The M.A.K. Guide to Gelato in Italy

The M.A.K. team is a group of dessert aficionados who absolutely love and preach our luscious Sweet Street desserts. On our days off, though, there’s one treat that we're always after: gelato.

 
 

Gelato is a quintessential part of Italian life wherever you go—businessmen in suits stopping at their favorite gelateria after work, ragazzi dripping cones all over the street, Italian grandmothers going out for a stroll with cones in hand. Every part of society, eating gelato all day every day: can it get any better?

During our travels around Italy, we’ve had more than our fair share of coni di gelato in many different cities and have noticed a few things:

  • First, not all gelaterias are made equal. You must do your homework to find the best gelato before settling on just any place. Every city in Italy is awash with gelaterias that churn out mass-produced junk and pass it off as ‘fresh’ orartigianale to unsuspecting tourists.
  • Second, gelato styles are diverse and intensely regional, just like the cuisine in Italy. In cooler regions near the Alps, the gelato is rich, silky, and more decadent from the use of more egg yolk—think flavors like crema, or the famous hazelnut-milk chocolate paste from Torino called gianduja, which you must try if you’re in the north of Italy.
  • Third: if you see mountains of swirly, fluffly-looking gelati in the display case, run for the hills (you should quite literally run for the hills because they make some incredible gelato up in those mountains). These huge piles of gelato typically mean one thing: the shop uses a powdered or concentrated mix, which is then mixed with milk and heavily whipped to give the impression ofslow-churning, the trademark process of a great gelato. These mounds of gelato are usually filled with stabilizers and preservatives that help them stay in that fluffy mound while being sickeningly sweet and unnaturally colored. Run for those hills.

Down south in Campania and Sicily where the weather is much warmer, expect to see lighter fruity and citrus-based flavors with more sorbetto andgranite (Italian slushy usually served in the summer)

Finally, fruit flavors must be in season and the natural color you would expect if the fruit is crushed. Finding bright red strawberry or blackberry gelato in December is worrisome. A gelateria offering stone fruits in summer, fig or pear in autumn, and berry flavors in spring is one you can trust with all of their flavors, not just fruit. Color plays an important role here—the top gelaterias in Italy emphasize fresh and seasonal ingredients, meaning they want the flavors of the fruit to shine, not the color.

Is the banana a bright yellow instead of the natural, unappealing grey or thepistaccio a bright green where it should be the dull color of the crushed nuts? This is the best test in your gelato toolkit for estimating quality: imagine the fruit (or ingredient) crushed into a juice and compare it with the color on display. If it’s not as natural as you think, move on with your search.

Gelato vs. Traditional Ice Cream

Gelato is an age-old tradition with recipes going back to the 17th century, but history isn’t really the most interesting aspect of the frozen delicacy—the way it’s made is where the distinction comes in. How does gelato get that decadent, melt-in-your-mouth sensation while being fluffy and somewhat light you might ask? Read on for all gelato questions answered.

The main difference between gelato and ice cream really comes down to texture. A spoonful of gelato is dense, concentrated, but has less butterfat to coat your tongue and possibly intrude on the flavors like ice cream sometimes does.

This density is thanks to a slow-churning process to reduce the amount of air (also called overrun) into the base while American ice cream is traditionally churned harder and faster in order to get a thinner texture.

Gelato favors milk to cream, where classic ice cream is the opposite—as a result, gelato delivers a punch of intense flavors and finishes clean. Ice cream has a lingering finish with flavors sometimes masked by that cold, tongue-coating butterfat.

The last main difference between the two is the temperature: gelato is stored at a higher temperature to retain the silky-smooth texture it’s known for; it also impacts how you taste the flavor—cold temperatures inherently mask flavors. A scoop of gelato will melt much more elegantly than a scoop of ice cream—while the ice cream melts into a soupy mess, the gelato will retain some of its shape like a cake frosting.

Having a truly great scoop of gelato is, and should always be, a special experience. The fact that the flavors from gelato are typically so pure that you can taste the nuances between a 66% chocolate from Ecuador and a 46% from the Dominican Republic is a testament to the differences; better yet, you want to try the fior di latte—which is just milk, no vanilla or other flavorings—because the taste is so pure. It’s an easy thing to take for granted when you live directly above a renowned gelateria (as we do), but it’s something that we will greatly miss in America.

Stay tuned for a post on our own favorite gelaterias in Milan—in the meantime, use this guide and share your favorite finds with us, the M.A.K. team!