It's a quintessential Italy travel photo: a hand holding a cone of gelato. Italy is famous for its gelato, but not all gelato is created equal. In this week's blog we explain what to look for when scoping out gelato (and what to avoid) so that the flavors in your cone live up to your photo.
Gelato vs. Ice Cream
Gelato is churned at a slower speed than ice cream. This lets less air into the mixture and creates a denser texture and more intense flavors. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream.
There's no shortage of gelato shops (gelaterie) and bars and cafes selling gelato in Italy. Many of them will claim that they serve "gelato artigianale (artisanal gelato)." This term is unregulated in Italy and has no real meaning when describing gelato. So, what should a visitor in Italy look for when picking out gelato?
Out of Sight
When you look into a gelateria and don't actually see the gelato, that's usually a good sign. Do you see flat metal tins? Good! Do they have lids on them? Even better!
If the gelato is in plastic tubs, you can be sure that it's not of good quality. Metal is better, though places that serve lower-quality gelato are catching on and are switching to metal, so this alone does not always guarantee quality.
A lid on the metal container keeps the gelato completely hidden but says a lot about what's inside. It means that the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperature.
The denser texture of gelato compared to that of ice cream means that flat, metal spades are better tools than curved ice cream scoops, so take a look at how the ice cream is being served.
Flat, Dull and Brown
High quality gelato is made with all-natural, seasonal ingredients and little to no artificial coloring. Because of this the colors will not be vibrant, but rather dull. For example, pistacchio should never be bright green like you might imagine, but brownish.
My go-to combo, pistacchio and hazelnut, from two of my favorite gelaterie in Florence.
For berry flavors, look for deep, muted reds rather than shocking pink, and lemon should be white rather than yellow.
If the gelato is shiny it means there's too much added sugar or that it's oxidized and therefore old.
Even if the gelato is not covered with a lid, it should not go beyond the height of the container that it's in. Tall, fluffy gelato that does not melt and just looks pretty is filled with air and loaded with vegetable fats and emulsifiers.
Vibrant, fluffy gelato spotted on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence
Fewer Choices and Fewer Ingredients
A good gelateria will have a smaller list of flavor options, using only what is fresh and in season. If you find berry flavors on the list that are not in season (did you see the berries at the local market?), that's not a good sign. Tourist favorites such as cookies and cream and bright blue bubblegum (often called "puffo," which means smurf), and the exact same labeling and flavors in several shops are a dead giveaway that the gelato is mass-produced: made and delivered in bulk or created in the shop from a mix.
All Italian gelaterie are required to display their ingredients. Take a look at the list. Is it long? Do you see ingredients like vegetable oil (olio vegetale) or artificial colors and flavors (usually shown as a number and letter code)? Was the list hidden or did you have to ask for it? These are all bad signs.
A good gelateria does not have to show off. Yes, there will be a sign that says Gelato, or even Gelato Artigianale, but there probably won't be a huge ice cream sculpture or cardboard cutout of an ice cream cone. If you peer through the window into the gelato case you won't see mountains of fluffy, bright colors. You might only see uniform metal lids and handwritten signs.
Good (and great) gelaterie build their reputations over time and their customers seek them out and return for their freshness and quality.
The counter at a gelateria in my neighborhood in Turin
Have you had an amazing gelato experience in Italy? Share it (along with your photos) in the comments below.