When you think about travelling to Italy you are comforted in the knowledge that you are not going to go hungry. Loosen your belt and prepare to dive in to fresh pasta, authentic pizza and the most flavoursome gelato.
Italy holds its own as a culinary hub for savoury dishes, but their sweet little alternative to ice cream has spread across the world. You’re never going to be short of choice when it comes to finding a scoop during your Silversea cruise, the only challenge you have is the search for Italy’s best gelato. Let us guide you and your taste buds through the history of gelato and onto where you can find the best examples of it across the country.
What is Gelato?
Describing the different types of gelato as flavours is almost unflattering. When you buy a chocolate or a hazelnut scoop you aren’t just enjoying something creamy that resembles the taste; it is like you are biting into the actual ingredient itself.
Of course, gelato is ice cream’s cousin and they do share many similarities. But it is the lack of air, high proportion of milk and low milk fat that sets it apart. We asked Natalie Kennedy from An American in Rome, what is gelato?
"Gelato is simply the Italian word for 'ice cream.' However, Italian gelato does differ from other forms of ice cream that are popular internationally. Gelato contains around 0-8% butterfat, whereas ice cream has a higher percentage (10-18%). The reason that gelato can still have a stronger flavour even after losing the fat is because it also contains 50% less air than ice cream. The result is a dense, frozen treat that concentrates the flavours with a lot less dessert guilt."
Another difference is the manner of enjoying this sweet treat. Ice cream, typically, is something you have on the go, in a cone as you walk between sites. In contrast a scoop (or several) of gelato is more of a social, sit down affair. Getting gelato for Italians isn’t just about satisfying their sweet tooth, it is a time to sit down and relax with friends or family.
History of gelato
The history of frozen desserts like gelato, ice cream and sorbet can be traced all the way back to 3000 B.C., when Asian cultures would crush ice and add various flavourings. Later Egyptians would offer guests ice with fruit juices, while Romans would cover it with honey.
However, gelato as we know it today has ties to the Italian Renaissance. In the late 1500s artist and architect Bernardo Buontalenti was tasked with preparing a feast for the King of Spain, who was visiting Italy. Buontalenti presented him with a creamy frozen desert, which is regarded as the first example of modern gelato and thus making him the inventor of the dish.
Gelato would eventually spread across Europe, courtesy of restauranteur Procopio dei Coltelli.
Moving from Palermo to Paris and opened a café which served up exotic coffee, chocolates and a refined gelato served in small glasses. Whereas Giovanni Basiolo brought the desert to America in 1770, when he moved to New York City. At this time there was just the two forms of gelato; one was a mix of water and fruits, the other, milk with cinnamon, pistachio, coffee or chocolate. Of course, the former would later become known as sorbetto, or sorbet.
What makes for a good gelato?
Arguably the most significant development in the history of gelato was the creation of the hand-crank freezer, which was refined in 1846. It allowed for the mixture to be in constant motion, while keeping it cool, which meant that the result was without any granules and just a creamy consistency.
It is this dense, smooth and strong flavour that comes from the lack of air that makes a good gelato. To make gelato you only need milk, water, sugar, milk-solids-non-fat (MSNF), stabilizers and emulsifiers, flavour, fruit and air. And that’s it.
This should, therefore, make it easier to detect what exactly makes for a great gelato. Simple flavours and simple colours that actually reflect the ingredients. Katie Dawes, otherwise known as The Hostel Girl, elaborated on what really makes for a good gelato:
“Don't fall for the bright mountains of gelato! Real gelato doesn't come with peaks and definitely doesn't hold its shape. Gelato also shouldn't be luminescent. The inside of a melon isn't bright yellow, so what makes you think melon flavoured gelato should be? When you see bright gelato, a wealth of artificial colouring and flavouring has been used to seduce unsuspecting tourists into the gelateria. But what you taste will never be as good as traditional gelato.”
Gelato comes in nine traditional flavours: Cream, vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, lemon, raspberry, strawberry and peach. However, there are a wide range of options that you can find ranging from fruits to tiramisu. These eight main flavours will be the main feature of gelateries across the world.
You will find that they are broken up into sections: Chocolates, creams, fruits and nuts.
Cioccolato (cho|koh|lah|toh) gelato varies between dark, milk and white, while you may also see it mixed with some nut tastes. There is also a great deal of scope for more modern influences, like cioccolato al latte or cioccolato all’arancia, which is a beautiful blend of chocolate and orange.
While you can see similar variations in the fruits section, with mango, banana and cherry working their way into gelato shops, you should avoid anything bright and attractively shaped. If you are heading to a more tourist-heavy location on your silversea cruise to Italy you will find gelaterias with outrageous colours. These are not authentic, handmade artisan gelatos. One way to try this is to pick a flavour that already has a distinctive colour, let’s say strawberry. Authentic gelato will have a pink hue, whereas anything with added chemicals will likely be a very bright pink or red.
To be sure you are getting the best gelato, listen to Laugh Travel Eat creator Nam’s advice and follow the lids:
“Gelato is one of the best things about Italy. While there are many gelaterias in every city, finding the best one takes a little more work. One of the best rules of thumbs to go by is to see whether the gelato is on display or not. The best gelato is stored under cold lids to keep cool, so ignore those that are piled high behind display cases. I'm not saying that those aren't good, they just aren't the best.”
The best places to get gelato in Italy
Natalie Kennedy recommends Fata Morgana, Rome.
“We turn nature’s secrets into gelato and then we reveal them to the world.” Fata Morgana is as creative as they come. Setting out on a new way of thinking, their passion for gelato is evident in their product. An array of the classic fruit, chocolate, cream and nut flavours sit side-by-side with innovative creations like their “Kentucky” – a blend of cinnamon, dark chocolate and tobacco.
Gelateria I Caruso, Rome
If you have been then you will have no complaints that Gelateria I Caruso is featured on our list of Italy’s best gelato. A hidden gem tucked away in the quieter streets of Rome, I Caruso is a local secret.
Just a ten minute walk from the Repubblica train station, it is held in such high regard because it is only one of a few true artisanal gelaterias. You can watch as they make their gelatos in-house incorporating fresh and local ingredients.
They describe it as “a way of life” and this passion is evident in the gelato produced by Carapina. Carapina is the product of Simone Bonini, who opened the business in 2008 following years of research and experimentation into the world of ice cream. Bonini believed the market has become static, holding on to aged stereotypes and concepts which makes them unable to embrace and exhibit freshness.
Using only the finest raw ingredients from the local region like Tuscan milk, you can sample all of the classics. One to look out for is the I Grandi Formaggilitaliani, a salty cream including various Italian cheeses.
Il Massimo del Gelato, Milan
When you see queues of locals stretching out of the door and cars trying to play their own form of Tetris to fit into any possible space just to get into Il Massimo del Gelato, then you know it must be good. The taste of their fruit gelatos is so well developed you may as well be biting into the fruit itself, but the almond, cinnamon and chocolate varieties cannot be ignored either.
Alberto Marchetti, Turin
Winner of numerous awards and prizes for his handmade gelato, Alberto Marchetti in Turin is the place to go for some of the freshest gelato in Italy. Everything is served within 24 hours of when it was made, guaranteeing an intense and rich experience.
Marchetti has embraced the changes in the market, creating flavours such as brioche. But across the menu you will find that all of the gelatos and ice creams are made from limited ingredients. Incorporating as few as possible, this is simple desert executed brilliantly well.
Katie Dawes recommends Gelateria La Romana, Rome
“I hate queuing for anything. But the one thing I don't mind queueing for is the gelato at Gelateria La Romana in Rome. Outside the city centre, this gelateria on Via Venti Settembre is well worth the detour from sightseeing. And once you see the queue of locals and taste the gelato you'll know exactly why this gelateria has locations all across Europe! The staff make each gelato flavour fresh in store each morning, following the same traditions and methods pioneered by the gelateria's founder in Rimini back in 1947.”
Gelateria Ballini, Verona
If you find yourself in the Verona area then head and are craving a sweet treat, then follow the advice from Laugh Travel Eat’s Nam and head to her favourite Gelateria: “Verona, a place that I was lucky to live in for a month, has some of the best gelaterias I've had in Italy. Gelateria Ballini, which does an amazing white chocolate and pistachio flavour.”
It doesn’t matter where your Silversea cruise takes you in Italy, you will know exactly what to look for and where to look for the Italy’s best gelato.