By Inés San Martín
ROSARIO, Argentina – At a time when supporting your local retailers is a way of helping them weather the COVID-19 storm, one ice cream shop hiding in the shade of St. Peter’s Basilica that has one special faithful customer: Pope Francis.
The ice-cream shop Padron is so well known in the Vatican that when Silvia – the wife of the owner, Sebastian Padron – showed up to the gates of the world’s smallest state with a dozen empanadas – a meat-filled dough that is a classic dish in Pope Francis’s native Argentina – no one asked any questions and delivered them directly to the pontiff.
The empanadas are a recent addition to the ice cream shop’s menu, in an attempt to keep the business running during the winter months. The Padrons left a note with the gift: They wanted the Holy Father to know they’re praying for him, and that they wouldn’t mind if he prayed for them.
The treats were delivered on a Saturday, and on Tuesday, Pope Francis made a phone call to personally thank him for the gesture, and to invite him over for a chat.
“I could hardly believe how personal he was being, how approachable, human,” Padron told Crux over the phone, after the 40-minute conversation his family had with Pope Francis in the Casa Santa Marta, the residence within the Vatican grounds where the Francis has lived since his election.
“The Holy Father wanted to know when we could come, based on the store hours, and the routine of the family, when obviously, whenever he could welcome us, we could go!” Padron said.
Despite the family’s shock, it’s not entirely surprising that the pontiff called them: He’s a big fan of ice cream and he often takes the time to thank people personally for their gifts and gestures of good will.
The Padrons’ have two children: Maite, 6, and Luca Marino, 3. They opened the shop in 2018, and the original plan for this year was to open another store, since business was booming- thanks to the quality of the product, the special customer from Santa Marta and an Argentine player at A.S. Roma, the Italian capital’s most popular soccer team.
Yet the pandemic changed those plans.
Cardinals, bishops and friends of the Holy Father are regular customers of Padron [including this chronicler], and all of them know that Dulce de Leche Granizado is the one flavor that cannot be missing for any order headed for Pope Francis.
For those unfamiliar with it, dulce de leche is a brown caramel-like spread, made from milk, sugar and vanilla extract. It has small variations and is consumed in several Latin American countries, but Argentines like to claim they invented it. The ice cream flavor Pope Francis favors includes tiny shreds of bitter chocolate.
The Padron family arrived in the Casa Santa Marta on Oct. 29 with a basket full of their best products, including a bottle of Argentine Malbec wine, that is also available for customers. Much to the joy of the children, the pontiff too had a bag full of gifts in exchange, including rosaries for each member of the family, and a Franciscan crucifix.
Maite had a drawing for him, which at the end of the encounter, Francis carefully took with him, calling it the “most important thing” among the gifts the family had offered.
“To me, it felt like he was ‘unplugging’ for a few minutes from what it means to be the pope,” Padron said. “We were surprised by how welcome he made all of us feel, much as if we were having a chat with an old friend. I think he needed that too, to be among friends.”
Though there has been much speculation as to why Pope Francis decided to live in the Casa Santa Marta instead of the Apostolic Palace when he was elected in 2013, but he has explained it several times: He likes that first-hand contact with people, of all backgrounds, and the freedom to determine some of his appointments, as the one with Padron, which he wrote down in his agenda himself.
“At one point, the pope acknowledged that being with us was good for him, almost as if it helped him keep grounded, feel like he was among friends, in his neighborhood, in his country,” Padron said. The pontiff has yet to go back to Argentina since his election, but he’s never short of Argentines in Rome, even inviting a missionary from Buenos Aires who lives in Mozambique to visit him for a week.
Pope Francis welcomed the family in a “very large room” on the ground floor of the papal residence and was very punctual, arriving with a smile but no face mask. “He told us that it didn’t ‘seem right’ to use the mask in such a large room, in what was supposed to be a personal setting, when he already has to use it ‘all day’.”