It's Not Just Ice Cream: Don't Forget to Try the Gelato

When it comes to consuming frozen dairy treats, you’ll find no shortage of opportunities throughout Italy.  Your journey is not complete without stopping to try the delicious and ubiquitous Italian ‘gelato’—which, according to a literal translation, can (and occasionally does) refer to anything ‘frozen’—but is generally recognized as that sweet creamy dairy treat that tastes a lot like ice cream, but is somehow not the same.

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So what is the difference between ice cream and gelato?  In an etymological sense, there isn't one. Gelato is essentially just Italy’s ‘take’ on ice cream.  Yet there is a big difference between what is generally acknowledged to be ice cream and what is generally acknowledged to be gelato.    

In fact, American labeling laws actually make it easier to understand the difference.  In the United States, anything labeled as ‘ice cream’ must contain no less than 10 percent fat.  Most ice creams actually have an even higher fat content—between 14 and 25 percent.  Gelato usually only contains between 4 and 9 percent fat[1].   This is because ice cream is made with a lot more cream, while gelato contains more milk.  Ice cream recipes typically include egg yolks as well—further contributing to the fat content—whereas many flavors of gelatos are absent of egg yolks[1].

Another difference between ice cream and gelato is the amount of air in each treat.  Ice cream is churned at a higher speed, which whips more air into the concoction[2] .  Gelato is churned at a slower speed, resulting in less air and a more dense texture.   This difference in texture relates to the third big difference between these two frozen treats: the temperature at which they are served.  Gelato is served at temperatures between 7 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit—about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the serving temperate for ice cream[1].  This allows gelato to have its soft and elastic consistency—despite its lack of air and fat content—that creates the characteristic drifts of creamy goodness that sit atop your cone—or ‘cono’—as they say in Italy!

In many shops, you’ll find big, beautiful free-standing mounds of gelato decorated with fruits, candies, and other toppings.  These are nice to look at, but the ability to build the gelato into a large mound indicates that it contains more air—and is therefore less authentic.  As a general rule, flatter gelato is better gelato, but there can be exceptions, so be sure to use your judgment and keep some other rules in mind when making your decision. 

Additional traits to look out for when identifying good gelato are color and garnishes.  Bright, unnatural colors, or too many toppings and sauces covering the gelato in the display case may indicate that the store is trying to disguise some sub-par ingredients.  Natural colors with little to no decoration are a good sign.  Some stores –like the Grom chain, for example—keep their gelato in bins with covers so that the gelato is not even visible.  They are confident enough in their product to not need to employ visual stimulation.

If you are looking to become a real gelato connoisseur, we would recommend reading Ex Urbe’s blog post on the topic, which goes into even further detail.  This blogger had some similar findings as we did, and gives some additional tips for finding the best gelato—especially if you are a fan of fruit-flavored gelato or sorbetto.

With all of these skills now under your belt for spotting good gelato—it’s time to go out there and find some!  Here are some places we have enjoyed during our travels to Florence and Rome:

  1. Perché no!...(Florence) – This establishment has been around since 1938 and was recommended to us by a Florence local.  Located conveniently between El Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, stop by Perché no!... for some fresh, homemade gelato made from natural ingredients.  If you have an allergy, they’ll be happy to point out what you are able to eat.  They have gluten-free, vegan and soy-based flavors, and even gluten free cones!
  2.  Hedera (Rome) – Hedera also takes pride in its homemade gelatos made from all-natural ingredients and free from additives.  Stop by here after a nice dinner in the Borgo area, or on your way to visit the Vatican.  Here you’ll also find egg-free, lactose-free, and gluten-free options, and gluten free cones.
  3. Gelateria della Passera (Florence)—Stop here on your way to the Pitti Palace for some of the freshest gelatos made from carefully selected ingredients.  Locals and visitors alike rave about this shop’s high quality, unique gelatos at unbeatable prices.  They have a variety of milk-free flavors, and if you are there in the summer, be sure to try one of their classic sorbets flavors—mojito. 
  4. Fior di Luna (Rome)—Located in Trastevere, Fior di Luna is serious about creating top-quality, natural gelatos with the freshest and highest-quality ingredients.  They are committed to making gelato in the “traditional style” before air, additives, and other kinds of “fluff” became so prevalent in gelato production.  Their gelato has such a low absorption of air that they actually do not offer cones.  Check out their website for more information on ingredients, ingredient-sourcing (often local), allergens, and their gelato-making philosophy.
  5. Grom (various locations) – Although Grom is a chain, their gelatos are high quality, and they are very transparent about the ingredients they use (check out their website to read more).  They are also friendly to people with food allergies and have a chart in their stores (and on their website) listing the allergens in each flavor.  If you are still unsure, just ask one of their servers.  For the gluten-intolerant or allergic, all of their flavors (and cones) are gluten free!




Blog post by Ex Urbe:


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