One woman’s love affair with Italian ice cream

Amore and gelato

Jess Tava
March 30, 2017 - 15:59

Deep down in my DNA there must be an ice-cream chromosome. I have loved ice cream ever since I was a child back in the 1950s when options consisted largely of soft serve and supermarket brands. Since then, higher-quality premium commercial ice-cream brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs became available to U.S. consumers. It wasn’t until I began visiting Italy as an adult that I discovered gelato and realized what I had been missing. My appreciation of true artisanal gelato, that is, handcrafted, non-commercially produced gelato, was to come much later.

 

 

 

Gelato has less air, less sugar and a lower butterfat content than ice cream.

 

A spring awakening

When I began to travel more frequently to Italy ten years ago, I enjoyed gelato, like most tourists, as an afternoon treat or instead of lunch. I didn’t pay much attention to the quality of the gelato I was eating, only noticed when the flavor or consistency was off. My epiphany came two years ago while vacationing on Lake Como with friends. We endeavored to eat gelato every day and came across high-quality gelaterias that were using locally sourced ingredients, natural flavors and no artificial color additives. This was really good stuff: the right texture, creaminess and flavor intensity. After Lake Como it was on to Levanto, the Cinque Terre and Santa Margherita, and more fabulous tasting gelato. The luxury of a daily indulgence of gelato had become a necessity. I was smitten!

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Getting to know gelato

The opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with gelato came last spring during a six-week “living and learning in Florence” program. For my independent project, I compiled a list of 12 top-rated gelaterias in the historic city center from local Florentine and travel websites and invited my fellow travelers to join me in evaluating them.

 

As I began my gelato evaluation journey, I wanted to know why it tasted so much better than ice cream. Two fellow tasters and I made the 35-minute train excursion to Bologna to visit the Carpigiani Gelato Museum to take “Discovering Gelato,” their hands-on lesson with tasting and guided museum tour.

 

We learned that gelato has less air, less sugar and a lower butterfat content than ice cream. It is also served at a higher temperature, which makes it smoother, creamier and allows a more intense flavor to come through. It is primarily milk-based, while ice cream is heavier on cream, often having twice as much. Depending on the base mixture, eggs may or may not be used. Sorbetto, water-based with no milk or cream, is as smooth and creamy as gelato.

 

After our lesson, in a gelato machine we mixed a batch of “fior di latte,” literally “flower of milk,” which has no eggs and very little cream, and then tasted almost all of the 14 flavors in the gelato shop. The gelato is prepared daily by the Carpigiani Gelato University interns: seven traditional flavors and seven creative combinations. The portions were generous. We partook generously. This was clearly superior gelato, some of the best I had ever eaten. My affection for gelato was taking a more serious turn.

 

 

Falling for gelato – hook, line and sinker

Our program took us to San Gimignano to meet a true Maestro of Gelato, Sergio Dondoli. Sergio is a Gelato World Champion, having been on the winning Italian team 2006–7 and 2008–9, and was one of the first instructors at the Carpigiani Gelato University. After he had shared stories with the group about his gelato career and his philosophy of gelato making, I had the opportunity to interview him and taste some 15 of the 40 flavors of gelato and sorbetto that were available in his gelateria that day. Be still my heart—was this really happening? I had to pinch myself!

 

Every flavor I tasted was OMG. These were flavors that were subtle or full-bodied, sweet or savory, some with complex layerings of flavor, all like velvet cream on the tongue. His “Crema di Santa Fina”, a trademarked gelato of cream with saffron and pine nuts, was one of my favorites, along with zabaione with 10-year old vin santo, a Tuscan dessert wine. The Vernaccia sorbetto tasted just like the local wine. Also trademarked: “Curva Fiesole,” the official gelato of Fiorentina, the Florence soccer team; their purple team color deliciously represented in ricotta and blackberry gelato. My reaction? Picture the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

 

 

 

 

Parting is such sweet sorrow

In the end, the six of us who completed the project mission to go to every gelateria on the list all had particular favorites. We did agree on one thing, however: you cannot have too much artisanal gelato! Adjusting back to every day life after six weeks in Florence was difficult enough but the separation from my beloved Italian ice cream was more than I could bear. I bought a small gelato maker and started learning to infuse flavors and make gelato for friends. Every time I discover a first-rate gelateria in the U.S., memories of last spring come flooding back and fill me with joy. When I return to Florence this year, it will be with a new list of gelaterias to explore. I will, of course, revisit favorites, but there is more than enough room in my heart for some new loves.

 

 

Gelato Museum Carpigiani

Via Emilia 45, Anzola Emilia, just outside of Bologna

051 6505306

www.gelatomuseum.com/en

 

 

Gelateria Dondoli

Piazza della Cisterna 4, San Gimignano

0577 942244

www.gelateriadondoli.com

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