Dreaming Of Gelato

An Artisanal Italian Ice Cream Maker Finds Rome's Sweet Spot
Maria Agnese Spagnuolo takes an inspired approach to gelato-making.
Maria Agnese Spagnuolo
Ice-Cream Maker & Owner, Fatamorgana Gelato

Growing up in the Apulia region of southern Italy, Maria Agnese Spagnuolo was surrounded by fruit and nut trees, where the fragrance of figs, peaches, apricots, and almonds filled the air, and excited all of her senses, from taste to touch to smell.

There was another passion that she found gave her the same invigorating feeling: Italian ice cream, also known as gelato. The flavors, while delicious, were traditional–chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, and lemon–so she decided to take matters into her own hands. At 10-years old, she commandeered her mother's ice-cream freezer and began experimenting to create something livelier. She added spices, fruits, and flowers, which gave the sweet treat an infusion of flavor that she hadn't tasted before, and that stirred the same senses she experienced among the trees.

Fatamorgana is famous for tossing out the traditional in favor of new flavor combinations.
On The Horizon
Getting Down To Business

As she grew up, gelato-making remained a hobby, but a career as an actress became her focus. Traveling throughout Europe, Spagnuolo would seek out gelato shopswherever she went.

In 2001, after moving to Rome, a discovery on the internet would change her life's path. She learned that there was regional capital being offered to women who wanted to start their own businesses in the city. There it was–the nudge she needed to fulfill a desire that she had had since those days mixing ice cream in her mother's kitchen. Spagnuolo already had a name picked out for her business, Fatamorgana, which referenced her experiencing a mysterious fata morgana, or mirage, at the Sicilian Channel, where the optical illusion made the horizon appear as if objects and people were suspended on the water.

Maria Agnese Spagnuolo has created recipes for 300 different gelato flavors, and counting.
Breaking The Mold
Taking Creative Risks

With her gelateria Spagnulo hoped to turn the idea of a mirage on its head, creating an oasis of well-being where a natural dessert made with genuine passion and quality ingredients wouldn't be an illusion, but deliciously real.

Her dream became a reality. She now owns seven shops in Rome, with the first location in the United States opening in Los Angeles, California, in 2017, with a design where customers will be able to see the working gelato lab in full view.

In the world of frozen desserts, she continues to break the mold, using what she refers to as "a genetic skill," which allows her to create an ice cream from any ingredient, as long as it is 100 percent natural.

There are seven Fatamorgana gelaterias in Rome. The first U.S. location will open in 2017 Los Angeles.
A Taste For Adventure
Uncommon Flavors

Making magic with unexpected combinations has earned Spagnulo the moniker of ice-cream fairy. Uva e Noci is a nod to the boldness of ancient Rome, a gelato with decadent grape and walnut flavors. A creation that reminds her of modern Rome, with its juxtaposition of old and new, uses three types of chocolate, then gives them a savory twist with the addition of wasabi, an Indian spice mix, and ginger.

Each shop offers more than 60 flavors, but, with 300 recipes to date and counting, Spagnuolo says Fatamorgana is a lot like Rome: ever-evolving.

Her most intoxicating creation? Kama Sutra, which tantalizes the taste buds with fennel, honey, and notes of licorice.

Local Recommendations

The Scoop On Rome

Maria Agnese Spagnuolo's favorite spots in Rome are as diverse as her roster of imaginative flavor combinations. From the quirkiest neighborhoods to the best places to see modern art, here's the skinny on the best places to roam in the Eternal City.

Neighborhood Guide: Monti

Spend The Day Like A Local

Once a red-light district, Rome’s Monti neighborhood is now red hot. Just a short walk from the Colosseum, the trendy bohemian district is a mash up of old-world traditions sharing the limelight with funky shops, bars, and restaurants from up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Hipsters sit shoulder-to-shoulder with elder neighborhood fixtures at a Renaissance-era fountain, Monti’s unofficial gathering place in the central Piazza della Madonna.

Spagnulo loved the Monti vibe so much, she opened her third Fatamorgana (5 Via degli Zingari; +39-06-4890-6955) outpost here, on the same corner where director Mario Monicelli shot his 1958 masterpiece I Soliti Ignoti or Big Deal On Madonna Street.

For craft cocktails and live music, visit the cozy Black Market (101 Via Panisperna; +39-339-822-7541), where indie musicians line up to play unplugged sets, or enjoy a leisurely lunch at Aromaticus (134 Via Urbana; +39-06-488-1355) a daytime, health-focused café that doubles as an urban gardening shop, with plenty of aromatic plants lining the shelves to take home.

With all the influx of modern hangouts, Monti's past remains evident, especially in one of its most visited sites, the church of Santa Maria dei Monti (41 Via della Madonna dei Monti; +39-06-485-531). The ornate interior is filled with phenomenal 16th-century frescoes, and locals share the lore of the miraculous event that prompted the building of the church—a miracle attributed to a perfectly preserved icon of the Virgin Mary, which was found in the ruins of a 13th-century convent. A blind woman in the 16th century is said to have regained her sight after praying to it. After news got out of the healing, donations began pouring in for a church to be built on that very location. Today, the icon hangs over the altar.

Rome's Monti district. Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn.

In Search Of Modern

The Nexus Of Old And New

For an interesting juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity, the Chiostro del Bramante (5 Via Arco della Pace; +39 06-6880-9035) hosts exhibitions of modern artists in a former 16th-century cloister. Following a renovation, which began in 1997, the Chiostro opened to the public, and over the last 20 years, the curators' exhibitions have elevated the venue to one of the most respected places in Rome to see national and international modern art. The architectural wonder-turned-arts complex has hosted works by artists as diverse as James Tissot, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marc Chagall, M.C. Escher, and Andy Warhol.
The National Museum of XXI Century Arts, better known locally as MAXXI (4A Via Guido Reni; +39-06-320-1954), is unlike most museums in Rome: not a repurposed historic building, but built from the ground up. Italy's first national museum of contemporary art took 10 years to complete, opening in 2010, on the site of the former Montello military barracks.

A view of Rome's National Museum of XXI Century Arts, MAXXI. Photo courtesy of hillman54.

Retail Therapy

Boutiques For Every Whim

The city’s best-known shopping streets, such as Via dei Condotti and Via del Corso, are where most visitors gravitate, but being the walking paradise that it is, Rome has other areas that lend copious opportunities for window shopping and buying.

Antique lovers stroll the lovely Via dei Coronari, hidden just off Piazza Navona. Once a medieval rosary market, the quiet street is dotted with high-end antique shops filled with rare books, vintage clothing, jewelry, and art.

Set between the Piazza di Spagna and the Piazza del Popolo, Via Margutta, has long been home to established and emerging artists—filmmaker Federico Fellini lived here—and still is today. Take a star turn and swing by 51 Via Margutta, where Gregory Peck's character, Joe Bradley, lived in Roman Holiday. For a creative escape, explore contemporary gallery Galleria Valentina Moncada (54 Via Margutta; +39-06-320-7956), where modern masterworks mingle with emerging artists' creations. The fashionable Il Margutta RistorArte (118 Via Margutta,; +39-06-3265-0577), one of Rome's first vegetarian restaurants, shows off its artistic cuisine amid an atmosphere of modern art.

Overlooking Via dei Condotti. Photo courtesy of NovoaR.

Twilight Beauty

Valadier Views

If there's a glamorous private event in the city, it's most likely happening at Casina Valadier (Piazza Bucharest, Villa Borghese; +39-06-6992-2090), a stately 19th century villa at the top of Pincio Hill at Villa Borghese. Renowned for its incredible twilight views, it is by far one of the best vantage points from which to see the Eternal City below.

Many a marriage proposal has been offered in one of the four dining rooms in the rooftop restaurant, Vista, where the uninterrupted views of Rome's skyline provide a backdrop that never fails to elicit an enthusiastic "yes."

The view from Casina Valadier's Vista restaurant. Photo courtesy of Casina Valadier.

Strange Beauty

Unexpected Corners

Once you’ve seen the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, venture off the beaten path, away from the well-known monuments to more unexpected corners of the city.

One of the quirkiest of Rome’s neighborhoods was developed out of an architect's fantasy, which he turned into a reality, in the city's northeast Trieste district. Designed by Florentine architect Gino Coppedè, Quartiere Coppedè is a fantastical hodgepodge of design, built in the early 1900s. Buildings reflect Roman baroque and medieval mores, along with ancient Greek influences, all of which collide with the pervading art nouveau and art deco styles that were in vogue during Coppedè's time.

Block by block, you’ll find unexpected flourishes of the wit and eccentric artistry of Coppedè, especially his Fontana delle Rane or frog fountain in the middle of the piazza, and at the Palazzo of the Spider (4 Piazza Mincio), where an eight-legged arachnid caught in a gold mosaic web lurks above the building’s entrance.

A detail of the Gino Coppedè's Fontana delle Rane.