The Definitive Guide To Italian Gelato

Gelato may be popular worldwide, but its roots trace back to Italy. Here’s everything you need to know about Italian gelato.
A couple holding Italian gelato | Babbel

If you had to choose one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? What delicacy makes your mouth water and tempts you over and over? Without a doubt, I could go without anything — except authentic Italian gelato. If you’re also a fan of this refreshing dessert, or you just want to find out more about the art of the gelateria, this guide is for you.

The History Of Italian Gelato

Although it seems that the ancient Romans already finished their sumptuous dinners with nivatae potiones (literally “frozen drinks”), it was the 9th century that first saw a “primitive” form of sorbet made with a combination of frozen water, herbs, spices and cane sugar (recently introduced to Sicily by the Arabs).

The “modern” formula with milk, cream and eggs became popular in Florence in the 16th century and had a breakthrough in 1686 when the Sicilian confectioner Francesco Procopio Cutò opened the first gelateria in history in Paris (which still exists today).

So, Italians can claim to be the creators of the recipe for gelato, but they still have to thank the French and the Arabs for their contribution in making it famous around the world.

The Invention Of The Cone

For a long time, when you ordered a gelato at Café Procope, you would enjoy the dessert served in a dish. The most in-demand varieties were granita with lemon and orange juice (called “frozen water”), strawberry sorbet and gelato with cinnamon and frangipane. In 1903, the Venetian gelato maker Italo Marchioni invented the waffle cone and gelato became a dessert “to go.” From here, its popularity expanded onto the world stage.

The Different Types Of Artisanal Gelato

Here’s an overview of the main types of frozen Italian desserts:

  • Gelato: The recipe for artisanal gelato includes milk (at least 60%), cream and sugar, mixed together and stirred with other ingredients (depending on the taste) to get the solid, cold consistency that we’re familiar with.
  • Semifreddo: This isn’t the same as authentic gelato, but rather a mix of semi-whipped cream and meringue served at around -20°C.
  • Sorbet: Sorbet follows the recipe and procedure of classic gelato, but it’s made from water and fruit (which is why it’s almost always vegan).
  • Granita: Not to be confused with sorbet, granita is a semi-frozen mix of water, sugar, fruit juice, and sometimes pieces of fresh or dried fruit.

Traditional And Exotic Flavors

You already know by now that I’m a big fan of gelato, but I’ve actually had the same favorite flavors since I was little: strawberry and lemon, in a cone, in that order if possible.

And I’m not the only one: I’m in good company with other Italians who, according to a survey by Eurisko, voted lemon and strawberry their third and fourth favorite flavors (with 13% and 12% of the vote, respectively). They only lost to chocolate, the winner with 27% of the vote, and hazelnut, with 20% of the vote. In general, Italians prefer creamy flavors like hazelnut, pistachio and stracciatella.

But if you’re bored by the traditional flavors, you should know that gelato makers around the world have created new recipes and strange combinations over the years. If you’re up for anything, try a cone of bacon and gorgonzola. If you’re in Munich during Oktoberfest, don’t forget to try a beer-flavored gelato. And if you can’t decide between sweet and savory, you could try gelato flavored with pizza, rosemary, parmesan, ham and prosecco.

How To Enjoy Gelato In Italy

Italy is the home of gelato, and that’s probably the reason why each region in Italy has its own traditional variety. Here are some of the most notable:

  • Brioche with granita. That’s breakfast in Sicily — a brioche made from fermented dough with egg, served hot alongside a cup of granita that you can dip it in. You can get different flavors depending on what you like, but the most popular are lemon, coffee, almond, chocolate and pistachio.
  • Coffee granita with cream. This heavenly dessert is also Sicilian and has been included in the city of Messina’s favorite recipes.
  • Brioche with gelato. If you’re not into granita, you’d be interested in knowing that in Campania, brioches are served with a gelato and cream filling.
  • Sgroppino. This sweet digestive is always on the dessert menu after almost every meal in Venice. The original recipe comes from gelato flavored with lemon, vodka and prosecco, but recently you can also find sgroppino with licorice, grapefruit and strawberry.
  • Grattachecca. This is a specialty in Lacio made by mixing juice and pieces of fruit in a granita with coarsely crushed ice.
  • Pànera. The name of this Ligurian recipe is a contraction of panna (cream) and nera (black), which perfectly describes the appearance of this semifreddo covered in coffee powder.
  • Tartufo di Pizzo. Invented in Calabria in the ’50s, this is made of a round ball of hazelnut gelato, modeled by hand, filled with melted chocolate and sprinkled with dark cacao.
  • Spumone. This is a layered gelato, very popular in Apulia, Campania and Sicily, made with pieces of chocolate, almonds, caramel or candied fruits.
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