Amazing gelato abounds in Italy — and Tuscany is no exception. My favorite gelato artist in the region, Nicola Sgarbi, now has two branches: One in Pienza (called BuonGusto) and the other in Montepulciano (look for Dolcivoglie sign on your way up through town on the main drag, at Corso #50).
In Montepulciano earlier this summer, I stop by Nicola’s shop. As usual, he greets me with a robust “Buongiorno!” and loads me up with little plastic spoons of free samples.
Enjoying all these little tastes, I ask Nicola what led him to the gelato business. He explains that, after apprenticing at a renowned London restaurant, he came back to Tuscany and opened a laboratorio — determined to make his mark on the culinary world.
In those humble days, his first product was jam made from fruit and berries that he gathered for free on the ground of posh villas. The villas had planted fruit trees and berry bushes for aesthetic reasons, and were all to happy to have Nicola put the fruit to good use. Back then, Nicola had only a bicycle, which he’d ride through the idyllic Tuscan countryside to build a network of producers to work with: truffle hunter, vintner, olive oil producer, and so on. (While intended as a sad-sack tale of humble beginnings, this experience sounded pretty amazing to me.)
Slowly Nicola transformed his preserves business into a gelateria. And he is the very best kind of gelato snob. Nicola makes his gelato from scratch each morning, which means it’s not available until around noon. But don’t wait too late in the afternoon to stop by — when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Originally Nicola made only two flavors each morning. Local customers would come in, asking for other flavors they’d seen elsewhere. Unapologetically, he’d steer them to the two flavors on hand. Over time, he re-trained his customers to go for what’s fresh.
Nicola embraces both locally sourced ingredients and unusual flavor combinations. Whether collecting his plums and berries from a local orchard, or shipping in top-quality pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piedmont, or lemons from Puglia, he always ensures top quality. And the base of his gelato — the milk — is delivered fresh three times each week from a local dairy farm.
While I’ve never seen the same flavors twice, there are always wonderful surprises. On this visit, his creamy basil tastes like an herb garden. In addition to some of the old standbys (done exceptionally well), Nicola enjoys experimenting with exotic flourishes: carrot-ginger, kiwi-spinach, custard with raspberry jam, orange and ginger, and a dairy-free gelato made with chocolate imported from Venezuela.
Nicola points out that — when compared to processed, mass-produced gelato — the real stuff not only tastes better…it makes you feel better. “It’s not just about the taste, it’s about how it digests.” Italians are very in tune with digestion (which is why, for example, they rarely drink milk after lunchtime); for them, good gelato makes you feel good both while you eat it…and after you eat it.
I ask Nicola how a casual visitor can quickly judge the quality of a gelato shop. His advice matches up with the advice I’ve gotten from many other Italians: Look for truly homemade — as fresh as possible. That means you’re looking for small batches, stored in little metal bins, rather than piled high on top of a giant plastic container. Beware of bright, garish colors that don’t exist in nature — which are artificial and used to attract children’s attention.
While it seems these days every gelateria in Italy advertises artigianale (artisanal or homemade), these claims are not regulated and can be bogus. “That’s why you have to taste before you buy,” Nicola insists.
I ask Nicola which flavor is the best barometer of quality. Real pistachio gelato is very expensive to produce. So thrifty (or unscrupulous) gelato makers do a “faux-pistachio” — cutting their pistachios with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or almonds. If you know what real pistachio tastes like, it’s a mark of high quality.
Nicola also suggests trying a fruit flavor. While a layperson’s palate may not be able to distinguish between pistachio and sunflower-seed-almond-pistachio, everyone knows what a strawberry or raspberry is supposed to taste like.
Beyond Nicola’s places, I have a few other favorite gelaterie in Tuscany. De’Coltelli, with branches in Lucca and in Pisa, has powerful flavors in the style of Sicily (where, as every Italian knows, all of the best desserts come from). Florence has many good and famous options, but I often find myself at Gelateria dei Nerior or Perchè No. But when traveling in Tuscany, it’s hard to resist the temptation to try several different places to find your favorite. So…don’t resist.
I’ve blogged about Italian gelato before, including advice for how to find the best gelato anywhere, and — for a laugh — a surreal tale of when I became embroiled in a dispute between one small town’s gelato artists. (I survived.)
Heading to Tuscany? I share a dozen of my favorite Tuscan experiences here.
Our new Best of Tuscany in 12 Days Tour — which begins in 2020 — incorporates many vivid experiences in Italy’s heartland…including many, many opportunities to sample Italy’s finest edible art, gelato.
Or, to do it on your own, you’ll find all of the details you need in our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.