I have a friend who lives here in Italy, an expat who’s made the move I’m trying to make, who dutifully instructs all her visitors that they are required to have no less than two scoops of gelato every day they’re in Italy. I’ve adopted this rule as my own, and tell everyone I know who’s going to Italy (that means you, too) the same thing. But in order for you to have the best gelato in Italy, there are a few rules you should learn beforehand.
I know, I know – it’s just ice cream, right? How can it be that there are rules about ordering ice cream? Well, it’s not so simple, and if you learn a little bit about the art of Italian gelato before you set foot in a gelateria, you’ll save yourself the indignity of paying your hard-earned money for bad, mass-produced gelato that really should end up in a trash can rather than your mouth. The good stuff is so good that wasting precious calories on bad gelato is really a crime against humanity. Or at least a crime against your taste buds.
First, a little background about Italian gelato. It’s not ice cream, although that’s the closest approximation most of us have seen outside Italy. While ice cream is made with cream, Italian gelato is almost always made with milk. It’s richer, smoother, creamier, more flavorful, and altogether a bazillion times better than your average ice cream. The fruit flavors taste like you’re eating fresh fruit. The cream flavors have the texture of silk. The chocolate flavors are so rich you’ll need a bottle of water to wash them down. It’s also not just something tourists slurp by the truckload in the summer – it’s something real Italians eat on a regular basis. Gelato is an inexpensive treat, and you’ll often see locals licking a cone during their evening passeggiata – something you should mimic every chance you get.
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If, however, you sully your tongue with bad gelato, you’re going to think everything I’ve said so far is crazy talk as you head for the local Baskin & Robbins. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s easy to steer clear of bad gelato, and here are some of the best ways to do just that.
Jessica’s Gelato Rules
- Pay attention to color. While various gelaterie might lure you in with neon lights and brightly-colored shops, it’s the color of the gelato itself that you’ve got to study. Colors should roughly match their real-life counterparts, and any fluorescent deviation should be considered abnormal. Banana, for instance, should not be bright yellow. It should be a vaguely grayish creamy color – like real bananas. Pistacchio should not be bright green, but more of a pale gray-green color. When the colors are not natural, it means there’s stuff in the gelato that isn’t natural, either, and you want to stay away – far away.
- Learn a little Italian. Even if you never get beyond “ciao” and “grazie” in your Italian lessons, be on the lookout for signs saying “produzione propria” and “artigianale.” “Produzione propria” means that it’s made on-site, and “artigianale” means that it’s made the old-fashioned way with natural ingredients. Unfortunately, the former doesn’t always mean that it’s good gelato anymore, because some shops use a mix that comes from elsewhere and just finish the concoction in their store – but it’s not “artigianale.” The pre-made mixes are mediocre at best, and downright awful at worst. A friend of mine says she thinks that if they make the gelato on-site, even if they’re using the mix, they can still claim that it’s “produzione propria,” which is cheating as far as I’m concerned. One good way to confirm any suspicions you might have that the gelato, while made on-site, isn’t really the good stuff is the next item on this list:
- Labeling is important. If you poke your nose in enough gelaterie, you may start to recognize some of the flavor labels in the glass cases. Seeing the same kind of pre-printed label in multiple shops is another clue that they’re getting their gelato delivered or making it from those mixes. The same folks who mass-produce the gelato and gelato mixes are also providing those little flavor tags to each shop they supply. This isn’t a certainty, but if there are other bad signs in one gelateria, having the same flavor labels as other shops becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
- Think twice about climbing mount gelato. Personally, I think the places that pile gelato a foot high in the case make it look really cool, often putting representative examples of the flavor atop their little mountains in creative ways, but I tend to prefer places that don’t bother with that kind of nonsense. For one thing, that big pile of gelato may look great, but it’s going to be a rare occasion when they go through that whole pile in a day (or even a week), so that stuff sits there for awhile. It may be that they just leave the mountain in place and just refill the back end, but either way it’s a little strange for me. The places that concentrate too much on the presentation are, for me, not as reliably good as the ones that don’t invest so much in the “show” but reserve that attention for the product they’re selling.
- Metal tubs are where it’s at. Frankly, this isn’t the great indicator it once was, because the mass-producers have caught on, but in case there’s still anyone out there who hasn’t figured it out… Gelato that’s being displayed in anything but metal tubs isn’t something you want to mess with. It used to be that the mass-producers would deliver the icky gelato in plastic tubs, so it was easy to spot. They’ve (mostly) gotten clever about it, but it’s possible they haven’t reached everyone yet.
I know other people have their own strict rules about gelato in Italy, so if you’ve got a tried-and-true rule you want to add to mine, be sure to leave a comment below!