Ice cream is and always has been, more than just dessert. It came on trucks with ringing bells when we were little; it came on sticks and in cups and in cones and in frosted silver dishes at the local ice cream parlor. It was what you ate when your tonsils were removed, when you had a great day and when you had a bad day. It is also one of the first things you ate when you went to Italy. Who invented this exquisite treat and why is “gelato” the Italian version of ice cream so different?
A fixture of Italian life for centuries, the idea for gelato is thought to have started in the Mediterranean basin during the 7th century as sharbet – the Italian sorbetto, the French sorbet and the English sherbet. In Sicily, where Arabs ruled for 300 years, “Italian ice” was made by gathering snow from Mount Etna and adding fruit, honey, floral essences, almond milk or the juice of citrus fruits. But it wasn’t until the 16th century that a Florentine named Bernardo Buontalenti, invented the first gelato by freezing sweetened milk with eggs and wine to be served at the Medici’s many sumptuous banquets. The word gelato is the past participle of the Italian verb, gelare, to freeze. The craze for refreshing frozen desserts, from an aristocratic to a popular treat, spread all over Europe. In 1660, Francesco Procopio de’ Coltelli, a native of Palermo, opened the famous Café Procopio in Paris, a luxurious “ice cream parlor”, where eating gelato became a fashionable pastime. Very soon thereafter small wooden carts appeared selling gelato on every public square in Italy.
Anyone who has tasted real gelato can immediately sense how different it is to American ice cream. Though lower in fat, often 6-8% butterfat, compared to 16-18% in store bought premium ice cream, gelato has a softer, sexier consistency with intense flavor. Too much fat tends to coat the mouth, blocking the experience of the fresh natural flavors. Gelato also has less air beaten into it and is kept at a warmer freezing temperature, allowing for a dense and velvet texture. Because it is not so cold, the taste buds do not become numb and are open to accept more of the flavor.
As with most foods in Italy, each region has its own interpretation. In the North, the gelato tends to be richer, often made with an egg and cream custard base. In central Italy, the base is custard made with milk and eggs. While in the South, gelato is often made with milk thickened with vegetable starch rather than eggs.
The serious connoisseur will look for a sign saying “Produzione Propria, Nostra Produzione or Produzione Artigianale” which means that the gelato is made on the premises. But since most sellers mix their gelati from prepared bases, this doesn’t guarantee quality. One must also look for evidence that the gelato is made daily in small batches, using only the freshest ingredients with no added chemical preservatives, emulsifiers or stabilizers. Artisan made gelato is always stored in stainless-steel tubs, never in plastic containers. Fruit flavors should reflect the season and the color should never reflect food coloring, i.e. pistachio should never be bright green.
Eating gelato is a favorite Italian pastime, a typical between meal snack. According to an Italian confection industry trade report, 75% of the gelato eaten in Italy is consumed between May and September. The report also revealed that Italians eat almost nine pounds of gelato per person annually with year-round consumption on the rise. The number of gelato flavors has also increased in recent years. Some flavors like bergamot, jasmine, licorice, and persimmon are exotic while parmesan, carrot and spinach can really challenge the taste buds. Most Italians still prefer the more traditional flavors. According to a recent poll by Eurisko, an Italian consumer research institute, the most popular flavors are cioccolato, nocciola (hazelnut), limone, fragola (strawberry), crema, stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate chips), and pistachio, in that order.
Most Italians prefer to go out to a gelateria rather than buy pre-packaged gelato to eat at home. Choosing one flavor brands the customer as a tourist. In Italy the custom is to order a few flavors in a cone or cup. This can make ordering gelato a challenge, since the various flavors need to meld/melt together successfully. It’s also not unusual to add a dab of unsweetened whipped cream to the top. In Sicily, gelato is most typically eaten in a soft, sweet brioche – the best ice-cream sandwich!
Let’s join the Italians, young and old, at any time of the day in this favorite Italian pastime. It is neither decadent nor indulgent, after all there’s both less calories and fat than in ice cream. Like stopping for an espresso, it’s an opportunity to linger, chat and people-watch…and simply one of the rituals involved with eating and living and being Italian.
When the occasion calls for a festive dessert but you’re too busy to prepare one, create a little impromptu excitement with a little gelato topped with a simple surprise.
- Crema gelato with Limoncello, Strega or Tuaca; crushed amaretti or torrone.
- Cioccolato gelato with dark rum and amarena cherries; Mandarino liquor and coarsely chopped candied orange peel.
- Limone gelato with lemon infused grappa.
- Affogato (drowned) al caffe – for each serving, place 1 bountiful scoop of vanilla gelato in a glass/cup. Pour hot unsweetened espresso over the gelato and serve immediately before the gelato melts.
previously published in the North End News