When August rolls into September and I notice the leaves begin to drift lazily to the ground, I usually breathe a sigh of relief at no longer having to wipe droplets of sweat off my forehead and peel myself off of public bus seats. And like the next girl, I always get a little excited thinking about all those comfy autumnal layers I can soon show off.
But this year?
Summer is hanging around a bit longer. The air is still heavy, and I’m still sticking to things. And it really makes me wish I was back in Italy, letting my tongue chase drops of gelato as they rolled down their cone, while I happily sat under a scorching Tuscan sun. Since I’ve been back in Boston, this is what I’ve missed the most: the obligatory afternoon gelato to keep cool (and sane). Unfortunately, it’s hard to find great ice cream here. And when we do, we don’t eat it every day. Which is a damn shame.
So, this is an ode to the gelato I fell in love with in the handful of cities I was lucky enough to visit this summer: Paris, Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome, Parma and Bologna, with the best for last. I hope it inspires you to get yourself a cone before summer slips away. Enjoy!
First, let’s talk about gelato basics. As I learned on the Taste Bologna food tour, the origins of gelato (and ice cream) lie in what we now know as sorbet – sugar and fruit blended together and frozen. An Italian was the first to sell and popularize this sweet stuff, and hence the long history of gelato in Italy. (There is now an actual Gelato University and Gelato Museum run by Carpigiani, the manufacturers of gelato-making machinery, just outside of Bologna. So you can take classes and become a pro yourself!)
While gelato technically just means ice cream in Italian, there are important distinctions between the ice cream in the U.S. and gelato in Italy. Compared to ice cream, gelato is creamier, more dense, and contrary to popular belief, less fatty. Gelato is made with milk, not heavy cream, but is not whipped as much as ice cream. Because less air is incorporated into it, it stays rich and thick rather than light and fluffy. It is also served at a higher temperature than ice cream, which means it is closer to its melting point and doesn’t stay as solid as ice cream once its served. This is a good thing, because it instantly melts on your tongue (and hands if you’re not careful).
As I learned from food tours in both Bologna and Rome, there are signs to look for when trying to seek out “real” gelato. The most important is its presentation in its case: if it’s piled high in a heap of billowing scoops, with colorful toppings and drizzles of who-knows-what, then proceed with caution. This is a sign that the gelato is not only over whipped with air, but it is also likely full of unnatural stabilizers that allow it to have a higher melting point. Also, any gelateria that feels the need to dress up its gelato like this is akin to a chef who stands outside his restaurant trying to persuade people to come in for dinner. It should make you wonder: why are they trying so hard?
The real stuff is kept covered and refrigerated when it’s not being served, and it obviously shouldn’t look artificially colored. (Full disclosure: even though I knew better, these tips didn’t stop me from ordering from a few shops that “fluffed” and overly dressed up their gelato. Because even bad gelato is good gelato when you’ve been roasting in the sun all day.)
Also, be sure to go for the natural flavors – and while a scoop of dark chocolate hazelnut is always a good choice (and my personal favorite, as you’ll soon see), some of the best flavors are the delicately fruity sorbets.
While gelato isn’t typically the first thing one thinks of when thinking of dessert in Paris, its proximity to Italy allows it to have a couple great gelato spots. Pozzetto, with two shops in Jewish Ghetto right next to where I was staying (’twas dangerous!), did things right. Their nocciola (hazelnut) and gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) gelato tasted natural and fresh, and started melting right away as I enjoyed it by the side of a hot Parisian street.
Amorino, below, is a chain that does well with tourists and locals alike – not only is their gelato tasty, but they serve it in beautiful roses on a cone. (And with locations all over the world, including Boston and New York City, you don’t have to miss out!)
In Venice, “bad” gelato was rampant, with every different color of the rainbow sold in overpriced cones on every corner. One spot, though, offered a respite from this gelato hell: Gelateria il Doge. Generous scoops of chocolate and gianduja swirl were exactly what the doctor ordered. Moments after the picture below was taken, I made it my life’s mission to prevent it from melting all over my hands. I almost succeeded.
In Florence, I stuck to the big players: Venchi and Grom. While not pictured, both are reliably delicious options and shouldn’t be discounted just because of their chain status. Be sure to ask for panna on top.
Siena, being the tiny city that it is, left me with few options. So I went with La Vecchia Latteria, a few blocks from the Duomo di Siena. After trekking up paths so steep I would have slid to the bottom had I been unfortunate enough to slip, I was desperately in need of a pick-me-up. La Vecchia’s caffe gelato was just what I needed – while a little more airy than other gelato I’d had, the flavor was on point.
In Rome, there are so many options when it comes to gelato. Grom and Venchi are always there, of course, for those who wish to play it safe. At a tiny touristy spot near Campo de’ Fiori called Frigidarium, you can get Nutella swirled white chocolate gelato covered in whipped cream and even more Nutella – ‘nuff said. (And thanks for the recommendation, sis! It was heavenly.)
But if you’re really willing to hunt for the crème de la crème, you’ll find the best in Trastevere – the working class neighborhood just across the River Tiber from Rome’s center. Fatamorgana is a tiny shop with plenty of unique, natural, and allergy-friendly flavors. Their creative combinations of fruits, teas, herbs and spices can satisfy even your most insatiable desires. One of their weirdest flavors, though, (or best, depending on your palate): the “Kentucky”, a chocolate gelato flavored with tobacco. Real tobacco!
I visited Fatamorgana twice, once on my own and once on a food tour. I couldn’t help but order the same thing twice: Il Bacio del Principe, or the Prince’s Kiss. It was a hazelnut gelato with swirls of a thick, dark chocolate hazelnut (gianduja) paste that was like Nutella on steroids. While by no means the most unique flavor, it was executed perfectly. And their chocolate flavors, from Madagascar and Venezuela (yes, I had a scoop of each) were purely divine. When in Rome, Fatamorgana will be your salvation.
Parma was home to the second-best gelato I’ve ever had in my life: salted caramel with butter cookie bits and a scoop of chocolate hazelnut. I lived this dream at Emilia Cremeria, a cute and modern gelateria filled with locals. This place is a must-visit if you’re ever nearby.
And now for my all time favorite gelato shop: Cremeria Santo Stefano in Bologna. Narrowly beating Emilia’s and Fatamorgana’s gelato, Cremeria Santo Stefano blew the rest of the competition out of the water. I was lucky enough to be brought to this gelateria while on an awesome food tour, and got to taste multiple flavors. Because it’s not near the main piazza, Piazza Maggiorre, I would never have found it on my own. And that would have been a crime.
Their crema di limone (lemon cream) was ethereal. For sorbet, their apricot gelato actually managed to be creamy, with the perfect balance of tart and sweet. But the real winners for me were the chocolate orange and salted pistachio. These were, by far, my two favorite scoops of gelato in all of Italy. The Pistacchio di Bronte, (a salted pistachio) was decadently creamy and the perfect execution of sweet/salty, clearly unadulterated by any artificial flavor. The Cioccolato del Baraccano con scorza d’arancia (chocolate with orange zest) was dark, bold, and smooth with a hint of orange flavor that didn’t overwhelm. If there’s anything holding you back from traveling to Bologna, this needs to be the place that convinces you otherwise.
And with that, my gelato round-up has come to an end. This is the last installment of the Eating Through Europe series, so check out Part I, II, and III if you haven’t yet for all sorts of savory goodness! Now get thee an ice cream cone. You deserve it.