Little known fact: I am a connoisseur of frozen dessert treats. My specialization lies in gelato and ice cream, but frozen custard and frozen yogurt have their places in my repertoire as well.
But gelato is where it’s at.
First things first: Gelato is not ice cream. I know that when you type gelato into Google Translate it spits out ice cream as the translation, but that’s simply for lack of a better word. There are fundamental differences between the two that change how they turn out and how they taste. So, let’s take a look.
Ice cream is, obviously, made from cream. This means that there’s a high fat content, and that it has to be churned fast and at a low temperature in order to obtain that lovely consistency that we all love on a hot summer’s day (or, if you’re like me, every day). Ideally, ice cream is served at about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Gelato, on the other hand, would be as hard as a rock if it were served at 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Gelato is made with milk, which means a lower fat content than ice cream. Because it has less fat, it doesn’t need to be churned as fast and it freezes at a higher temperature. Generally, gelato is served somewhere around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why the gelato you buy in a tub at the grocery store doesn’t seem that special; they throw it in the same freezer compartment as the ice cream, and when you get it home, you throw it in your freezer, which are both much too cold for gelato.
It sounds like nitpicking to say that these things make noticeable differences on the taste and texture of the end product, but it’s true. Ice cream is, generally, fluffy and very sweet. Gelato, on the other hand, is denser and can be less sweet. When served at the proper temperature, gelato is creamy and holds together very nicely. Bottom line: Ice cream is good for cones, and gelato is good for spoons.
Second things second: You can find gelato everywhere in Italy. Many restaurants will offer chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry gelati as a part of their dessert menu. Grocery stores sell tubs of gelato (stored at proper temperatures). My favorite, however, are the gelaterie.
Every single town you go to will have a gelateria (jel-ah-te-ree-ah; gelato shop). Most will have more than one. In a place where gelaterie (jel-ah-te-ree-eh; gelato shops) are a dime a dozen, you have to know what you’re looking for in order to get really good gelato. Really, it’s the same deal as ice cream in the United States: A mom-and-pop ice cream parlor that makes all of their ice cream in their own kitchen from scratch is going to be better than Baskin Robbins. In that regard, ice cream and gelato are the same. Look for the words gelato artigianale somewhere in the shop, usually right by the door or on the menu. This means, roughly, artisan gelato. In other words, it’s high-quality stuff. It’s made from better ingredients, usually in smaller creameries where they follow grandma’s way of doing things. Gelati artigianali will be tastier than they supermarket-brand cousins.
Third things third: How do you order a gelato? Honestly, the people in the gelaterie will understand what you want if you grunt and point. If you’re in a small town, though, it might be helpful to speak some Italian to the people. One of my favorite gelato stories is how, after a long line of American students went through the gelateria ordering in English, I got a discount on my gelato because I spoke to the overwhelmed man behind the counter in Italian. Turns out, his English wasn’t quite good enough to keep up with the orders he was receiving, and he was just plain relieved to hear per favore.
Here are some helpful phrases:
Una coppa di… oo-nah koh-pah dee
A cup of…
Un cono di… oon koh-noh dee
A cone of…
Posso provare… poh-soh proh-vah-rey
May I try…
A helpful note: If you get any size larger than a small, you’ll be able to choose more than one flavor of gelato. If you don’t, the person scooping your gelato will stand there and stare at you with a half-filled cup in their hands. My recommendation is to pick a few flavors that go well together – they are, after all, going into the same cup together, which means the flavors will mix a bit (especially if it’s hot outside).
My top 3 gelaterie:
Gelateria del Teatro
Via dei Coronari, 65, 00186 Roma
One of my professors in Rome introduced me to this one. Quality ingredients + tasty flavor combinations + a location that’s near impossible to find but very atmospheric = gelato perfection.
Piazza Cisterna, 4, 53037 San Gimignano
This place won the Gelato World Championship two years in a row! I had a very memorable combination of banana and coconut here.
Gelateria Caffe delle Carrozze
Piazza di Santo Stefano, 50122 Firenze
Every time I go to this place (I made several trips, both times I was in Florence), they have different flavors. The first time I went, they had a mint that was made with actual mint leaves and a peach that had full quarters of peaches in it. Bonus points: Last time I went, they had a PEANUT BUTTER flavor, which I matched with Ferrero Rocher and fondente. It doesn’t get any better than that.