At Travels with Audrey we are passionate about Italian food, from cooking classes and food tours, to sharing with you what to eat in different regions of Italy and of course how to find quality gelato in Italy. Italians are masters of food, they are very particular in the way things are done. Just because you’re eating gelato in Italy doesn’t automatically mean it’s authentic or even any good. That said, Italy still abounds with artisans who serve up fresh, handmade, all-natural gelato daily. Did you even know there was such a thing as bad gelato? To save you from a disappointing experience, here are tips on how to spot top quality gelato and how to know when to not indulge.
What is gelato?
For starters, ‘gelato’ is not the Italian word for ‘ice cream’. To create authentic Italian gelato, artisans use much less fat in the mixture compared to ice cream, and churn it at a slower speed so that less air gets mixed in. This contributes to a denser texture and more intense flavours than fluffy, whipped ice cream. Gelato is also served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, allowing the flavours to shine through.
Italian gelato recipes contain less fat content when compared to regular ice creams. With whole milk and sugar as the key ingredients, an Italian gelato ranks a lot higher in terms of taste and texture. Most standard gelato recipes do not include egg and cream. They are served semi-frozen and are best consumed on the same day as they are made.
Non-dairy gelato is known as Sorbetto and is made up of fruits and water. Gelato is available in a myriad of flavors. The chocolate or ‘Cioccolato’ is the most preferred flavor and comes with endless variations from dark chocolate to a chocolate-hazelnut combination. Gelato is not something only tourists indulge in each summer, it’s something real Italians eat on a regular basis. Gelato is an inexpensive treat, and you’ll often see locals enjoying a cone during their evening passeggiata.
If you want to experience some of the best gelato in Italy, you need to know where to go. Don’t worry: Here are my top tips on how:
The first step to finding top-quality gelato is where many tourists fall victim. Any gelato you’re eating should not be piled up so high that it resembles a mountain. It also shouldn’t be decorated with ingredients that indicate the flavor. This gelato that is piled high in the display case has likely been whipped, contains vegetable fats and emulsifiers (in order to add more air to the product) whereas artisan gelato is slow-churned and should be stored in covered, circular containers. Rome food journalist and author Katie Parla adds that the whipped-up mountains might be unsafe as well as lacking in flavour. “Gelato overflowing its bin carries the defect of being above the legal service temperature, creating food safety risks,” she warns. Of course these mounds look pretty, are eye-catching and even instaworthy, but keep on moving until you find the right gelateria.
Look for flat metal tins, which may have lids on them. Plastic tubs are a definite no, but metal tubs don’t always guarantee quality on their own. Lids are always a good sign, as it shows the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperatures – and that the gelateria is respected enough that it doesn’t need to draw in customers with bright colours and fancy decorations. The denser texture of gelato as compared to ice cream also 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.
2. Pay attention to color
A quality gelato will never have very vibrant colours, but natural ones. For example, pistacchio should never be green like you might think, but brownish. For berry colours, look for deep, muted reds rather than shocking pink, and lemon should be white rather than yellowy. Banana is one of the best flavors for this test. It should be grey, not bright yellow.
While certain fruits, like bananas, lemons, and other citrus can be had year-round, often the fruit flavors available in a gelateria are a good indicator of whether the gelato-maker is using fresh, local ingredients. The fruit flavors in the store should match what would be available at the farmer’s markets. A peach-flavored gelato in July is fine, peach in January, not so much.
Seasonal fruit flavours are a good sign, and any quality gelateria will serve fior di panna/latte, the basic ‘plain’ flavour of pure milk or cream (not vanilla). These simple flavours should be served without embellishment like sauces or chocolate chips. Most gelaterias offer free tasting spoonfuls (and if they don’t, get out!) so try the fior di panna – if it’s bland or covered up with added flavours, it’s a sign that the other flavours won’t be up to snuff either.
In true artisanal gelato shops the ingredients shouldn’t be a secret. If a list of ingredients isn’t already posted somewhere, the staff should be more than happy to provide that information. Gelato artisans take great care in choosing their ingredients and are proud to display them. Ingredients are often referred to with an echo of vintners discussing terroir (pistachios from Sicily; gianduiotto from Piedmont) and this applies also to ingredients for cooking.
5. Where to buy gelato
You’ll want to look for signs proclaiming gelato fatto in casa (homemade-it’s against Italian law to post a sign saying fatt0 in casa unless that is the case), produzione propia (our own production), or artigianale (artisan). However, Italy doesn’t regulate how these terms are used, so it can be tough for the uninitiated tourist to distinguish between the truly good stuff and the cheap imitations.
Unfortunately for many travelers, most of the very best gelaterias in Italy go undiscovered by visitors as they are found off the beaten path or in smaller towns, run by artisans who have dedicated their lives to the art of gelato making. At most of these places, English is not spoken. Although most people working in the service industry in Italy know some basic English words that apply to their business, it’s a good idea for you to learn some vocabulary in Italian so you can order with confidence.
History of gelato
The early skills of making gelato began in Italy in the mid-15th century. In Florence, the Medici family, in a quest to find the greatest frozen dessert set up a competition that was open to all residents. Ruggeri, a local chicken farmer and aspiring cook, made something similar to sorbet. It then became common practice for snow to be compacted and stored underground in order for it to be flavoured with fruit and sold in the summer months to those who could afford it. In the latter part of the 15th century, the Medici family commissioned Bernardo Buontalenti, a famous artist and architect, to prepare a feast for the impending visit of the King of Spain. Using all his artistic and culinary skills he presented the King with a creamy, frozen dessert which was the first gelato.
Although Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with inventing gelato, it was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a restaurant owner from Sicily, who made it famous throughout Europe. Francesco moved from Palermo to Paris where he opened a café where he refined the making of gelato and started making new flavours and serving it in different ways. The café, The Procope, became hugely successful and the popularity of gelato spread throughout France and into other parts of Europe.
This tip is based less on how to find a quality gelato, but more on common sense. Clued-in visitors to Italy know that it’s generally best to avoid the tourist trap restaurants with chequered tablecloths, long menus in many languages, and a charming waiter beckoning in customers from the street.
Apply the same logic to gelaterias: often, the very best won’t need to do a huge job to look inviting, because if the gelato’s good enough, word will spread. That means a huge sculpture or cardboard cut-out of an ice cream cone could be a red flag, and if there are dozens of flavours on offer, they’re unlikely to all be premium quality.
Still not sure you can track down the best gelato on your own? Here are a few that we recommend:
- Rome: Gelateria del Teatro, Fatamorgana, Gelateria dei Gracchi, and Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, Gelateria I Caruso, Ciampini and in Trastevere you should visit Fiordiluna.
- Florence: Gelateria dei Neri, Perche No, Carapina, Vivoli, Carabe, Festival del Gelato.
- Venice: La Mela Verde, Gelato di Natura, Venchi, Gelateria il Doge, Gelateria Nico, Bacaro del Gelato, Gelatoteca Suso, Gelateria Alaska.
- Just some other ones across Italy as there are too many on my list of favorites to mention: Il Massimo del Gelato (Milan), Riva Reno (across Italy), Alberto Marchetti and Caffe Fiorio (Turin), La Boutique del Gelato (Verona), Gelateria di Piazza (San Gimignano), Otranto (Naples), La Sorbetteria Castiglione (Bologna), Gelateria Buonocore (Capri), Gelateria Brustolon (Vicenza), Oggi Officina Gelato Gusto Italiano (Udine).
Audrey offers small group and private guided tours to the lesser-known areas of Italy. Visit our cultural vacations to northern Italy options to see where you can join Audrey and gain insider access to the Italian way of life.