A recent count put the number of gelato shops in Italy at 39,000! If you’re in Italy, chances are you’ll spot a gelato every few minutes while walking around.
How can you tell the best from the rest?
Keep reading and I’ll give you some pointers to select the best gelato in Italy, or any other place for that matter!
Look at the Display
If you walk into a gelateria and see gelato piled in big fancy mounds far above the rim of the metal gelato pan, turn around and walk right out! You don’t need to consider anything else. Gelato display cases are designed to maintain serving temperature in the lower part of the compartment. That is, from the rim of the gelato pan downwards. The upper portion of a gelato display case is warmer than ideal serving temperature. If you see gelato forming mountain peaks, chances are that the gelato has added chemical stabilizers to help it hold its shape in this less-than-ideal environment. Lofty peaks of gelato, often studded with bits of fruit, make good theater but not necessarily good eating. They’re designed to be magnets for tourists!
Consider the Flavors
If the gelateria has passed the display test, check out the flavors. Seasonality is a key axiom of artisan Italian gelato. The fruit-flavored gelato in the display case should coincide with what is in peak season: berries in the spring, citrus in the fall, melon in the summer, and so forth. Remember, though, that gelato can be made and kept in a deep freeze for up to a month with no loss of quality before bringing it to serving temperature. In an excellent gelateria, then, it is possible to find gelato flavors that represent fruit that was at its peak a few weeks earlier in addition to that which is currently in season. Obviously, certain flavors have no seasonality. This includes chocolate; nut-based gelati such as hazelnut, almond, and pistachio; and some fruits, like bananas, which are available year-round. If a gelateria is stocking wildly out-of-season flavors it is probably using artificial flavoring.
Check out the Colors
Artisan gelato should not contain any artificial colors. The color should come strictly from the flavoring ingredients. That means cantaloupe should be a pale orange, watermelon a light pink, banana just slightly off-white, and pistachio light brown. If the watermelon gelato is red or the pistachio green, for example, they contain coloring agents. Some flavors of artisan gelato can be vividly colored, however. Blueberry and frutti di bosco are intensely colored; all from the berries themselves. It is possible to intensify the colors of gelato with natural agents like beet or spinach juice but most gelato makers don’t do this as adding more than a trivial amount of these ingredients can affect the flavor of the gelato.
Seek Out the Ingredient List
If you’ve made it this far, you are obviously inside the gelateria and, hopefully, about to make a purchase. If there isn’t an ingredient list posted you can ask to see one. Everything on that list should be recognizable as a regular food item. There are a few acceptable ingredients you may not recognize, such as guar and carob (locust bean). Both are legumes that have been used as foods for hundreds (guar) to thousands (carob) of years. They are not chemically produced. In the absence of egg yolks, guar and carob are used to thicken the gelato base before freezing. The list should not include ingredients like carrageenan, sodium alginate, carboxymethyl cellulose, and mono- and diglycerides. There should not be any artificial colors or flavors.
Taste and Texture
Ultimately, the most crucial aspect of distinguishing artisan Italian gelato lies in the taste and texture. Artisan gelato exhibits an intense and pure flavor profile, achieved through the careful balance of ingredients and the slow churning process. The texture is dense, smooth, and creamy, with flavors that linger on the palate. Pre-mix or industrially made gelato, while pleasant, often lacks the depth and complexity of taste found in its artisanal counterpart. It may feel lighter, more airy, and less satisfying due to the different production methods and ingredients used.