As important as drinking espresso or taking an evening aperitivo, gelato is a vital part of Italian culture. No summer in Italy is complete without it; although Italians enjoy gelato all year round, Italy’s favourite frozen dolce becomes an absolute necessity when the heat of summer hits.
Gelato is also one of the few foods that Italians are happy to be seen eating on the street – from suited and booted businessmen to gossiping grandmothers. In fact, they often make an event of it. On Sunday evenings and holidays, Italians of all ages throw on their finest outfits for the ritual of la passeggiata – a leisurely walk, often accompanied by a gelato.
But what is gelato? And how can you spot the authentic stuff? Read on for the inside scoop.
What is gelato?
The Italian for ‘frozen’, dense and richly-flavoured gelato originated in Italy and is the county’s frozen dessert of choice. On street corners all over Italy, gelaterie (gelato shops) slather gently frozen confections into cones or tubs, ready to be taken away and eaten immediately.
Technically, dairy flavours (made from a mixture of milk, cream, sugar and sometimes egg yolks) are defined as gelato, with water-based fruit flavours called sorbetto. In practice though, gelato acts as a catch-all term for dairy and non-dairy flavours. In the south of Italy, you’re also likely to see iced, crystalline granita on gelateria menus.
What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream?
Many people think that gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream, but there’s actually some key differences between what we know as ice cream and authentic Italian gelato:
- Fat content: Gelato contains more milk, but less cream and egg yolks than ice cream. Sicilian gelato contains no egg yolks at all, instead using carob flour to thicken the sweetened milk.
- Texture: Gelato is churned at a much slower speed, giving it a denser consistency than colder, harder and more aerated ice cream.
- Temperature: Gelato is served a couple of degrees warmer than ice cream, both to give it a softer consistency and to make the flavours more pronounced.
Head to our guide for a deeper dive on the differences between gelato and ice cream.
The history of gelato
Gelato has ancient origins. Both the Romans and Greeks chilled their wine with mountain snow, arguably creating the first alcoholic slush. An early precursor to gelato then emerged from Sicily during its two years of Arab rule (827-1061), when it became popular to use snow to freeze sharbat, a cordial introduced by the Arabs. The frozen results became known as sorbetto.
It was during the Italian Renaissance that Italy’s gelato tradition really got going though. In 16th century Florence, the powerful house of Medici sponsored a contest to create a dish ‘never seen before’. Alchemist Cosimo Ruggieri wowed the judges with a fruit sorbetto that was so good it convinced Catherine de’ Medici to take him with her to France on becoming Queen.
Later in the 16th century, another member of the Medici court, architect Bernardo Buontalenti, refined the recipe and developed the first gelato involving egg and milk, serving it at a banquet for the King of Spain. To this day, many Italian gelaterie sell a creamy flavour named after Buontalenti, and he’s often credited with being the ‘inventor’ of gelato.
At this point, gelato was the reserve of the upper classes, who spent vast sums preserving ice and snow from Italy’s mountains throughout summer so they could consume the frozen treat. A Sicilian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, is thought to have brought iced desserts to the masses when he moved to Paris in 1686 and opened a sorbetto-serving bar called Café Procope.
Gelato then slowly became a more democratic dolce, spreading through Europe and Italy. Still, gelaterie only started to proliferate across Italy in the early 20th century, when the first gelato-making machines started to appear. After this, innovative new flavours began to emerge, leading us to the choice we have today.
Popular Italian gelato flavours
There’s a huge range of gelato flavours, but they’re generally split into four categories: chocolate flavours, creamy flavours, fruit flavours and nut flavours.
In true Italian style, there’s not just one variation of chocolate-flavoured gelato, but many:
- Cioccolato fondente extra noir: Extremely dark chocolate, sometimes nearly black in colour.
- Cioccolato fondente: A rich, dark chocolate flavour.
- Cioccolato al latte: Milk chocolate.
- Gianduia: A combination of milk chocolate and hazelnut that hails from the northern region of Piedmont.
- Cioccolato all’arancia: Dark chocolate flavoured with orange that’s often flecked with candied peel.
Interestingly, vanilla isn’t a particularly popular gelato flavour in Italy. Instead, Italians prefer pared back options that focus on one distinct flavour:
- Fior di latte: A simple sweet milk flavour made without eggs, the name translates to ‘flower of milk’.
- Stracciatella: Fior di latte with streaks of chocolate running through it.
- Crema: A rich custard flavour that‘s made with egg yolks.
- Caffè: Italian coffee churned with milk, also a popular granita flavour (minus the milk).
- Zabaione: The frozen version of Italy’s favourite marsala-infused custard, zabaglione.
- Zuppa Inglese: The gelato version of Italy’s answer to the English trifle, zuppa Inglese.
Dairy-based nut flavours are popular all over Italy, but particularly in Sicily, where they're made without egg yolks so that the nuts can shine through:
- Pistacchio: Pistachio, a classic Italian flavour that should be pale in colour, rather than luridly green.
- Mandorla: Almond, also a popular Sicilian granita flavour.
- Nocciola: Hazelnut, a traditional flavour in Piedmont, where Italy’s best hazelnuts grow on the hills just outside Alba.
- Castagna: Chestnut, extremely seasonal and particularly popular in Tuscany.
The best gelaterie will only use seasonal Italian fruit, which rules out strawberry in the winter, but makes the flavours much more intense. The following flavours are all technically sorbetto, as they’re only made from fruit and water:
- Fragola: Strawberry
- Frutti di bosco: Fruits of the forest, typically made from a selection of seasonal berries.
- Pesca: Peach
- Limone: Lemon, also a popular granita flavour, particularly in Sicily.
- Arancia: Orange, Italy’s second-favourite citrus fruit.
The gelato flavours on offer often depend on geography too. In the north – the land of lush dairy pasture and moderate temperatures – you’re likely to see richer, creamier flavours. As you go further south, the lighter and sweeter the typical gelati become; a no-brainer considering the summer heat in southern regions like Campania and Puglia.
How to find the best gelato in Italy
Unfortunately, even in Italy, all gelato isn’t created equal. Plenty of tourist traps use commercially-made bases and artificial colourings and flavours that aren’t a patch on artisan gelato. Here’s how to avoid them and find the genuine article:
It might seem counterintuitive, but some of the best gelaterie in Italy hide their frozen treats away from prying eyes in tubs topped with stainless steel lids. Called pozzetti – ‘little wells’ – these containers keep the gelato stored inside at the ideal temperature. They’re a strong sign that the gelato is being carefully looked after – and that the gelateria is held in high enough regard that it doesn’t need to show off with elaborately decorated displays or bright colours.
Avoid mountains of gelato
Some modern gelaterie that make excellent gelato keep it in tubs without lids, but stay away from places with gelato that’s piled high in elaborate waves. True gelato is dense and melts quickly, so stuff that’s piled high has likely had vegetable fats and emulsifiers added in order to maintain its mountainous appearance.
Colour is important too. Although it might be eye-catching, brightly coloured gelato is usually a sign that artificial colours have been added. Look out for muted, natural colours – pistachio should be pale rather than bright green, and lemon should be closer to white than yellow.