Like just about anyone who’s ever visited Italy, I fancy myself a gelato aficionado. But I never really understood gelato until my Italian friend gave me a lesson I’ll never forget — including tips for how to find the best gelato anywhere you go.
On a visit to Florence, I was working on updating our Rick Steves Italy book with Chiara — a fellow guidebook researcher and tour guide for Rick Steves’ Europe Tours. One evening, I mentioned that I always wanted to learn more about gelato. “Of course!” Chiara said. “Let’s go.”
As we tiptoed between Renaissance balustrades and double-parked motor scooters, Chiara explained that she once dated someone while he was opening his own gelateria — so she understood the business side of gelato, along with the culinary side. If I really wanted to understand gelato, it seemed, I’d found the perfect teacher.
I asked Chiara something that I had never really understood: How, exactly, does gelato differ from American ice cream? “American ice cream has a higher butterfat content,” Chiara explained. “That makes the texture very rich and sultry. However, the butterfat coats your tongue, dulling your taste buds. Some people say that gelato has stronger flavors. That’s not necessarily true — rather, your taste buds are better able to fully appreciate those flavors. Gelato is also churned differently from ice cream, incorporating less air. That makes it harder in texture, and a little more concentrated.”
Strolling through the atmospheric urban core of Florence on Via dei Calzaiuoli toward the main square, we passed a row of seemingly interchangeable gelaterie. So, how do you know which one is best? “The vast majority of gelato places use the exact same powdered or paste-like mixes,” Chiara said. “That’s why you should look for words like artigianale — artisanal; or fatto in casa — homemade. You want a place that makes all of their gelato fresh, on the premises, ideally that same day. But be careful, eh? Some places advertise these words even though they use the same mixes as everyone else. Let me show you a few things to look for.”
Pausing at a display case with vividly striped mountains of gelato, Chiara whispered, “See there? That is not good gelato. The big piles and the bright colors are designed to attract children. At the best gelaterie, you don’t actually see the gelato — rather, you read the flavors. The gelato is kept in stainless-steel covered tubs, until someone orders it. It’s fresh, and they want to keep it that way.”
“Another sign of good gelato is muted colors. Natural colors. If you see a color that does not occur in nature, it’s artificial. Think about it: What color is the part of the banana that you eat? Not neon-yellow. It’s sort of off-white, with a hint of yellow. So, logically, a good, artisanal banana gelato will be closer to white than to yellow.”
We stepped into Florence’s majestic Piazza della Signoria. At this moment, late in the day, it felt like the city’s living room. We lingered in a quiet corner of the square, peering over at a gaudy gelateria.
“The other thing to be careful about with these tourist-trap gelaterie,” Chiara continued, “is to be very specific when ordering, to avoid getting ripped off. At irreputable places, if you ask for a cone of gelato, they might pick the most expensive, chocolate-and-candy-dipped waffle cone, pile it with five or six scoops, and charge you fifteen euros. Be specific. When I order, I say something like, ‘a three-euro cone with two flavors.’ Of course, you don’t need to be so paranoid at friendly neighborhood places — just the tourist traps.”
As if to punctuate this tip, just then a pack of ragazzi kicked their soccer ball against the peeling plaster wall next to us. They were gearing up for a game…and we were in the way. We decided to surrender the pitch and carry on across the Ponte Vecchio. The languid evening light draped the famous bridge in a gauzy glow.
As we left the bridge behind and made our way up a sleepy Oltrarno back street, Chiara explained the business end of making gelato. “A gelateria has many flavors, but only a few machines. So obviously they make all of their gelato on the same machines. Every gelato begins with the same, neutral, sweet-cream base: fior di latte. As they work through their batches, they make progressively more complex flavors, with darker dyes. The last batch of the day is the dark chocolate flavor. That’s why, if someone has a nut allergy, they should be careful. Some shops carefully clean their machines between batches, but not all do. If you order a darker-colored gelato, several other flavors have been processed before that one — including one that may contain nuts.”
Finally we came upon a gelateria that passed Chiara’s protocol: promising gelato artigianale, from covered metal bins, with muted colors. “But even then,” she said, “the only way to know for sure is to taste.”
Surveying our options, Chiara reminded me, “It’s perfectly fine to ask for un assaggio — a taste. And, while Americans are accustomed to combining whichever random flavors strike their fancy, Italians believe that some flavors go together better than others. It’s like pairing wine and food: Ideally, you want to find a combination that’s mutually enhancing. In fact, if a gelateria takes it craft very seriously, they might politely refuse to pair two flavors that don’t go well together. For example, if you ask for chocolate and lemon, you might get a funny ‘are you sure about that?’ look. Or even a curt shake of the head and a click of the tongue. For Italians, mixing lemon and chocolate gelato is like putting cheese on seafood, or drinking milk after lunchtime.”
“If you are adventurous,” Chiara continued, “you can put yourself in the expert’s hands and ask them what marries well — which flavors go well together. Sometimes they can suggest some surprising and delicious pairings.” Trying this approach, I asked the clerk what he recommended with one of my favorites, cannella (cinnamon), and he topped it with pera (pear). Delizioso. Chiara ordered pistacchio.
As we licked our cones, Chiara said, “My choice of flavor was strategic. If you really want to gauge the quality of a gelateria, you try the pistacchio. Here’s why: Did you ever notice that every gelato flavor costs the same to buy? But, of course, they cost different amounts to produce. There’s a huge profit margin for fior di latte, crema, vaniglia, and other basic flavors. Meanwhile, the most expensive flavor to produce — if it’s done correctly, with real nuts — is pistacchio. Only the rare gelateria uses real pistachios in its pistacchio. Places that are cutting corners will just make almond gelato, and throw in some artificial pistachio flavoring and green food coloring. You can sometimes tell this because the green is just too bright. But if the pistacchio is real pistacchio, it’s a very good sign that the gelateria owner is committed to making quality gelato, even at the expense of potential profits.” Taking a satisfied bite, Chiara concluded, “Mmmm. This one is real pistacchio. You can taste the difference.”
After that walk through Florence with Chiara, every time I step into an Italian gelateria, I can survey my options with confidence — knowing that I can tell the difference between run-of-the-mill gelato and top-shelf gelato. And, as a budding gelato snob, I now make a point of asking for a sample of pistacchio as my first barometer of quality.
So, after all that…what’s my favorite gelato? When working on our Rick Steves guidebooks in Italy, I take very seriously the sober responsibility of recommending at least one top-quality gelateria in each town. Unfortunately, after much (delicious) trial and error, I’ve learned that some cities — even biggies like Venice and Florence — have plenty of perfectly good gelaterie, but no head-and-shoulders “best” choice. (And believe me, the competition can be fierce…especially in small towns. But that’s another blog post.)
That said, I do have several personal favorites that I would consider traveling halfway across the country for. My all-around favorite gelato in Italy is at a small chain called De’ Coltelli, with branches in Lucca and Pisa. On one trip, I made a point to take an extra day off in Lucca…I must admit, at least partly to fit in another couple of gelato cones at De’Coltelli. Another Tuscan favorite, in the tiny town of Pienza, is Buon Gusto. Slaves to tradition, Nicola and Giuseppe make just a few batches each morning, scheduled to be ready just after lunch. But don’t wait too long. Once they’re gone…they’re gone. Rome has a variety of creative gelaterie serving unusual flavors (which I have an affinity for); I’ve had memorable gelato at Fatamorgana, with locations in the Monti and Trastevere neighborhoods, and elsewhere.
And finally, I must admit, even as it has expanded to the point of self-parody (including branches Stateside), the Grom chain still churns out reliably good gelato. Yes, Grom is the Starbucks of gelato. But if I’m in a smaller town or a neighborhood where my only choices are a Grom and a suspiciously touristy-seeming gelateria…I’ll stick with Grom. And I’m rarely disappointed.
Finally — while this may be appalling to purists — some of my favorite gelato isn’t even in Italy. Ljubljana, the delightful Slovenian capital (and just an hour’s drive from Italy), has a burgeoning artisanal gelato scene. My favorite spot is Romantica, with delicious, creative flavors that highlight Slovenian ingredients and Italian know-how. Other great choices in Ljubljana include Rustika (a small chain that also produces excellent chocolate truffles), Fétiche Patisserie (along the river, with Asian-inflected flavors), and Zvezda Kavarna (a local institution with rich, decadent flavors).
Where’s your favorite gelato in Europe?
My favorite gelato-related travel anecdote was the time I became embroiled in a fierce war between rival Cinque Terre gelaterie. Some people take gelato very seriously.
My favorite Ljubljana gelateria, Romantica, was included in my blog post about how to eat well on a budget in the Slovenian capital.
Over on Rick’s blog, he interviewed one of my favorites, Buon Gusto in Pienza.