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Gelato anyone? Sì!: The magic happens when fresh fruits meet aerated milk and cream


On a hot summer day one of the best ways to cool off is to enjoy a delicious gelato. This is the Italian word for ice cream, and Italy is famous for the taste of gelato and its many flavorful varieties.

The word gelato refers to something that is frozen, and Italian “ice cream” has its origins in this word. This frozen treat first came into fashion thousands of years ago when Romans discovered that eating crushed ice covered in honey was a wonderful way to cool off.

In the late 1500s the Medici family tasked the Florentine designer and architect Bernardo Buontalenti to prepare a special treat for the visiting king of Spain. Buontalenti went into an ice cave beneath the Boboli Gardens and created a frozen zabaglione, an Italian dessert made of whipped and heated egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine, which he churned with salted ice. In this case the cold mixture was flavored with bergamot, lemon, and oranges. The dessert was a remarkable success, and the new treat began to spread quickly across the land and later throughout the world.

Around 1700, Italian immigrants brought the refreshing sweet to the United States, where changes in technology made mass production easier. However, with the industrialization of gelato, changes were made that also changed the taste and texture of the original.

While the key components of milk, cream and air are similar, there is a difference in their proportions and how they are mixed together.

A blend of aerated milk and cream is enhanced with fruit and other flavors.

The creation begins with pasteurization of the milk and cream which is left to “age.” The next step is to churn and freeze this mix at the same time, and this is when air is infused and where the difference between gelato and ice cream comes into play.

The air has what is called an “overrun,” which is the percentage the ice cream expands during the freezing process. If you process one liter (approximately 34 ounces) it ends up as two liters with an overrun of 100 percent, which is equal parts air and liquid. Ice cream (and soft-serve ice creams) have overruns of 100 percent or more, while Italian gelato is closer to a 30 percent overrun.

The two main ingredients for ice cream and gelato are milk and cream, but it is the percentage that produces the difference in texture and taste. Ice cream contains more cream while gelato is made with a larger proportion of whole milk. Egg yolks are used in the production of ice cream but generally not used in gelato. These variations affect the amount of fat in each product and also the texture. Ice cream standards call for a minimum of 10 percent fat while gelato contains somewhere between 5 to 7 percent.

There is also a difference in the manner in which both are stored. Ice cream is stored and served at around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, while gelato is stored and served at a slightly warmer temperature. This makes the texture softer and silkier.

Gelato does not come in as many varieties as American ice cream but there are still plenty to choose from. Gelato displays are a feast for the eyes (and luckily you are often invited to taste before you decide). Once you have chosen your flavor your cone or cup will be handed to you with a flourish and sometimes with a biscotti in various shapes.

Making gelato is considered an art and just like other artistic career choices there are schools that specialize in this craft. The well-known Carpigiani Gelato University near Bologna, Italy, offers a four-week course to become a “master gelatiere.” Students from all over the world learn not only how to make gelato but also the business side of owning and operating their own shop. This university also has a location in North Carolina. There are also other locations throughout Italy where you can take a two- to four-hour class to learn the process. Experiences like this are also available in locations across the United States.

Pistachio is one of the bestselling flavors of gelato, particularly in Sicily where they use a special variety of local nuts.

Gelato students from all over the world study in classrooms, get firsthand crafting experience, and learn how to open and operate their own gelato shop. Today there are around 19,000 gelaterie in Italy. Eighty percent of these are artisanal gelaterie.

If you are looking for gelato that is truly homemade according to tradition, you should look for a sign in the gelateria window or in the display case which is marked with a D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta). This is a certification from the Italian government which verifies that a food product is from this region of Italy and has national geographical indication protection.

Once you are inside a gelateria, the hardest part will be to decide which flavor you want to order. Remember, most places will allow you small samples to help you decide. I have three favorites from which I rarely deviate. One is bacio, a chocolate gelato with a crunchy hazelnut inside. Another is nocciola, a mixture with hazelnuts freshly churned with cold milk and cream.

For a fruitier taste I always go with frutta di bosco, a combination of fresh fruits such as lamponi (raspberries), mirtilli (blueberries), fragole (strawberries), more (blackberries) or mirtilli rossi (cranberries). Not all of these fruits are available in Italy but those that are, such as lemons and strawberries, are an integral part of fruit-flavored gelato. Some fruits are only available in specific seasons or regions so they may not always be available.

One of the bestselling flavors of gelato is pistachio. This is particularly true in Sicily where Gelato al Pistacchio di Bronte is created with a special variety of local pistachios grown in areas near Catania.

Of course, cioccolato is a big favorite as is stracciatella, a milk-based ice cream with chocolate shavings. The idea for this flavor came from Enrico Panattoni, a gelato maker from Bergamo, who had previously invented the recipe for stracciatella soup.

Then there is fi or di latte (milk flower) a simple and plain flavor. Another popular choice is tiramisù. Other flavors on display may be zabaglione, made with cream and sweet wine, amarena churned with cream and sour cherry, and “torrone,” a nougat and nut combination. Mint lovers will like gelato with menta, cream fans will enjoy panna cotta with cooked cream and last but not least, coffee devotees will surely want to try gelato di caffè.

Of course, the creativity of Italians has led some gelato makers to introduce some less-than-typical flavors to the delight (and sometimes dismay) of gelato aficionados. These might include flavors such as spaghetti al pomodoro, infused with tomatoes, basil and breadcrumbs, or gelato moscato, a wine which is well known for its sweet flavors of peaches and orange blossom. And then there is pane, burro e marmellata, whose ingredients include bread, butter, and a strawberry jam.

While Italians and visitors to Italy will find it easy to find a local gelateria to savor their preferred “gusto,” here in America it is not as easy to find a place that offers authentic gelato. We do have several vendors in the tri-state area, but I will leave it up to you to do your research and to make it a point to visit and enjoy the creamy taste of this internationally beloved cold treat. Just as I do when I visit these establishments, you can take that first mouthful, close your eyes, and imagine for a moment that you are in Italy. Buon appetito! 

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