In a nutshell: If you’re in Italy, you MUST have gelato. You must have gelato every single day. Enough said.
Let’s put a spin on the famous quote “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” How about “When in Italy, eat gelato as the Italians do”? No matter where you turn in the country, there will be a gelateria within walking distance. And who’s complaining?
Many quip “What’s the difference between ice cream and gelato?” Simply put, gelato is just ice cream with less fat in the base, less air churned in during the freezing process, a slower churning speed, and a warmer serving temperature. However, I think Max Falkowitz of Serious Eats says it best: “We can quibble over names and definitions, but at the end of the day, it’s all one happy frozen, creamy family.”
Where better to enjoy gelato than at the gelateria that’s been around the longest? Let’s go back to the beginning: way back, to the oldest gelato shop in “The Eternal City.”
Giuseppe and Bernardina Giolitti opened their first namesake shop in 1890 on the Salita del Grillo. Giolitti began as a creamery in which the family sold milk from their own pastures. As the customer base expanded–the Italian royals even became loyal customers–and business picked up, new Giolitti stores surfaced throughout Rome. The most famous of these branches has been going strong since 1900, just steps away from the Pantheon on Via Uffici del Vicario. Menu expansion paralleled the store expansions, leading to the introduction of Giolitti’s famed gelato.
Customers order at the register near the entrance, then take their tickets to the corresponding counters. Although people mainly visit for a cup or cone, they can also sip crushed ice drinks and espressos and munch on pastries, cakes, and cookies.
Buckets of gelato, neatly arranged in two straight lines like Madeline’s boarding school peers (French reference, but whatever), fill two full cases. From fruity (cocomero, albicocca, fichi d’India/watermelon, apricot, Indian figs) to nutty (nocciola, pistacchio, noce/pistachio, hazelnut, walnut), spiked (Grand Marnier, rum, champagne) to chocolatey (Baci Perugina, boero, ciccolato bianco/hazelnut chocolate “kisses,” dark chocolate ball with chocolate mousse and liquid rum core, white chocolate), there is a gelato flavor to fit any mood and taste buds.
No matter where you go, gelato cases are some of the loveliest displays you’ll see. The elegant swirls folding upon themselves, the inclusion of the flavor’s most critical ingredients gracing the surface of the mountains, the vast variety of colors… they are truly works of art in themselves. You’ve already seen Giolitti’s cases, a kaleidoscope of pinks and yellows and greens and purples. Some more cases in point:
I was on a pistachio kick in Italy, and for good reason: the Sicilian town of Bronte produces some of the best pistachios in the world. Sicily is the only Italian region where the green nuts can be cultivated with nearly three thousand hectares of land–80% of the regional surface–dedicated to pistachio farming. The scent of Bronte pistachios is rich and nutty, their flavor deep and nuanced. They are visual stunners too; the iridescent green coloration of the Italian nuts trumps the duller yellow kernels of other countries.
Combine two of Italy’s many food miracles–pistachio and gelato–and what do you get? Brilliance.
What’s that–a gelato bar? Yes, Italians like their ice cream on sticks too.
Magnum is one of the most popular ice cream brands in Europe and has slowly been making waves in the U.S. over the past few years. Part of the Heartbrand line (called Algida in Italy) under Unilever’s direction, Magnum started simply as a a thick bar of vanilla ice cream on a stick covered with dark chocolate. This bar is now known as Magnum Classic as an entire portfolio of Magnum flavors has unfolded, including Magnum White Chocolate Coconut, Strawberry Cheesecake Magnum, Magnum Intense (Magnum Classic with a chocolate truffle center) and Magnum Gold (a colorful rendition on Magnum Classic with a hard gold-colored syrup shell).
One of the most wonderful surprises I had whilst in Florence was the Florence Gelato Festival. For two glorious weeks, white tents sprung up across three plazas with gelato artisans from all over the country sharing their creamy concoctions.
The history of gelato per the festival’s website:
It is no coincidence that the Firenze Gelato Festival came into being in the capital of Tuscany. Indeed it was here that in 1536 Bernardo Buontalenti was born. Eclectic artist, painter, sculptor, architect, stage designer and military engineer, when he was at the service of the Medici family he also dealt with organizing the court festivals. Appointed by Cosimo I to prepare the banquet to inaugurate the Fortezza del Belvedere, in 1559 Buontalenti bowled over guests with a cold cream made from a base of milk, honey, egg yolks plus a splash of wine, aromatized with bergamot, lemons and oranges. So the Florentine noblemen’s international guests tasted and savoured the tasty cold dessert and made haste to publicize and offer it on returning to their countries. In a few decades, Florence became famed as the birthplace of gelato, laying the foundations for a tradition that still boasts success in the culinary field today.
Il “Buontalenti” (so named for the creator of gelato; it is also a portmanteau that translates to “good talents” in English) is the world’s first mobile gelato laboratory designed specifically for the festival. Through the crystal-clear windows of tempered glass, the enormous trailer allows the public to follow all the phases in the engaging process of high-quality gelato production.
For a mere 10€, I purchased a gelato card that gave me access to five gelato samples and a gelato cocktail. While I didn’t indulge in the latter, I did sample five different incredible flavors of gelato. And these weren’t just samples– they were full-blown scoops!
If you missed the festival in Florence, hopefully you had the opportunity to check out the installments in Milan, Turin, and Rome in the weeks after Florence’s version.
Many will ask what my favorite gelato was. That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is. Yes, some scoops were more intense than others, some creamier and more luscious on the tongue. But would you rather debate about who makes the best or simply tackle a towering grande cup of gelato together? I know which I’d rather do.
Via Uffici del Vicario, 40
Corso Italia, 142
Gelateria La Carraia
Via dei Benci, 24/r
Calle del Teatro, 4772
Via del Brigantino, 35/37
Firenze Gelato Festival 2013
Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Piazza della Repubblica, Piazza Strozzi