Artisanal gelato, that quintessential frozen treat, has lately joined the ranks of Ligurian pesto and Neapolitan pizza as an Italian cultural treasure. It wasn’t always that way.
After World War II, the success of industrially made ice cream came close to wiping out small family-run gelaterie. Just in time, Audrey Hepburn’s character in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday was shown savoring a cone from the venerable parlor Giolitti on the Spanish Steps, boosting the profile of traditional gelato globally. Half a century later, Elizabeth Gilbert raved about a cup of honey and hazelnut gelato from a small shop in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, attracting international pilgrims to Il Gelato di San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain.
In the last decade, gelato’s profile has been elevated as top chefs experiment with gorgonzola, single-origin cacao, and even anchovies. (Rome now has a “gelato bistro,” Gelato D’Essai, where chef Geppy Sferra pairs each course with a different scoop.) With an estimated 39,000 gelato shops to choose from, though, few travelers in Italy ever get to taste the real stuff. Here are some expert tips on how to enjoy a scoop of some of the nation’s best gelato.
The difference between gelato and ice cream
“There’s a maximum of eight percent milk fat in Italian-style gelato,” explains Diletta Poggiali, an instructor at the Carpigiani Gelato University, outside of Bologna. “You’ll find up to 15 percent in ice cream,” she says. Ice cream is stored in freezers at -18°C while gelato is best served at -12°C. Because gelato incorporates less air—the upper limit is 30 percent, compared to 80 percent in air-pumped industrial ice cream—it is also denser, packing more intensity of flavor into each scoop.
To taste a gelato, Poggiali recommends using a metal or plastic spoon to mash a small scoop against your palate; rather than chewing, just let it dissolve, so it can fully reveal its essence. “An artisanal gelato is evanescent. It melts quickly on your tongue, but the flavor is persistent.”
Beware “gelato turistico”
Bright colors, conferred by artificial additives, are one giveaway: A gelato made with high-quality pistachios shouldn’t be bright green, but on the brown side, while a real banana gelato is greyish-white, rather than yellow.
Another tip-off is when you see gelato piled up in mounds in the display case. This could indicate the presence of cheap vegetable fats; a properly made gelato will melt if it overflows the rims of the metal containers. The best shops use chilled circular wells known as pozzetti, whose lids perfectly conserve the gelato, which should always be eaten within 72 hours of production. If a gelateria is serving fruits out of season—a peach sorbet in January, for example—then keep on walking.
Many people need a glass of water after eating cheaply made ice cream; a good artisanal gelato won’t leave you thirsty, only satisfied.
How to find the best gelato
Every year the culinary magazine Gambero Rosso scours Italy to select the country’s best gelaterie. This year, 493 shops were singled out, of which 64 were awarded the coveted tre coni (three cone) ranking.
Some of the best are in smaller cities, among them Gelateria Dondoli in Tuscany’s San Gimignano, and Bloom in Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region. (Rome and Florence are oversupplied with overpriced gelato shops, particularly in their highly touristed historic centers, and Venice almost never makes Gambero Rosso’s three-cone list.) In-the-know gelato lovers make special springtime pilgrimages to Bloom for a taste of vignola moretta sorbet, which is available for only two weeks, when the region’s signature cherries are at their ripest.
Be aware, too, of regional variations. Sicilians, who can lay claim to Italy’s oldest tradition, prefer their gelato sweet and loaded with fresh and dried fruits, while Emilia-Romagna in the north is famous for incorporating egg yolks into gelato recipes.
Visit Italy’s capital of gelato
The medieval university city of Bologna is home to a trio of Italy’s top-ranked gelaterie, among them the Cremeria Scirocco. The city’s reputation for high gastronomic standards means there’s less of a chance of being tricked into shelling out for a gelato turistico.
“Gelato is what it is today because of Bologna,” says Luciana Polliotti, a food journalist who is also the curator of the city’s gelato museum. “The first book with gelato recipes in Italian was written in Bologna. It was also a center of early automobile manufacturing, which made for a miraculous marriage between engineering skill and culinary talent. The machine that introduces exactly the right amount of air into modern gelato was invented here.”
The museum, located in the same building as the Carpigiani Gelato University, tells the story of frozen desserts, from Mesopotamian nakkamtum (ice cellars), through Arabic shrb, the ancestor of sorbet, to the 1686 opening of Paris’s Procope by a Sicilian restaurateur, the first to offer ice cream to the middle classes. It also displays the 1946 prototype for the automatic gelato machine that built the fortunes of the Carpigiani company, which today retails handmade gelato machines in a hundred countries.
Take a crash course in gelato-making
During a recent weeklong beginners’ class, instructor Luca Cappelletti explained the basics of blast-chilling and measuring fat content to eight students. One, a Ukrainian woman accompanied by an interpreter, said she planned to open a gelato shop in her hometown when the fighting in Kyiv was over.
After a guided tour of the museum, visitors can attend a half-day master class. Instructors—who must be fluent in at least three languages—reveal how freezing sugars, liquids, and fats can extract the essence from ripe fruits, full-fat cream, and wild-harvested berries. All classes are followed by a tasting. While cones are tolerated, they can interfere with the flavor, so connoisseurs prefer theirs to be served in a cup. (Ask for una coppetta, except in Bologna, where it is known as una cestina.)
Discover the real meaning of gelato
“Gelato” simply means frozen; for Italians, the word can refer to American-style ice cream, soft-serve (which became popular in the 1960s), and even sorbet, which instructors at Carpigiani University refer to as “water-based gelato.” As the giant hand-cranked machines from the 19th century on display at the museum demonstrate, making gelato was never easy.
Constant churning, at low temperatures, is required to prevent ice crystals from forming; the invention of the gas-cooled batch freezer, combined with mechanical blades that simulated the process of scooping-and-scraping by hand, streamlined the process. (Cooks who want to make cold desserts at home can start by trying out a partially frozen dessert, such as a granita or a semifreddo.)
Like espresso, gelato is a specialty that calls for the right equipment, not to mention a dollop of sprezzatura (a word best translated as “make-it-look-easy know-how”). After all, that’s part of the Italian genius and charm.
3 top-rated gelaterie in Bologna
Stefino Gelato Biologico: Originally from Rome, owner Stefano Roccamo specializes in seasonal, all-organic flavors, and offers vegan and gluten-free options at this top-rated gelateria.
Galliera 49: Beneath the arches of one of Bologna’s famous portici (colonnades), this gelateria is famous for having the city’s best granitas.