, you get to the soft filling, alternating with the crunchy grain. All its components, from the outside to the heart blend and balance perfectly. Describing it in words is difficult, trust me when I say you have to try it.
The raw produce obviously make the difference: the gelato of the Caffè dell’Incontro di Conversano is prepared with a classic recipe – with sugar and fresh milk – and with a traditional vertical batch freezer equipped with a helical blade which requires manual intervention of the ice cream maker unlike the modern ones. It is not like the industrial ice creams full of chemical thickeners that would make it indigestible and with a lingering heavy after taste.
This one is the real version, the example of how gelato used to be done and should be done. It’s classic, it’s simple, it’s authentic. From its flavors: bacio, hazelnut, zuppa inglese, chocolate, yogurt, pistachio and fiordilatte (during summer, when in season you might be lucky and also find almond or peach on the menu).
I ask Franco where the Spumone Conversano recipe comes from and, above all, if he knows when it was born. His answer is sincere and without formalities, a man of few words cutting short our plans of a long interview: “I don’t know. When I started working in an ice cream parlor at the age of 13, it already existed”. It was 1959, and it was just a “summer job”. Today Franco is 73 years old, he still makes ice cream and for exactly 60 years he has been repeating and perfecting this recipe, a real intangible heritage that also tells us about the traditions of this territory. The spumone, in fact, is also linked to weddings: it is given by the spouses to all the invitees, a custom that is still widespread in Conversano. What we know for sure is that the spumone already existed at the time of the legendary Conversanese bars “Gigante” and “Santillo”. The first, Gigante, is the bar where Franco worked for 25 years. The last is the bar that Franco took over 36 years ago, transforming it into his Caffè dell’Incontro. That’s about all he would share with us.
If there is one constant in this tradition, someone that had several pupils, it is Franco Vitto. A person without whom I could not imagine Conversano and, on your next trip to Southern Italy, you should try and get to know, sitting in his room, ordering a slice of spumone, strictly served on its traditional dish.