What Is Gelato?
How does one explain, in a few short paragraphs, something that’s such a critical part of Italian life, like gelato? If you’ve spent any time in Italy, especially in the summer, it’s hard to look anywhere and not see an Italian balancing a cono di gelato, often while balancing the omnipresent cell phone at the same time.
But everyone, from suave businessmen in Armani suits to grandmothers chatting on a stroll with friends—they all eat gelato. And like the tiny shots of espresso taken from morning ’til night, it’s a part of Italian life and consumed everywhere, all-day long. Granita di espresso on a roll for breakfast anyone?
‘Gelato‘ means ‘frozen‘ in Italian, so it embraces the various kinds of ice cream made in Italy, and that’s the best definition one can offer.
More than most countries, food in Italy is fiercely regional: in the north, near Torino (Piedmonte), the food is very earthy with white truffles and hazelnuts appearing in various dishes. At the other end of the boot is Sicily, where the climate is far warmer so the flavors lean towards citrus and seafood. And in between are lots of villages and regions, including the Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Campania, Tuscany, and Puglia, among others.
The gelato made in the north of Italy, where it’s cooler up near the mountains, the gelato is richer, often made with egg yolks, chocolate, and most famously, with gianduja, the silky-smooth hazelnut and milk chocolate paste. In the south, ice creams tend to be lighter, and flavored with lemons and oranges. In Sicily, granite are prevalent; slushy shaved ices that are almost served like a drink, with a spoon and a straw to slurp them up, as well as fruit-flavored sorbetti.
But getting back to gelato…as mentioned, gelato means Italian ice cream. But what makes it different?
Well, for the most part, the machines used to make gelato move very slowly as they churn, introducing little air into the mixture so the finished gelato is dense and thick. Unlike standard ice cream-making machines, usually the ‘dasher’ (paddle) moves up and down while the canister turns, so little air is whipped into the mixture while it churns.
Also the storage freezers used for holding gelato tend to be kept a few degrees warmer (up to 10 degrees F) than a normal ice cream dipping cabinet, so the gelati keeps its silky, creamier texture. When gelato is less-cold, your mouth doesn’t get ‘frozen’ and you can taste the flavors better.
Sometimes there’s no egg yolks or cream in the base, so the gelato will highlight the highly-concentrated taste of what’s been added, like chocolate, coffee, or whatever flavoring is used, with less taste and texture of fat to coat your palate or intrude.
Faith Willinger notes that in the south, cornstarch or even wheatstarch is used to thicken the gelato base rather than egg yolks and there is a recipe for a cornstarch-based ice cream in my book, The Perfect Scoop, if you want to try one yourself.
Gelato usually has less fat than traditional ice cream. When I visited Tèo’s in Austin, owner Matt Lee, who spent a year learning gelato-making in Florence, told me that his gelati average about 4-5½% butterfat whereas ‘premium’ brands of store-bought ice cream clock in at somewhere around 16-18%, or higher. He opened his shirt to show me his defibrillator that he wears, to prove his allegiance!
Gelato-Related Links and Resources
A visit to Teo’s Gelato in Austin, Texas.
Italy’s fabulous Grom comes to Paris.
Pistachio Gelato (Recipe)
Il Gelatuaro gelato in Bologna.
Espresso Granita Affogato (Recipe)
And another visit to Rome gelaterias.
New York’s Il laboratorio del gelato is considered one of the best gelaterias in America.
Where to find the best ice cream in Paris.
Chocolate Sherbet (Recipe)
Judy, the Divina Cucina, lists her favorite gelaterias in Florence.
Sara’s Tour di Gelato, lists favorite addresses in Italy.