Gelato in Florence with Faith
Chef and author Faith Willinger moved to Florence more than 25 years ago. Since then she has been traveling back-roads of Italy in seach of artisans making the best food, wine, and goods. She writes about these people and their products. Among her cookbooks is the best selling guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White, and Greens, and the recipe and travel compilation, Adventures of An Italian Food Lover. Here she reports on the Florence Gelato Festival.
by Faith Willinger
What could better for a gelato freak like me than a festival practically outside my front door, five days of gelato-centric events held throughout Florence? And I was invited to be a judge in a competition for apprentice gelato-makers. Of course I said yes.
I began my festival experience with Gelato Culture and breezed through the Fabbri “Prize for Art” exhibition—artists created works symbolically interpreting Fabbri amarena candied sour cherries or its distinctly blue and white patterned ceramic jar. Not my favorite. Then through the Alinari gift shop (tempting) to a preview of the Carpigiani Gelato Museum (it’s going to open in July in Anzola Emilia), the world’s first museum focused on gelato history, culture, and technology. I can’t wait to go. There were a few rooms with exhibits about the history of gelato in Florence, with photos, images, utensils, even a churn donated by Vivoli, one of the first gelaterie in the city. I enjoyed a roomful of photographs of people eating gelato from the Alinari archives, some dating from the 1920s. Most fascinating was the news of a competition sponsored by the Bruto and Poerio Carpigiani Foundation to design an evolution of the gelato cone. Time for a new look after more than 100 years—the cone was created and patented in Washington, D.C. in 1903 by a gelato maker from Veneto. The competition is open to students and recent graduates in engineering, architecture, arts, and design. Check out the website to enter. London designer Tom Dixon will choose the most creative entry, and the president of Babbi, a company that specializes in cones and wafer cookies, the most practical, and winners will get a scholarship worth 2,500 Euros.
There was time for a slow walk around Piazza Santa Maria Novella (church façade absolutely amazing!) for a preview tasting of master gelato makers’ and apprentices’ gelato from their stands. I got an adorable Festival-logoed tote bag decorated with gelato spoons. And tasted by the spoonful, since I had a press pass, Canadian James Coleridge’s pecan maple syrup gelato, Toni Cafarelli’s olive oil gelato (Il Re Gelato, Florence), and Silvana Vivoli’s white peach and ginger sorbet garnished with lemon “caviar” (tiny crunchy spheres of lemon juice) . Gelato historian Luciana Polliotti (below, on the left) had a book signing at the Edison Bookstore for 100 Years of Artisanal Gelato and I went, impressed by her knowledge and a sample of strawberry sorbetto (historical recipe), churned in Carpigiani’s Freeze & Go, a compact machine that makes around a pint of gelato in 5 minutes. I was astonished.
The gelato competition was scheduled for 10 AM. Judges donned plastic aprons and Carpigiani Gelato University baseball caps and toured the kitchen. I got to keep the cap. The jury head, Roberto Lobrano, instructor at the Carpigani Gelato University, handed us a page of instructions and explained how to taste and the parameters for scoring—color, true flavor, correct sweetness, creaminess, depth of flavor, melting speed. He gave us three pages for our gelato scores, which is how I learned we were going to taste gelato from all 25 artisans, both apprentices and masters. We began with the apprentices, with Tuscan transplant from Israel Yaniv Albergel’s Malawi-Mapango caffè, which was phenomenal. I gave it high scores but worried that if the next tastes were even better I’d have to adjust my points. But only two other apprentices came close—Brazilian Marzia Maria Garbin (Gelato Boutique, San Paolo) with Ammapassione, a blend of Bahia chocolate with passion fruit and cocoa nibs, and Laura de Angelis, with Elisir, almond milk (made with organic Sicilian almonds), cardamom, and anise. Bread and chocolate is a classic combo, but gluey bread gelato studded with bittersweet chocolate didn’t work. We turned in our score sheets and started with the masters. We tasted James Coleridge’s pecan, maple syrup, and Maldon salt, simply delicious. Dolcevita was a white base variegated with white and pink chocolate and hazelnuts that one judge defined as very “Hello Kitty.” Saffron gelato was unpleasantly medicinal; Summer Symphony, a citrus blend, was excessively orange-colored and tasted like Fanta. I loved the smoky dried chestnut (Slow Food Presidium from Paolo Riolfo (Gelateria Pinotto, Calizzano), the buffalo milk ricotta and walnut from Domenico del Monte (Gelateria L’Ancora, S. Maria di Castellabate), and Elisir, the almond milk, cardamom, and anise flavor from Laura de Angelis (L’Artigiana, Milano), and so did the jury, but they weren’t as impressed as I was with Vincenzo Pace’s (Il Pinguino, Torino) super-bitter sorbetto (all Venezuelan Criollo chocolate). We turned in our scores and waited for the results. And the winners were…in the Apprentice category, Yaniv Albergel and his caffè, with a special mention for Laura De Angelis’s Elisir. The Gelato Master category went to James Coleridge’s maple pecan, with a special mention to Paolo Riolfo’s chestnut and Ivan Ridolfi’s ski-lodge snowflake, a pure-as-snow white gelato appreciated for its simplicity but topped with spectacular wild berry compote (made by his mother) that was remarkable.
I sat in on “Gelato Maker for a Day,” a crash course in gelato preparation, with instructors from the Carpigiani Gelato University, and learned about balancing sugar and fat, solids and liquids. Am I interested in a University degree? Maybe.
I visited the Gelato Shop, selling ingredients for flavoring gelato like nuts and nut pastes—Bronte pistachio, Piedmont hazelnut, Sicilian almond, single-origin coffee, Domori chocolate, Agrimontana fruit preserves (perfect to top gelato or flavor it).
I walked past the Sammontana Village, sponsored by one of Italy’s largest industrial gelato producers. They offered their cups, cones, and sticks, with puppet shows for kids and a flavor created especially for the event, almond gelato with Sicilian orange flower and ricotta, swirled with fig preserves, topped with Sicilian almonds. I saved my calories for the artisans. I also skipped the gelato cocktail (alcoholic and non) bar—lines were way too long.
Sammontana sponsored the lighting renovation of the Buontalenti Grotto in the Boboli Gardens. Bernardo Buontalenti was a Mannerist architect, artist, and set designer employed by the Medici. He redid Vasari’s grotto as a rustic 3-room cave complete with drippy stalactites, four of Michelangelo’s (unfinished) Prisioners emerging from the stone walls, Poccetti’s painted ceiling, and a spectacular, busy façade that includes the Medici coat of arms. But most importantly, for the Festival and Sammontana, Buontalenti is credited with inventing churned, dairy-based gelato. Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the newly illuminated grotto.
Fellow gelato obsessives should plan to visit the Festival next year.
Photographs by Faith Willinger
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