Italian Gelato

One Day I Walked Into An Italian Gelateria

by Nancy Hartman


Italian Gelato


In Italy one of my goals was to discover gelato.  I have tried gelato in the states but have never been fond of the texture.  I have found it to be, very airy almost like eating flavored dry snow in cream.  My idea was to sample gelato as often as possible to see if we had it right back in the states.

My first dinner out in Rome, I ordered gelato mista (mixed gelato) for desert.  I received a bowl of vanilla and pistachio gelato and a nice silver spoon.

The spoon slid into the muted mossy green frozen concoction in front of me and I slowly raised it to my tongue, rolled the spoon over and closed my mouth.  My eyes widened as a pushed the gelato into the spoon melting it with my tongue – it was good – No it was great!  

Wait – sliding the spoon out slowly I felt a few hard bits that had not melted and then caught the taste of the fresh pistachio as I slowly bit down.  OMG, it is fabulous, not airy but dense creamy and flavorful. 


So why is Italian Gelato so different than at home?

Italian GelatoWe have a few problems in the United States when we try to reproduce Gelato.  One is the recipe and the second is production methods.  Gelato made in the U.S. has been “played” with in order to Americanize it, by adding cream and other chemicals to the mix which allows it to be stored for a longer period of time.  Then we mass produce it and apply America’s cold process (how ice cream is made) which results in larger ice crystals in the gelato.  Next, gelato made by U.S. Manufacturers use American equipment which can put too much air into the gelato foaming it up and diluting the rich flavors, taking the taste away.  In the U.S. commercially produced gelato is frozen in mass similar to Ice cream in an assembly line freezer.  This results in the airy texture that I mentioned above.

In Italy the Italian Gelato is made with a non-fat milk, water, and/or soy bases in small batches using the traditional hot method which includes pasteurization.  The hot mix is then cooled for several hours in order for the milk proteins to bind with the water in the mix.  This aging process results in smaller more delicate ice crystals which give gelato its smooth flavorful texture.  Next the gelato is frozen quickly in a batch freezer.  Authentic Italian gelato only holds its delicate texture and exciting flavor for a few days so it is made fresh at the geleteria several times a week.

Gelato is actually better for you than ice cream.  Gelato, on an average, has less butterfat, around 4%, where ice cream comes in at around 14% butterfat.  So be sure to sample many kinds of gelato while in Italy.

So what is the story behind Italian Gelato?

Though the Italians were not the first to enjoy frozen desert they were the ones that seemed to have perfectedItalian Gelato the frozen delights.  In 1565, Bernardo Buontalenti, a famous architect, painter and sculptor, who also loved to cook, made a frozen desert from zabaglione (Pronounced zah-buhl-yoh-nee), an Italian dessert made from a foamy, custard-like mixture of sugar, egg yolks, Marsala wine, fruit, and ice.  Buontalenti was invited by the Medici family to organize an extravagant banquet where he introduced his invention.  After gelatos debut at the banquet it became popular with Italian nobles, and a desert that only royalty could afford.


Today gelato is readily available for everyone – but buyers beware!

While in Italy, I also learned that mass production has invaded the empire of artisan gelato makers.  Found mainly near tourist attractions are bright vivid-colored gelato flavors. These are not handmade artisan gelatos.  Do not be blinded by the bright colors, for these are the chemicals and artificial flavors similar to what we find in American gelatos.

When searching for an authentic gelato experience, look for the subdued earthy-colored gelatos.  These are the true flavors of Italy that you want to experience.  The dulled and boring looking gelatos are handmade, fresh, and contain all natural ingredients and flavors (real fruits and nuts).  There are no chemicals preserving them.  So walk away from the bling in the corner store and find the hidden gems of Italian gelatos.


Italian Gelato


Your choices are varied and it may be difficult to figure out what the Italian name is displayed above the gelato – so here is a key to help you choose your favorite flavor:


The Chocolate Lovers Choices:

  • cioccolato fondente – dark chocolate, I mean dark dark chocolate.
  • cioccolato al latte – milk chocolate.
  • bacio – chocolate hazelnut similar to to popular Nutella
  • gianduja or gianduia – creamy combination of milk chocolate and hazelnut.
  • cioccolato all’arancia – dark chocolate and orange
  • cioccolato con peperoncini – hot pepper infused dark chocolate
  • cioccolato all’azteca – cinnamon and hot pepper in dark chocolate


The Nut Lovers:

  • pistacchi – Pistachio
  • mandorla – Almond
  • nocciola – hazelnut


The Cream Lovers:

  • fior di latte – literally translated as “flower of milk”sweet cream flavor.
  • crema –egg custard flavor
  • zabaione – eggy and custardy flavor with Marsala wine.
  • cocco  – coconut
  • caffè – coffee flavor


The Fruit Lovers:

  • fragola – strawberry
  • lampone – raspberry
  • limone – lemon
  • mandarino – mandarin orange
  • melone – melon
  • albicocca – apricot
  • fico – fig
  • mela – apple
  • pera – pear
  • pesca– Peach
  • amarena – cream base with a sauce of stewed sour cherries


Flavors for Those With Paience – Regional and Seasonals

  • zuppa inglese –“trifle.” custard flavored with cookie bits and sherry.
  • riso – rice pudding.
  • Malaga – Rum raisin
  • Stracciatella – shaved chocolate
  • liquirizia – licorice





Food Travels in Italy    Gelato Recipes    Italian Recipes   

Comments and Reviews

One Response to “Italian Gelato”

  1. Brian Redman

    Great article. This confirms my own experience with American versus Italian gelato. After having had authentic gelato in Italy (specifically in Venice, San Gimignano, Florence, and Rome) and in a few gelato specialty shops in the USA (the best being Gelati Celesti in Virginia), I was shocked and dismayed when I bought some gelato at a supermarket in the USA and it turned out to be a horrible sticky sweet frozen foam instead of the dense, rich, and creamy frozen confection that I was expecting. How do these companies get away with calling this stuff gelato. There ought to be a law against it!


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