Gelato is one of Italy’s great gifts to the world, and once you have tasted authentic Italian gelato, you understand why this is true. Italians consider gelato to be their ice cream, but it really is quite different from American ice cream in many ways, and when you are in Italy, you simply cannot leave there without sampling this refreshing sweet almost-frozen dessert.
Forget sampling~I made it an almost daily ritual! Strolling the streets with a gelato in hand has certainly become part of the Italian lifestyle of today, with different regions claiming to have the best gelato in Italy.
Gelato dates back to the 16th century, and it is not really clear who should receive the credit. Two Florentine men, Giuseppe Ruggieri and Bernardo Buontalenti were the first to create this sweet treat for the Caterina de Medici family, but a Sicilian, named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli is the one credited with being the first to sell gelato to the public. In 1686 he opened a café in Paris, which still exists today and is the oldest restaurant in Paris.
Gelato differs from American ice cream in four distinct categories: fat content, texture, taste and ingredients.
- Fat content – Gelato is made with approximately half the butterfat used in American ice cream. Most gelato has between four and eight percent butterfat compared with 10-18 percent in ice cream. In fact the FDA sets standards of a minimum of 10 percent fat for a product to be labeled ice cream.
- Texture – Gelato is softer than ice cream because it is only partially frozen and is served that way. It is intended to be eaten on the same day it was made in most cases. Certain types of freezers, known as “forced-air freezers,” prevent the gelato from becoming completely frozen, helping to maintain its softer consistency.
- Taste – The taste is more pure, partly due to the decreased percent of air in gelato compared with ice cream. A stronger taste is realized particularly in the sorbetti, which are made without milk, using water in its place. Sorbetto or non-dairy gelato originated in southern Italy and is particularly popular in Sicily. The less sugar used produces a grainier texture and also a more intense flavor.
- Ingredients – Gelato is made using pure fresh ingredients including whole milk, sugar, flavorings, especially fresh fruit. Occasionally there are eggs and cream in gelato, but not always.
Regional gelato specialties
- In Sicily, you can have gelato in a brioche, and some Sicilians love this for breakfast. The first time I saw this was in Cefalu and I thought it was gelato in a hamburger bun. It has become quite popular and is available in mainland Italy now also.
- Rome’s Tre Scalini, in Piazza Navona in Rome, lays claim to its specialty tartufo, which means truffle. It is not truffle-flavored gelato, but rather a dessert made of deep chocolate gelato and topped with whipped cream, shaped like a little cake. They have been serving this sweet treat since 1946. I must admit I have not had this yet, but you can be sure that it is on my list.
- Pistachio gelato at the Riposto Marina in Sicily is said to be the best anywhere because the pistachios are from Bronte. I tried it and in my opinion, it totally was. Riposto is approximately 15km south of Taormina.
Gelato is served in a cup or a cone and of course the brioche. Frequently in Italy you can choose several flavors (gusti) for one cup or cone. The prices are almost always clearly marked for the various selections, and in most gelaterie or bars serving gelato, you pay first, telling the cashier what you are ordering and then take the receipt to the person serving the gelato. You then tell this person what flavors you want, and they happily provide you with your gelato.
Gelato is available in an endless number of flavors, limited only by the inventiveness and creativity of the gelato maker. Some of the more popular flavors include stracciatella (chocolate chip), nocciola (hazelnut), amarena (black cherry), tiramisu, cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate), pistachio and Sicilian cassata cake. I have tried them all and it is hard to say which is the best. I only know that I am smiling as I am walking down the streets in Italy with a gelato.