Italian Gelato Flavors Decoded
One of my favorite things about visiting Italy, without a doubt, is the gelato. I like ice cream in all its forms, but the Italians have done something magical with their version. I routinely encourage people traveling to Italy to eat at least two scoops of gelato every day, but I should caution you that once you try Italian gelato you may not be satisfied with regular ice cream ever again.
Gelato shops in Italy are called “gelaterie” (gelateria is the singular), and they’re colorful affairs – the glass cases are often full of tubs of gelato overflowing and calling to you. You’ll be able to identify many of the flavors by the pictures some shops include on the flavor cards, but others may be a complete mystery. If you want to learn a little bit more about what potential gelato flavor oddities you could run into during your trip, here’s my list of Italian gelato flavors – decoded. (Also be sure to read my tips for getting good gelato in Italy and learn how to order gelato, too!)
>> Travel tip: If you don’t think you’ll be able to memorize all of these flavors or pronunciations, you can print this page and take it with you!
“Cioccolato” (cho-koh-LAH-toh) is basic chocolate, but the variations on this theme are nearly endless. It’s all the rage to pair chocolate with other complimentary flavors, like hot pepper or orange, and there are also different kinds of chocolate even when it’s all by itself. Here are a few to look for:
- cioccolato fondente (cho-koh-LAH-toh fawn-DEN-teh) – Dark chocolate lovers, this is the label to look for. And if you see cioccolato fondente extra noir, I think you’ll understand that we’re talking about the darkest of the dark chocolates here. Dark chocolate haters (what’s wrong with you?!?), look for cioccolato al latte (cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl LAH-tay), or milk chocolate.
- bacio (BAH-cho) – Named for the famous chocolate candies that come from Perugia, this is a chocolate hazelnut combination not unlike Nutella (which is another common gelato flavor), often with bits of hazelnuts in the mix.
- gianduja or gianduia (jahn-DOO-yah) – Either way it’s spelled, it means the same thing – a creamy combination of milk chocolate and hazelnut. This flavor comes primarily from the Piedmont region, but it can be found throughout Italy.
- cioccolato all’arancia (cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-ah-RAHN-cha) – This is chocolate orange, and is a personal favorite. It’s most often a dark chocolate, not a milk chocolate, and may have either just an orange flavor or may also include candied bits of orange peel.
- cioccolato con peperoncini (cho-koh-LAH-toh kohn pep-pehr-ohn-CHEE-nee) – Another trendy chocolate addition, besides orange, is pepper – and this is often how you’ll see it on the flavor placards. It’s basically a hot pepper infused chocolate (usually dark chocolate), and can vary in terms of heat. A friend also reports having seen cioccolato all’azteca (cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-az-TEH-kah), which had both cinnamon and hot pepper.
Nuts are a popular ingredient in many of the chocolate and cream flavors, but they’re also stand-alone flavors as well.
- pistacchio (pee-STAHK-yoh) – I’m not going to define this one, because if you read English you’ll know what it is. The important thing here it to learn that the “ch” in the middle of this word has a “k” sound (not an “sh” sound). Also good to know – it’s a very popular flavor.
- mandorla (mahn-DOOR-lah) – Almond
- nocciola (noh-CHO-lah) – This is hazelnut all by itself (not combined with chocolate, as listed above).
- castagna (kahs-TAHN-yah) – This is chestnut, and isn’t nearly as common as some of the other nut flavors. It could be a seasonal specialty, I’m not sure.
Here’s a flavor tip – if your first flavor choice is something particularly strong or difficult to match with something else, getting a cream flavor for a second scoop is a good option because it generally won’t fight with the first flavor, but will add a muted backdrop.
- fior di latte (FYOR dee LAH-tay) – Perhaps the base flavor for all cream (or even chocolate) flavors, this is literally “flower of milk” and it’s a wonderfully subtle sweet cream flavor. Some people I know think it’s boring, but I adore it.
- crema (KREH-mah) – This is a kind of egg custard flavor, and shouldn’t be confused with vanilla.
- zabaione (zah-bah-YOH-nay) – This is based on a dessert of the same name, made from (among other things) egg yolks and sweet Marsala wine. So it’s an eggy and custardy flavor, with an overtone of Marsala.
- cocco (KOH-koh) – Coconut
- caffè (kah-FAY) – Just in case you aren’t getting enough coffee flavor in your daily morning espresso, here’s the gelato version.
- amarena (ah-mah-RAY-nah) – Though it has fruit in it, it’s a cream base, so I’m sticking it in this category. This is another personal favorite – it’s basically fior di latte with a sauce of sour cherries kind of mixed in. The cherries have been stewed in something, and I have no idea what it is, but they’re chewy and delicious, and you’re likely to get at least one whole cherry (without the pit, of course) in your scoop.
Technically, these aren’t really considered gelati – instead, they’re sorbetti (sorbetto in the singular) because they’re made without milk. The fruit flavors are some of my favorites – they’re so intense, you’ll be amazed at how like the real thing they taste.
- fragola (FRAH-go-lah) – Strawberry (and here’s the easiest strawberry gelato recipe ever!)
- lampone (lahm-POH-nay) – Raspberry (oh-so good with a dark chocolate flavor)
- limone (lee-MOH-nay) – Lemon (lime is really rare, but it’s lime, or LEE-may)
- mandarino (mahn-dah-REE-noh) – Mandarin orange
- melone (meh-LOH-nay) – Melon (usually cantaloupe)
- albicocca (al-bee-KOH-kah) – Apricot
- fico (FEE-koh) – Fig
- tarocco (tah-ROH-koh) – Blood orange (not very common)
- frutti di bosco (FROO-tee dee BOHS-koh) – These aren’t fruits belonging to some guy named Bosco, this means “fruits of the forest,” generally things like blueberries and blackberries.
- mela (MEH-lah) – Apple (also look for mela verde (MEH-lah VEHR-day), or green apple)
- pera (PEH-rah) – This is pear, and one of my favorite fruit flavors. It’s a really subtle flavor, but one of the best features of well-made pear gelato is the texture. You really feel like you’re eating a pear.
- pesca (PEHS-kah) – Peach
You’ll find regional and seasonal gelato specialties wherever you go, and some that are based on popular Italian candy bars or other desserts. There’s no way to capture them all here (and you’re encouraged to try any and all odd flavors to see what you make of them yourself!), but here are a few you might see.
- zuppa inglese (TSOO-pah een-GLAY-zay) – Literally this is “English soup,” but it’s referring to that popular English dessert called “trifle.” It’s a custardy flavored base with bits of cookies (instead of sponge cake) and often a sweet wine like madeira or sherry.
- riso (REE-zoh) – This is literally rice, but is more akin to the gelato version of rice pudding. And yes, there are bits of rice in it.
- malaga (mah-LAH-gah) – Rum raisin
- stracciatella (strah-cha-TEL-lah) – If you think of this kind of like the Italian gelato equivalent of chocolate chip ice cream, you’re in the ballpark. It’s a fior di latte base with chocolate bits in it. The chocolate has usually been drizzled over the top of the just-made gelato and then mixed in after it’s hardened, so rather than uniform chocolate bits you end up with pieces that look like needles. This is a very common flavor.
- liquirizia (lee-kwee-REE-tzee-ah) – You may have been able to guess this one (it’s licorice), but the pronunciation can be a bit tricky if you’re caught unawares. Personally, I’m a fan of black licorice, so I like this gelato flavor – but it’s one of those flavors that’s nigh to impossible to pair with something else, save for one of the unobtrusive cream flavors listed above.
- cannella (kah-NEL-lah) – This is cinnamon, and although it’s not that common it’s really a delight. It’s not like a super-hot cinnamon, but just a nice representation of the spice. Consider pairing this with fruit flavors like pear or apple, or with chocolate.
- puffo (POOF-foh) – When I got lots of questions in the comments of this post about what “Viagra” flavored gelato was, I was reminded of the blue gelato I saw in Italy called “Puffo” – which is the Italian word for “Smurf” – which I didn’t sample, but which my friend Alessandro tells me is anise flavored (like black licorice). I’ve heard others report that puffo can also be bubble-gum flavored, so you might want to ask for a sample before you decide whether you want it.
- Viagra – Alessandro was also kind enough to find a couple of online articles from a few years ago which talked about a new gelato developed in Italy using African herbs to act as an aphrodisiac. One of the articles says that Viagra gelato was created based on research into the effects of the actual Viagra drug, but it seems that it doesn’t contain the drug – only herbs which are supposed to have the same effect. There is, unfortunately, no mention of what it actually tastes like, however. So if anyone’s tried it and can identify the flavor, please let me know!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to try all of these flavors – and more – on your trip. And if I’ve missed your favorite flavor, or you want an explanation of a flavor you saw in Italy, leave a comment below!
Also be sure to check out the Tour del Gelato, with reviews of specific gelaterie around Italy and beyond.
photo at top by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission
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