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Tasting the best Italian gelato is a highlight of any trip to Italy. This beloved frozen treat is such an important part of Italian life (and is so delicious) that it deserved its own episode! Not to be confused with standard ice cream, this rich, creamy delight can be found all over Italy, but like everything Italian, it’s worth seeking out the local flavors and artisan makers.
Untold Travel founder Katy talks about why it’s so delicious, why it is very different to ice cream, how and where to find the good stuff, and flavors you should try when you are in Italy because you probably won’t find them at home.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream and comes from the Latin word “gelātus” meaning frozen. Almost 2000 years ago Emperor Nero would send his minions up into the mountains to get ice that was then mixed with fruit juices – surely the precursor to gelato
- There are various stories about the creation of modern gelato but most seem to agree that it appeared at the Medici court in Florence and was such a big hit that Catherine de Medici, who became the Queen of France, took the recipe with her to Paris
- Over the years the recipe for gelato was perfected and it’s now made with a combination of milk, cream, sugar, and ingredients like fresh fruit and nut purees
- Gelato is similar to ice cream but it’s the ratio of milk and cream and the method of mixing that makes all the difference. Gelato uses less cream and more milk than ice cream and typically contains 4-8% fat, compared with the 14-16% fat found in ice cream. Gelato is also slowly churned and therefore has less air in it than ice cream, making it more dense and rich in flavor
- Gelato is served at a higher temperature than ice cream which means it melts more easily on a hot summers day but it also means the flavors are more intense
- In Italy, you’ll also find sorbetti which is fruit-based gelato with no milk. In Sicily, there is also granita which is like shaved ice with syrups on top
- You can find good and great gelato but also just some pretty average gelato. Here are some tips on finding the good stuff:
- We usually do a bit of research before going somewhere new – search for ‘Gelato Artiginale’ meaning artisan gelato there. Artisan gelato is generally handmade in smaller batches so there’s more attention to quality and therefore flavor. There are no official credentials around this term that we know of so it’s best used as a first check because some shops have cottoned on to the fact that people are looking for that label and so can also be used as a marketing ploy
- The next thing to do is check out how the gelato is stored. Because gelato is served at a higher temperature than ice cream, if it is piled high inside a display cabinet it is not great gelato because the good stuff simply can’t hold that altitude. Look for gelato in low tubs, sometimes covered with a metal lid
- Take a good look at the color of the gelato. When you see very bright colors including greens, blues, and pinks – we suggest you run a mile. These hues can only be achieved with artificial colors and chemicals which is certainly not in the spirit of gelato making. A good starting point is to assess the color of the pistachio flavor which should be a muted sage green – anything brighter and there is something un-natural added
Which flavors to try?
We could talk all day about flavors we have loved and those we’d love to try, here are some tips:
- You can find all the classic flavors like chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, which are probably better than you could find at home, but when you’re in Italy it’s definitely worth branching out and trying something new and particularly local
- The purest gelato flavor you can try is called “fior di latte” which translates as flower of milk. Some say this is the flavor that marks a truly great gelateria and because of the absence of other flavorings, the essence and quality of the milk used is critical. Fior di latte is simply milk, cream and sugar churned to perfection. It may look like vanilla but there is no vanilla flavoring at all. Simple perfection. If you must add something to your fior di latte gelato, make it a drizzle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena as Katy had in the small town Emilia-Romagna town of Spilamberto
- Other creamy flavors to try include Crema – which tastes like egg custard, Stracciatella which has thin chocolate strips running through it and Zabaglione is a bit like crema but has a good slug of marsala wine
- Chocolate wise you can get milk chocolate or really dark chocolate fondente as well as Bacio – chocolate with hazelnuts
- Coffee is another delicious creamy flavor to try
- Amarena is fior di latte with swirls of sour cherry which is Katy’s kid’s firm favorite
- Fruits are also great to try as gelato or sorbetto. From more well-known flavors like lemon, strawberry, and raspberry to pear and fig – all of which are best tried when the fruits are in season. You will see more exotic flavors like mango and banana but consider that these aren’t grown in Italy so not top of our list
- Do try herb and local fruit-based flavors like basil (Katy had a great one in Vernazza in the Cinque Terre), Gelsi which is a local mulberry from Sicily, or bergamot in Calabria
- An Italian classic and a crowd-pleaser is pistachio. There’s something about this nut that pairs perfectly with the milky gelato base. It can be even better when there is a hint of salt in it to bring out the flavor. The very best pistachios come from a town called Bronte on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Our friends at Enoteca Sileno, an Italian food and wine importer in Australia, told us that the nuts in Bronte are harvested by hand by a few very small producers – so keep an eye out for Bronte pistachio gelato for the best of the best
- Nuts are very popular generally, apart from peanuts which aren’t much of a big thing in Italy. There’s nocciola (hazlenuts) and noce (walnuts) often combined with chocolate, or honey in the case of walnut. In Sicily, where almonds are abundant, it’s a very popular flavor of granita
- There is really a lot of creativity going on with gelato-making these days in terms of combinations of flavors, so it’s fun to experiment. Look out for seasonal flavors based on what’s available at the markets. It might not always work out. Katy was not a fan of the traditional Cipolla onion flavor in Certaldo in Tuscany – but who knows, it might suit your taste!
- We do suggest avoiding Puffo – the Italian word for Smurf. As you might imagine it is an alarming bright blue, designed to be more about the look than the taste for sure
Ordering your gelato
- When you get to the gelateria counter you are often asked to select the following upfront:
- whether you want a cone or a cup
- the size/how many scoops
- which flavors you would like
- You pay for your gelato and then move on to the next server who will give you your receipt and then tell them the specific flavors you want. This is typical of very busy places and is generally efficient
- You can try before you buy BUT please read the room – no one appreciates people asking for multiple tastes when the waiting line is out the door. Note the establishment and not the other customers. If the store is empty then you can ask which flavors they recommend – especially in combination. They’ll love to chat with you if they are not super busy
- Cost wise you’re looking at between €2 and €3 per scoop these days – an absolute bargain for what will likely be the most delicious thing you’ll taste all year!
- Don’t always go for the fancy, slickly branded shops. On a recent food tour in Rome, Katy visited a family-run gelateria opposite Torre Largo Argentina which she would have likely avoided it without a recommendation due to the large fluorescent massive gelato sign out the front but this no-frills place was a highlight
- In small towns, they tend to do incredible gelato because they basically cater to a small crowd and can pay more attention to making their flavors, as well as using local ingredients
- Gelato is still great for food intolerances and allergies. If you’re celiac or avoiding gluten, skip the cone and get a cup, and if you’re lactose intolerant go for the fruit-based flavors
The Museum & Gelato making experiences
If you’re in Emilia-Romagna it’s definitely worth visiting the Gelato Museum near Bologna. You can even get to make some gelato there and taste your creations, but you do need to book really early.
If you’re in Florence, our friends at Liv Tours have an amazing Gelato making experience at Bondi – a world-renowned gelateria in the city. As with all Liv Tours experiences, you can get 5% off this with the code ‘UntoldItaly’
Keep an eye out for gelato festivals all over Italy throughout the year. As is often the case with Italy, googling is often not a great resource but you could be lucky enough to find something or even stumble on one as Katy did on a trip a few years ago that coincided with the gelato world masters final in Florence.
- Giolitti – traditional gelato parlour, reportedly the oldest in Rome
- Otaleg – great for gelato & fruit sorbetto in classic & unusual flavors. Try the gorgonzola
- Teatro – lots of interesting flavors with fruit & herbs. Try the raspberry and sage
- Gelateria La Carraia – both famous and popular for good reason, this was the top pick by our members in our Italy Travel Planning Facebook Group
- Perche No – a tiny gelateria that prides itself on fresh natural ingredients and both classic and unusual flavors with seasonal changes. Try the lavender
- Gelateria Pasticceria Badiani – offering lots of delicious flavors including the unique (and copyrighted) Buontalenti flavor, a custardy flavor similar to condensed milk
- La Mela Verde – meaning the ‘green apple’ this artisan store is on the Rio di San Provolo canal. Try their hazelnut or Sicilian pistachio and ask about their seasonal fruit flavors
- Gelato di Natura – excellent gelato and they also do crepes. Try their unique Casanova flavor
- Raki – with wonderful natural and local ingredients. Try the Fondente All Arancia (dark chocolate orange) or the pineapple and basil
- The Gelato Museum – the only museum dedicated to the history of artisan gelato, in the Northern region of Emilia-Romagna
Places mentioned in the show
- Spilamberto – small town in the Emilia-Romagna region where you can get Balsamic vinegar drizzled on your gelato
- Certaldo – town in Tuscany home to the Cipolla onion which they make into a gelato (very much an acquired taste!
- Vernazza – town on the Chinque Terre where you can find basil gelato
- Calabria – southern region, the toe of Italy where you get bergamot gelato
- Bronte – town on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily which grows the best pistachios
- Enoteca Sileno – Italian food and wine importers in Australia with a wealth of knowledge and amazing products
- Largo di Torre Argentina – the spot in Rome where Julius Caeser was murdered. Now a cat sanctuary
- Gelato Festivals – information on some of the gelato festivals to be found in Italy
Resources from Untold Italy
- Discover where to find the Best gelato in Florence and in Rome
- Get help planning your Italy trip in How to plan a trip to Italy and discover where to book everything for your Italy trip in the Best booking sites for travel to Italy
- Listen: to episodes about planning your Italy visit in Episode #104 Experiences to include in your dream trip to Italy and Episode #053: Planning the perfect Italy itinerary and Italy travel on a budget in Episode #116 Extend your Italy trip budget with these travel hacks and Episode #145 Budget friendly ways to explore Rome
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.