The Scoop About Gelato
Gelato is a delicious Italian favorite. Many visitors don't realize that each region has its own distinctive style of the frozen treat. Faith Willinger gives us the scoop.
by Faith Willinger
Gelato. It’s the past participle of the Italian verb gelare, which means to freeze, and the world-famous confection, intensely flavored and gently frozen, is part of a family of Italian frozen desserts, such as granita and sorbetto, with a long history in the country's cuisine. Not to be confused with average ice cream, the dairy flavors in gelato, based on whole milk, aren’t overwhelmed with cream and are often enriched with egg yolks, chocolate, nuts, coffee, dried fruit or liquor. Fruit flavors are mostly water-based and non-fat. It’s difficult to imagine Italian summers without gelato, our edible air-conditioning, and it is practically the only food that Italians will eat in the ambulatory state on a public street.
In Italy, there are three distinct regional schools of gelato, each with varying degrees of richness based on climate, tradition and availability of ingredients. The Sicilian school is the oldest, born from sultry summers, and excels in fruit and nut flavors. Their granita is granular, made up of finely broken ice crystals on the western part of the island, and churned to slush on its eastern side. Their dairy-based gelato is lean, without egg yolks and, according to Sicilian food historian Mary Simeti, was originally made from sweetened milk thickened with carob flour or wheat starch. Sicilians make the greatest almond, hazelnut and pistachio flavors, and it makes sense that the Baroque Sicilian mindset would produce molded, layered, multi-flavor gelato combinations called schiumone or pezzi duri. Sicilians also split open round, eggy, lightly sweetened brioche rolls and slather them in gelato, resulting in what must have been the world’s first gelato panino.
In the northeastern reaches of the country, Veneto makes no historical claims to gelato, yet there is a tradition. It’s tied to Alpine snow and valleys with grazing cows that provide high-quality dairy products for the richest, most elegant style of gelato. Milk and cream are combined in dairy bases, and are even used in some fruit flavors. Traveling gelato makers from the Cadore and Val Zoldana areas spread the gospel far beyond regional borders during the second half of the 18th century. Veneto school proponents frequently shape their gelato into balls with a scoop; most everyone else uses a flat metal spatula.
The Tuscan school of gelato claims Bernardo Buontalenti as its founder in the 16th century, but what is now known as the Tuscan tradition only dates to the 1930s. It began with a handful of latteria shops that sold milk and sweetened whipped cream, and eventually began to make gelato using milk bases without cream, custard bases, and water-based fruit flavors.
Gelato’s history is complex. Technical manuals define gelato as a frozen dairy or custard-based blend, while frozen water-based fruit mixes are considered sorbetto. In gelaterie throughout Italy, though, the word gelato encompasses dairy, custard, fruit and even lurid imitation flavors. Most gelato is sold by the portion, to go, in small—by American standards—cups or cones. Granita, schiumone and pezzi duri also may be on the regional gelateria menu, especially those inspired by southern Italy. Gelato served at a table will be more expensive and may be garnished with decorative cookies or fruit salad, or even “drowned” with a shot of hot espresso or whiskey.
The Romans and Greeks chilled their wine with snow from the mountains, sipping lightly alcoholic snow cones. The Sicilians were probably the first to make sorbetto, by overfreezing sharbat, a slushy blend of snow and fruit juice that was served in the torrid Sicilian summers during 200 years of Arab rule. Sorbetto was icier and eaten with a spoon. Thus sharbat became sorbetto.
During the 16th century in Florence, Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was wild about sorbetto. His architect, Mannerist Bernardo Buontalenti, built the city’s first “ice caves” (check one out in the Boboli Gardens) and created complicated molded frozen confections with a special invention that churned over ice for the 1595 inauguration celebration of Forte di Belvedere. In 1660, Sicilian Procopio dei Coltelli moved to Paris and opened his café, introducing Parisians to what most people think of as “sorbet.”
Gelato-making is like baking, a careful balance of sugar, fat, solids and liquids calculated by weight. Ingredients are measured and mixed; dairy-based flavors are cooked, pasteurized, ripened to develop flavors, and then churned over a refrigerator unit. Perfect consistency, with the absence of fat, depends on a precise percentage of total sugar. Commercial producers use prepackaged stabilizer mixes or instant bases—just add liquid, mix and freeze as directed. Conscientious gelato artisans may use carob flour to achieve optimum texture. Gelato doesn’t travel well and is at its very best when freshly made, sold within hours of production.
All gelato made on-site in Italy is defined, by law, as artigianale (artisanal) or produzione propria (home-made), whether it’s made with fresh ingredients or mixes. I look for the very best gelaterie—I don’t want to waste any calories. The first sign of a serious gelateria is the pozzetti, or “little wells,” an under-the-counter storage system of stainless steel, lid-topped containers that maintain the ideal temperature around 5°. Sometimes quality gelato is stored in more conventional stainless steel tubs. Signs of subpar gelato are non-seasonal fruit flavors, dirty scoops, unnatural colors, too vast an assortment (more than 30), pre-printed plastic flavor signs with pictures, or gelato heaped and sculpted into mountains topped with a hunk of fruit or other ingredient indicative of its flavor.
The following gelaterie are, in the language of guide books, worth a journey. Or even a pilgrimage. More than one tasting a day may be necessary.
Four proponents of Sicilian granita and gelato—in the Baroque jewel of Noto, on the island of Salina, in the village of Cerda, and on the slopes of Mount Etna—never fail to thrill. They make and sell their frozen treats in a bar, as Sicilian tradition dictates. A fifth Sicilian transplanted to Florence has a shop with no bar, the exception to the rule due to its off-island location. All insisted that lemon granita, considered the test of a true granita artist, could be made only with Sicilian lemons. All offer the Sicilian breakfast of champions: coffee granita, served in a glass, topped with whipped cream, flanked by a brioche roll for scooping into the coffee and cream. Cappuccino fans combine coffee and almond milk granita, and proceed as above. Don’t tell Starbucks.
The Assenza family’s Caffè Sicilia is on the main drag in the center of Noto, an important Baroque city in the process of gentrification, with many buildings restored to their previous splendor. The front room in the old-fashioned bar has a glass display case of pastries next to the cash register, which is across from a counter where locals drink shots of espresso and a back room with tiny round tables and chairs for those who make lingering a profession. Brothers Carlo and Corrado, and Corrado’s son, Francesco, make pastry and gelato year round; granita is served in season, from the spring to the fall. Granita or gelato made with local almonds or pistachios from Bronte, on the slopes of Mt. Etna, are simply splendid. Gelato fans shouldn’t miss the Montezuma flavor, chocolate with cinnamon and candied orange peel, or the three-star nut flavors. Corrado has a menu of traditional and new wave molded pezzi duri, including “the salad that wasn’t,” a caper and olive gelato with an onion gelato center, as well as non-challenging nougat, citron and cinnamon-almond.
In the village of Lingua on the small Aeolian island of Salina, off Sicily’s northeastern coast, Alfredo Oliveri’s Bar Alfredo faces the sea from Piazza Marina Garibaldi. Look for small round tables, large white umbrellas and a jumble of chairs out front, and modern blue and white tiles inside with a counter in the back. The bar is open from Easter through late October, when Alfredo and his sons Angelo and Piero make a few classic gelato flavors such as chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio. But their specialty, one of the Aeolian Islands’ gastronomic heights, is granita, served in short-stemmed squat glasses tableside or plastic cups to go. Look for flavors made with strictly seasonal fruit from Salina (they fill in with produce from the rest of Sicily when necessary) like lemon, watermelon, fig, kiwi, cantaloupe, strawberry, peach or mulberry—but don’t expect to find them all on the same visit. Their almond granita is unusual, almost meaty, made with whole almonds and their skins.
Antonio Cappadonia’s gelateria is in the village of Cerda, famous for its spiny artichokes. Of course he makes Cerda artichoke gelato at his Gelateria Cappadonia—two distinct versions, one combining artichoke, lemon and orange, the other a savory “gastronomic gelato” of roasted artichokes, served on dark bread made with tumminia, a coarsely ground heirloom wheat, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. He makes another local gelato using manna (ash tree sap) as a sweetener. Fruit and nut gelato are true Sicilian: lean and full-flavored. Antonio is the mastermind behind the mid-September Sherbeth Festival in nearby Cefalu: four gelato-centric days with tastings from dozens of gelato makers from all over the world, as well as workshops, music, dancing and a fireworks finale.
Pasticceria Bar Russo, in Santa Venerina, on the slopes of Mt. Etna, is run by the third generation of the Russo family—Maria Nevia, Salvatore and Anna. It specializes in traditional sweets like molded quince paste, grape must cookies and anything made with almonds. The granita, made with seasonal fruit, almonds or pistachio, is superb and served at the counter in traditional stemmed glasses.
Proponents of the Veneto school have spread throughout Italy and beyond, possibly because their tradition was seasonal and mobile—winter months at home, warm weather making gelato elsewhere. My three favorites are in Verona, Rome and Florence.
Paolo di Pietro, one of Veneto’s finest gelato makers, closed his shop in Verona and retired to Brazil, lured by its luscious tropical fruit, but his children, Angela and Roberto, carry on at La Boutique del Gelato, which is not far from their father's old location outside the center of town. They meticulously search for the ripest fruit they can get their hands on, and as disciples of the Veneto school, use cream in dairy flavors and milk with some fruit flavors. Look for delicious classics like dark chocolate, smoky hazelnut and golden custard, and innovative flavors made with wines such as spumante, amarone, and fragolino, which tastes of strawberry and grape. Even winter flavors such as pink grapefruit, passion fruit, orange-ginger, pomegranate and roast chestnut are exciting.
Giuseppe and Pasquale Alongi are of Sicilian origin, but grew up in Alto Adige and make gelato in Rome. Their style is a mixture of the dairy-based Veneto school paired with a Sicilian propensity toward fruit and nuts. They’re positively obsessed about first-rate milk, cream, eggs and ripe fruit, and make each flavor from scratch, without utilizing homemade bases the way even most quality gelaterie do. It’s more work but the results are worthy. Their shop, Gelateria San Crispino, doesn’t have a huge selection of flavors but each is quintessential. Hazelnuts from Piedmont, Sicilian pistachios, the finest examples of liquors such as Marsala, Scotch or Calvados, and strawberry tree (corbezzolo) honey from a nature preserve in Sardinia for the signature San Crispino flavor. Giuseppe and Pasquale sell theirgelato in cups, not cones. “They’ve got artificial flavors and colors, so we don’t use them,” Giuseppe says.
La Sorbettiera opened in 2008 across from a park in the Oltrarno area of Florence, but the family of Antonio and Elisa Ciabbatoni’s gelato roots stretch to 1934 in Belluno, with moves to Germany and various Veneto locations. I’m pleased they’re in Florence now, serving mostly seasonal fruit flavors. “Parents beg me for strawberry [gelato] for their kids. But I won’t use mixes, so I get fresh berries from Spain. But it’s not the same as our fruit, which I use whenever I can,” Antonio says. He also serves an intense chocolate (75 percent) called catrame, or tar, and an egg yolk-rich old-fashioned custard, crema antica.
Did the multi-talented Tuscan Mannerist Bernardo Buontalenti dream up a device to churn Italy’s first sweetened milk and egg yolk-based frozen confection into gelato for his Medici patrons? When an important history of Florentine cooking was published in 1965 that mentioned Buontalenti’s unique gelato flavor created for Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici, some Tuscan gelato makers were inspired. They held an informal competition, using a base of milk, cream, egg yolks and sugar, and each artisan added an individual note such as liqueur or spice. No one could tell me if there was a winner, but the Buontalenti commemorative flavor lives on in the province of Florence. No two are alike, and every gelateria seems to have a special custard option, even if it’s not named for the architect. One Florentine gelato maker trademarked the name Buontalenti, but this technical legality hasn’t stopped anyone from making it. To avoid legal problems it’s often called Buon Talenti or crema antica.
Vivoli, the most historic gelateria in Florence, was founded in 1930 by Raffaello Vivoli as a dairy shop and neighborhood bar. On weekends he transformed excess milk into a few gelato flavors and made whipped cream, big treats at the time. It took until the early 1960s for his son Piero to make gelato an all-week occupation, extending and expanding production while still making all flavors from scratch. His daughter Silvana continues the family tradition, specializing in custard flavors including “white” egg yolk-free custard with candied citron, seasonal fruit I’ve watched her peel herself, chocolate with ginger, rice, which was inspired by her mother’s San Giuseppe fritters, and new-wave black sesame seed.
At Carabé, a bowl of lemons on the counter and a plaque of the three-legged Trinacria were big hints that I could satisfy my frequently unfilled desire for lemon granita without a trip to Sicily. Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on Sicily’s north coast, but couldn’t find the right location for their gelateria at home. (Antonio’s grandfather, also a gelataio, made gelato without refrigeration over snow.) I’m glad they chose Florence, because their nut flavors and lemon gelato are lovely, but their granita, of mostly seasonal fruit such as fig, cantaloupe, peach, mulberry, blackberry or lemon, or coffee granita with whipped cream or paired with almond milk granita, never fails to delight. Antonio also has created a gelato-lover’s paradise outside Florence, in Terranuova Bracciolini. There’s an orchard of heirloom fruit trees with 10 kinds of figs planted specifically for gelato in collaboration with the University of Florence, although the citrus is Sicilian. The modern hillside shop has huge windows, so the gelato and granita process can be watched, and explained, from start to finish. Antonio has plans to make natural fruit syrups to flavor seltzer water, and to add outdoor seating and umbrellas for those who want to admire the panorama, with Apennine calanchi, or badlands, in the distance.
Carapina, an innovative Florentine gelateria, is the name of the round stainless steel canister where gelato is kept under the counter—the storage system preferred by the most scrupulous gelato makers. And owner Simone Bonini is super-scrupulous. He’s a born-again gelataio who left a career as a lighting designer. A disciple of none of the traditional gelato schools, he brings a gastronomically hip, decidedly savory perspective to his craft. After attending Carpigiani Gelato University, he spent five months trying to ignore most of what he’d learned, and experimented in his laboratory—his friends tasted it all. He opened Carapina in 2008, and a second smaller, but more central, location in 2010. Simone is obsessive about seasons and high-quality milk. Look for unusual flavors like persimmon, tomato, totally intense non-dairy chocolate called neroassoluto, deceptively pale “lost coffee” (coffee beans soaked overnight in milk), cocktail-inspired daiquiri or orange campari sorbetto, and even cheese flavored (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola or mozzarella) gelato.
I would be remiss not to mention that many new-wave restaurants make gelato in unusual sweet or savory flavors—cheese, foie gras, vegetable, even anchovy—using the Pacojet, a high-tech machine that shaves super-thin layers of frozen mixtures, creating what’s called gelato or sorbetto on menus. It’s convenient, and gelato can be made by the portion. But it’s not churned as traditional gelato is, so it’s not for purists like me.
Piazza Marina Garibaldi 5, Lingua, Salina; tel. 090-984-3075; open Easter to November.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele 125, Noto; tel. 0931-835-013; closed Monday, November, mid January-March.
Via Roma 153, Cerda; tel. 091-899-1681; closed Monday except in August.
Pasticceria Bar Russo
Via Vittorio Emanuele 105, Santa Venerina; tel. 095-953-202; closed Tuesday.
Gelateria San Crispino
Via Panetteria 42, Rome; tel. 06-679-3924; closed Tuesday.
La Boutique del Gelato
Via Carlo Ederle 13, Verona; tel. 349-431-7700; closed Monday.
Piazza T. Tasso 11/r, Florence; tel. 055-512-0336; closed Wednesday.
Via Ricasoli 60/r, Florence; tel. 055-289-476; Piazza S. Jacopina 9/R 64, open daily.
Piazza Oberdon; Florence, tel. 055-676-930; Via Lambertesca 18/r, Florence; tel. 055-291-128; closed Monday.
Via dell’Isola delle Stinche 7/r, Florence; tel. 055-292-334; closed Monday.
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