What is gelato?

During the Italian Renaissance, the Medici family of Italy asked Bernardo Buontalenti to serve a feast for the King of Spain. Buontalenti ended the meal with a milky frozen dessert, and thus gelato was born. Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a restaurateur, is the one responsible for making gelato famous throughout all of Europe. Dei Coltelli moved from Sicily to Paris and opened a café where he served gelato. The dessert then spread throughout France and beyond. In the 1770s, Giovanni Basiolo brought gelato to New York City, its first appearance in the United States. At this time, he brought two different kinds of gelato: sorbetto and one with a cream base. Americans adapted gelato into their own ice cream, a product very similar to gelato, but also noticeably different.

Gelato and ice cream are so similar that unless you are lucky enough to visit Italy to try gelato or find a truly artisanal shop outside of Italy, you probably would not be able to tell the difference. They share nearly all the same ingredients, but their textures vary immensely. Gelato is known for being soft, flavorful, and dense, but still quite light, while ice cream is icy, firm, and milky. How can these frozen desserts be made from the same ingredients but have such different textures?

Gelato contains less fat than ice cream since it is generally made with more milk than cream, while ice cream is typically made completely with cream. Some gelato does not contain eggs, which are another source of fat in ice cream. Eggs make the gelato or ice cream creamier and fluffier and are used as what some call an emulsifier. The process of making gelato and ice cream is what makes the biggest difference between these products. They are both churned in an ice cream machine; however gelato is churned much slower. The slower speed allows for less air to be whipped into the mixture, making it denser. Because this mixture is denser, the gelato must be served at a higher temperature. If it were served at the same low temperatures as ice cream, it would be very difficult to scoop. The density would be too high and the gelato would freeze and become too hard to scoop. The lower fat and higher density result in what is known as gelato.

There are three kinds of gelato typically available at good gelato shops: granita, sorbetto, and cream. Cream is the most similar to ice cream and is what we first think of when we think of gelato. Its base contains milk, sugar, air, and flavorings (and sometimes eggs). It is then churned in an ice cream maker and stored and scooped at a higher temperature than ice cream. It can be difficult and time consuming to create a tasty gelato of the right consistency that will appeal to customers, so many shops use a powder as a base. This ensures that the end result will be soft, rich, and creamy with no experimentation of ingredient ratios necessary. In Italy, there are no regulations on gelato, so anyone is able to call something gelato, and most popularly, artisanal gelato. Artisanal gelato is significantly more appealing to passersby, since it makes it seem like that gelato is made with the highest quality ingredients by very talented people. There are many truly artisanal gelato shops, but in reality, there are too many shops that use the word artisanal as false advertising. Many so-called “artisanal” gelato shops use a powdered mix as a base.

Because powdered mixes ensure a “high-quality” end result, it saves the owner money because they are not forced to experiment with ingredients and risk creating an insufficient product. These powders come as already flavored or simply as a base flavor, allowing you to create your own. Powders make gelato making easy, which is why it is so commonly served in coffee shops and bars. The frequency of gelato shops in a large city in Italy is so high that you could literally walk down the street and try gelato from six different shops. If you actually did this, you would most likely be eating gelato all made from powders (unless you got lucky and found a real gelato shop), and probably the same powders! These are very generic gelato shops, which can be found within steps of each other in cities like Florence. Also in Florence, however, you can find high-quality, organic, and original gelato shops, but it may take a little more looking.

Sorbetto is another type of gelato typically served alongside the cream based flavors. Sorbetto is different, as it does not contain any dairy products. Its ingredients contain sugar, water, and some sort of flavor liquid (fruit juice or puree, wine, coffee, etc.). It is then churned in an ice cream machine, which gives the sorbetto its smooth texture. It is icier than gelato since it does not contain dairy, which is why sorbetto is generally produced in fruit flavors. It is also popular to create wine flavored sorbetto, like Chianti Classico in this region.

Granita is the third type of gelato. Granita originated in Sicily and is not usually found in the generic gelato shops. It is very similar to sorbetto, made with the same ingredients of sugar, water, and a flavor liquid. The difference is in the process. Granita is frozen on a thin sheet, which is then scraped off instead of scooped, giving it a courser texture than sorbetto. Granita is popular to eat with a sweet whipped cream on top or as a breakfast on a brioche bun.

After trying gelato at so many different shops in Tuscany, sometimes twice a day, I feel like I have a grasp on what a good gelato should taste like. Most of the shops I visited were very generic and used a powdered base. After trying so many powder-based gelatos, I started to realize that if I got the same flavor at each shop, it would taste nearly identical because of how unoriginal the shops are. Although unoriginal and not made from scratch, these products should definitely be considered real gelato. Does cookie dough that you take out of the package and put in the oven produce real cookies? According to the average consumer, yes. What about brownie mix, or a frozen pizza? Pasta from a box? All of these products are not fresh or handmade from scratch, but they fit the general interpretation of what that product is. Andrea Borghini writes in “What Is a Recipe?” about a realism approach to recipes, and from the mild realism point of view, all of these products are considered “real” versions of themselves. The ingredients sometimes differ, but for the most part, they remain the same. Gelatos made with a mix still contain the basic ingredients of milk, sugar, air, and a flavor, so it is recognized as gelato.

In another of Borghini’s articles entitled “Geographical Indications, Food, and Culture”, he describes the importance of geographical indications. A geographical indication is given to a certain food that is produced within one region. These foods cannot be created in any other part of the world because the quality would be reduced due to the differences in climate, land, and historical knowledge. Geographical indications are used as a way to brand a type of food. Instead of being branded to a company, these foods are branded to the region in which they are created. The best example of a geographical indication is Chianti Classico wine. It consists of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes and must be aged in oak barrels for at least seven months. There are several other standards that a wine must meet in order to be considered a Chianti Classico, but the most important is that it can only be produced in the Chianti region. Because it is geographically indicated, a vineyard outside of Chianti could produce a wine that meets all of these requirements, but it would not be able to be called Chianti Classico. Other examples of popular foods with geographical indications are parmigiano and gorgonzola cheese, basmati rice, and kobe beef.

Since gelato originated in Italy and is today known as an Italian dessert, should it be given a geographical indication to ensure its quality all over the world? At first thought, the answer is yes. It makes sense that because it originated in a specific place, its quality when produced in other parts of the world would be reduced. The ingredients would not be from the same farmers and might not be organic or fresh, thus making the final product completely different.

On the other hand, gelato has been spreading around the world for centuries. Different countries have adapted their own variations of gelato, like American ice cream and shaved ice in Asia. Gelato also differs so much within Italy. As Borghini writes in “What Is a Recipe?”, the recipe for gelato can be looked at from the mild realism point of view. It has the same basic ingredients, but there is definite variation between all recipes. If gelato was geographically indicated, the only place to purchase fresh gelato would be in Italy. A geographical indication seems extreme, as there are many artisanal gelato shops beyond Italy that have producing real gelato for decades. It is important to realize that while the ingredients in gelato are definitely not all from the same place, quality gelato can still be produced. There would be added regulations on gelato, making it the exact same product within every gelato shop. It would make the product boring since there would be no variation between all the shops in Italy. It is important that gelato producers have freedom when creating flavors in order to keep consumers interested.

Right here in Panzano is Bar la Curva. La Curva serves food like sandwiches, pastries, and coffee along with gelato. This is usually an indication that the gelato is not the main focus of the bar, so they probably use a powdered mix, and in this case, they do. They serve the traditional flavors you would find in a gelato shop, like chocolate, fior di latte, bacio, crema, nocciola, pistacchio, stracciatella, and fruit sorbettos. This gelato most definitely hits the spot, but if you are looking for something made with fresher ingredients and from scratch, this is not the place. Just because it is made with a mix, it is still technically real gelato. To the average consumer, it meets their personal requirements of creaminess, sweetness, and coldness. If the average consumer, the majority, can consider a product gelato, it should pass as gelato. On the other hand, it should not be considered the best gelato, since it can of course be made with better ingredients, an original recipe, and more care.

I have been here several times for gelato and I definitely enjoy it, mostly because I’m not very particular about gelato. I generally go for the same flavors that I know I like, so I don’t risk disappointment. At la Curva, I’ve tried fior di latte, bacio, nocciola, and pistacchio. My favorites are nocciola and pistacchio, which have also been my favorite combination of gelato at the generic shops I’ve been to (which are a lot).

Named after Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, the man who made gelato famous throughout all of Europe, De’ Coltelli is a truly artisanal gelato shop. They use no powdered bases and only local ingredients. The source of their fruits, spices, and other fresh ingredients used as flavorings can impressively be found on their website. At De’ Coltelli, they serve granita, sorbetto, and cream flavors that have all been carefully crafted. While they have the more traditional flavors like chocolate, vanilla, and nocciola, most of their flavors are very original. Among my favorites that we were generously given to try were ginger lime sorbetto, saffron, beet, and ricotta. Other flavors that would have been interesting to try are pine nut, wasabi, and licorice. After we tasted, I decided to order my own cone with flavors I had not yet tried. I ordered macadamia nut and ginger. I love nutty flavors of gelato, and since I always get nocciola, I figured I should branch out (especially at this special shop). The macadamia nut was much less nutty than nocciola, which worked well with the somewhat spicy ginger. The owner and creator, Gianfrancesco Cutelli, is noticeably very passionate about gelato. He spends an immense amount of time experimenting with new ingredients and flavors, ensuring that the consistency is correct and the taste is exactly what he envisioned. His love for his job is what makes the shop so successful, as he knows what he wants and is able to execute it.

Chiccheria was my favorite gelato shop that I visited while in Italy. They serve sorbettos, granitas, and traditional cream flavors, proving that they know what they are doing. Their ingredients consist of local and seasonal fruit, fair-trade cocoa, and organic eggs and milk. They never use GMOs, hydrogenated fats, fake colorings, chemicals, or emulsifiers. All of their flavors are natural and perfectly crafted.

Chiccheria, like the others, serve the traditional flavors that almost all gelato shops serve, but they also have very original flavors, like ricotta with caramelized figs, coconut, pine nut, and chocolate with pink salt and caramel. I tried the ricotta with caramelized figs, and while I liked it, I wanted something with a little bit more texture. I ended up ordering coconut and chocolate with pink salt and caramel. It was obvious that the coconut was made with real coconut and not just the flavor because there were real chunks of it in the gelato, which I loved. The other flavor tasted like chocolate with a little bit of an edge, due to the salt. The caramel made it a little bit sweeter than usual, but did not overpower the chocolate. The combination was perfectly balanced and surprisingly worked well with the coconut, which just added some nuttiness. These were both flavors I had never tried, and while I took a risk I don’t usually take, it created my favorite gelato experience so far.

Gelato was, by far, my favorite product to eat while in Italy. You can grab it and eat it on the go, and it is always satisfying, even in the most generic of forms. I found a love for pistachio flavored gelato and ice cream and through visiting a variety of gelato shops, I gained a significant amount of knowledge about the product. Although I am able to appreciate how much better a truly artisanal gelato is, made with the best and freshest ingredients from scratch, I realized I don’t have a preference as to whether I eat the highest quality gelato or one made with a powder. I am satisfied either way and because I tend to be physically lazy, I would rather get gelato immediately than search around town for the best place. However back in the United States when I am really in the mood for a softer and creamier gelato than a hard and usually watery ice cream, I know I’ll put in the extra effort to find a gelato shop, just to remind me of my time in Tuscany.

De’ Coltelli

Bar la Curva

Works Cited

Borghini, Andrea. “Geographical Indications, Food, and Culture.” Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics (2014): 1115-20. Print.

– – -. “What Is a Recipe?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28 (2015): 719 38. Print.

Falkowitz, Max. “What’s the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream?” Serious Eats. N.p., 31 July 2012. Web. 15 June 2016. <http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2012/07/whats-the-difference-between-gelato-and-ice-cream.html>.

“Frozen Desserts.” La Cucina Italiana. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2016. <http://www.lacucinaitaliana.it/lcipro/index.php/2014/07/dessert-ghiacciati/>.

“History.” Why Gelato. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2016. <http://www.whygelato.com/gelato101/history.asp>.

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