The sublime artisanal gelato, a frosty delicacy, has recently taken its place among Italian culinary gems like Ligurian pesto and Neapolitan pizza. This hasn’t always been the case.
Following World War II, industrial ice cream’s success threatened to extinguish small family-operated gelaterie. Just at the right moment, Audrey Hepburn’s character in the 1953 film Roman Holiday savored a cone from the esteemed Giolitti parlor on the Spanish Steps, amplifying global recognition of traditional gelato. Half a century afterward, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, spotlighted a small shop’s honey and hazelnut gelato, drawing worldwide travelers to Il Gelato di San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain.
Over the past decade, gelato has gained prestige as prominent chefs experiment with flavors like gorgonzola, single-origin cacao, and even anchovies. Despite approximately 39,000 gelato shops throughout Italy, a surprising number of visitors never experience authentic gelato. To guide you on this journey, we’ve curated some expert advice for savoring Italy’s best gelato.
Understanding the Gelato-Ice Cream Divide
Diletta Poggiali, a tutor at Carpigiani Gelato University, situated outside Bologna, sheds light on the difference between gelato and ice cream. Italian-style gelato contains a maximum of eight percent milk fat, compared to 15 percent in ice cream. Moreover, gelato, stored at -12°C, incorporates less air—no more than 30 percent—than industrial ice cream that is 80 percent air-inflated. This lower air content contributes to gelato’s denseness, delivering a more intense flavor in every spoonful.
Tasting gelato properly involves using a metal or plastic spoon to press a small scoop against your palate and letting it dissolve instead of chewing. This allows it to unveil its full flavor profile. As Poggiali explains, “Artisanal gelato is fleeting. It melts swiftly on your tongue, but the taste lingers.”
Spotting “Tourist Gelato”
Bright colors, the result of synthetic additives, are a warning sign: high-quality pistachio gelato should lean towards brown rather than vivid green, while authentic banana gelato is more greyish-white than yellow.
Another red flag is gelato heaped up in the display case, suggesting cheap vegetable fats’ presence. Authentic gelato, which should be consumed within 72 hours of making, melts if it overflows the container edges. The best gelaterie use insulated circular wells called pozzetti, which preserve gelato perfectly. If a gelateria offers out-of-season fruits—a peach sorbet in January, for instance—move along. An excellent artisanal gelato leaves you satiated, not thirsty.
Finding Authentic Gelato
Each year, culinary magazine Gambero Rosso identifies Italy’s best gelaterie. This year, 493 shops made the cut, with 64 earning the prestigious tre coni (three cone) rating. Some top-rated ones are Gelateria Dondoli in Tuscany’s San Gimignano and Bloom in Modena, Emilia-Romagna region. Discerning gelato lovers time their visits to Bloom for the brief period in spring when the region’s iconic cherries ripen, yielding the vignola moretta sorbet.
Additionally, regional differences are significant. Sicilians, home to Italy’s oldest tradition, prefer their gelato sweet and abundant with fresh and dried fruits. In contrast, Emilia-Romagna in the north is known for its egg yolk-infused gelato recipes.
Exploring Bologna: The Gelato Capital
The historic university city of Bologna houses some of Italy’s top-rated gelaterie, including Cremeria Scirocco. Its reputation for high culinary standards reduces the chances of falling for tourist gelato.
Luciana Polliotti, a food journalist and the city’s gelato museum curator, credits Bologna for gelato’s current stature. She states, “The first book with gelato recipes in Italian originated here. Its early automobile manufacturing industry led to a successful blend of engineering and culinary expertise, resulting in the invention of the modern gelato air incorporation machine.”
Located in the same building as Carpigiani Gelato University, the museum traces the history of frozen desserts, from Mesopotamian ice cellars to Arabic shrb (sorbet’s ancestor), to the first Parisian middle-class ice cream offering at Procope in 1686 by a Sicilian restaurateur. It showcases the 1946 prototype of the automatic gelato machine that laid Carpigiani company’s foundation, now a global purveyor of artisanal gelato machines.
Learning to Make Gelato
During a recent beginners’ class, instructor Luca Cappelletti taught eight students the essentials of blast-chilling and fat content measurement. After a museum tour, visitors can attend a half-day masterclass, where multilingual instructors unravel the art of freezing sugars, liquids, and fats to extract the quintessence of ripe fruits, full-fat cream, and wild berries. Classes conclude with a tasting session. Although cones are acceptable, cups are preferred for an unadulterated flavor experience.
“Gelato,” in Italian, simply means “frozen” and can pertain to American-style ice cream, soft-serve, and even sorbet, often referred to as “water-based gelato” at Carpigiani University. Gelato-making was historically a challenging task, involving constant low-temperature churning to prevent ice crystal formation. The invention of gas-cooled batch freezers and mechanical blades simulating manual scooping and scraping revolutionized the process.
Much like espresso, gelato-making requires the appropriate equipment and a touch of sprezzatura—a concept best translated as effortless mastery, reflecting the Italian spirit and allure.
Three of Bologna’s Top Gelaterie
Cremeria Santo Stefano: This chic, small, and highly frequented gelateria, a recipient of Gambero Rosso’s three-cone award, is renowned for its Cioccolato del Santo.
Stefino Gelato Biologico: Originally from Rome, owner Stefano Roccamo offers seasonal, completely organic flavors and caters to vegan and gluten-free needs at this top-rated gelateria.
Galliera 49: Located under the arches of one of Bologna’s famous portici (colonnades), this gelateria is celebrated for its superior granitas.
Taras Grescoe’s forthcoming book, The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past, will be published by Greystone in September 2023. For more of his food writing, visit Substack.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Italian gelato
What is the difference between gelato and ice cream?
Gelato has a lower milk fat content (up to 8%) compared to ice cream (up to 15%). Gelato is also denser, has less air incorporated, and is best served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream.
How can I spot authentic gelato?
Look for gelato with natural colors, as bright artificial colors may indicate lower quality. Authentic gelato should not be piled high in mounds but rather stored in metal containers. Additionally, gelato made with seasonal ingredients is a good sign of authenticity.
Where can I find the best gelato in Italy?
Some highly recommended gelaterie can be found in smaller cities like San Gimignano and Modena. Bologna, known as the capital of gelato, is also home to top-ranked gelaterie. Gambero Rosso’s annual selection is a great resource for finding the best gelato shops.
How can I learn to make gelato?
Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna offers courses for gelato-making. Visitors can attend master classes to learn the techniques and secrets behind creating delicious gelato. The university also has a gelato museum that provides insights into the history and evolution of gelato.
What is the meaning of “gelato” in Italy?
In Italy, “gelato” simply refers to frozen desserts, including American-style ice cream, soft-serve, and sorbet. Gelato is a specialty that requires specific equipment and expertise to achieve its unique texture and flavor.
More about Italian gelato
- The Best Gelato Shops in Italy – Gambero Rosso’s annual selection of the best gelato shops in Italy.
- Carpigiani Gelato University – Official website of Carpigiani Gelato University, offering gelato-making courses.
- Gelato Museum Carpigiani – Explore the Gelato Museum in Bologna to learn about the history and evolution of gelato.
- Authentic Italian Gelato vs. Ice Cream – A comparison between gelato and ice cream, highlighting the differences in ingredients and preparation methods.