Sunday, May 1, 2011

l'avventura in Italia: gelato

The first and last photos I took on my Italy vacation were of the same thing: gelato. This wasn't intentional, but is clear evidence of the important role that the frozen dessert played in my avventura. But before we get to that, let's discuss a little gelato history and what exactly it is that sets gelato apart from its American grandchild, ice cream.

Gelato is ancient. Literally. In ancient Rome, they used to make it from ice and snow brought from the mountaintops and preserved below ground. The ingredients are pretty much the same as the American adaptation, ice cream: milk, cream, and sugar, with flavor often from fruit or nut purees. In terms of differences, gelato typically has a lower butterfat content (4-8%, vs. 14% for US ice cream) and higher sugar content (16-24% vs. 12-16%). Also, unlike commercial ice cream in the US, which is made with a continuous assembly line freezer, gelato is frozen quickly and in small batches. It is meant to be consumed within a few days of preparation for peak flavor and texture.

In regards to my personal experience with gelato: I had it first in Bologna and then in every city that followed. While I'd put ice cream on my 'like' list, gelato is squarely on my 'love' list due to its incredibly smooth texture and rich flavor. I also enjoyed the way the multisyllabic, vowel-packed names of the flavors rolled over my tongue: fragola, limone, ciliegia, frutti di bosco, cioccolato (strawberry, lemon, cherry, mixed berry, chocolate). My favorite was pistacchio, followed closely by vaniglia from a particular gelateria in Rome that was made with eggs and reminded me of frozen custard.

I quickly learned that the cone was superfluous - better to be replaced by an additional flavor of gelato. When it came to establishing some favorites, I ran two tests: first, trying as many flavors as I could to establish a favorite; second, when pistachio became an early front runner in the first category, trying the pale green gelato at every place I could to identify the best gelateria (the math nerd in me knew that I needed an apples to apples comparison, or in this case, a pistachio to pistachio comparison! BTW, the winners were pistachio and a gelateria near our hotel in Rome). There was definite variance in quality of the gelaterias. My brother's assessment (having been in Italy for several months already and done good damage at the gelaterias of Bologna) is that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the signage and the quality of the gelato. My empirical evidence supports this claim.

By my fourth week in Italy, it was clear that all of my enjoyment was starting to show - in a form that I began to fondly refer to as my 'gelato belly'. For perhaps the first time in my life, I didn't care in the least. I considered it a souvenir of the pleasure I consumed in the form of Italian food: pizza, pasta, and - of course - gelato.

My next test will be to see if I can find any that rival what I enjoyed in Italy more locally. If you happen to know of a good gelateria in the Bay Area, please send the details my way!


  1. The hazelnut was my favor. I would usually have a scoop of that with a scoop of limone which was my second favorite. I actually didn't try many others once I tried those, which, I think, were the first two I tried.

  2. Don't forget the overage, or the amount of air in the gelato. It's much denser than ice cream, with only half the amount of air incorporated during the freezing/churning process. I always thought that was the biggest distinction between gelato and ice cream, although I didn't know about the different levels of sugar content.


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