I can think of many reasons to eat gelato, starting with the obvious; it tastes great! It is one of the most basic joys of traveling in Italy. People travel thousands of miles to eat gelato, after all.
In case you don’t know what gelato is, (is that possible?) let me enlighten you. Gelato means frozen, in Italian. So gelato is basically any frozen dessert. But for most people, gelato is Italian ice cream.
Not all ice cream is created equal, however, and there are some key differences between gelato and American-style ice cream. So what makes gelato different?
Gelato is only 2 -10 percent fat, whereas ice cream can be as much as 18 – 30 percent fat. It’s low in fat, high in calcium, protein, and B vitamins! This means that gelato is actually good for you!
Another important difference between the two, gelato is blended differently, so contains less air than ice cream, thereby making the flavor much more intense. You will feel satisfied with eating a little, instead of a lot. I’m speculating on this, but try to work with me. Less air also means it doesn’t have to be served brain numbing cold, like ice cream, which accounts for the creamier texture and, I believe, for the more dense flavors.
I have yet to find gelato in the U.S. that compares with gelato in Italy, so when I am there, I allow myself to dive into this creamier, softer, more richly flavored frozen dessert, with abandon. I’ve eaten gelato for lunch, dinner, and in between meals.
My crush on gelato began in Sorrento. This region of Italy is known for producing huge lemons with a very fragrant skin, which of course are used to make lemon sorbetto. Sorbetto is made without dairy, so it’s lighter and contains even less fat than gelato. I’ll never forget my first lemon sorbetto and still seek to duplicate the experience.
In Rome, I had lemon sorbetto served inside one of those huge lemons from Sorrento. They scoop out the inside and fill it with delicious lemony goodness, then freeze it. Heavenly. I’ve had this version in a few other places in Italy, as well. When I see it on the menu I always order it. I’m a bit obsessive that way. Once I find something I like, I just keep going back for more.
After a few trips to Italy, I became more adventurous and began to try other traditional flavors: chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, strawberry, and coconut. There are endless flavor options for gelato – these are only a few. If you want to try some more exotic flavors check out what fabulous food writer David Lebovitz recommends.
At Vanilla Gelateria in Milan, I tried coconut and watermelon. I really had no idea where to go, to find the best gelato. I just decided the constant line outside the door was a good sign. I wasn’t disappointed. Vanilla has been in business since the 1950’s. Using only seasonal ingredients from around Italy, each spoonful was like biting into a piece of fresh fruit. I also liked this place because they had some pretty tables outside to sit and rest your weary feet. Many gelaterias are strictly walk away.
During my last trip to Rome, I discovered Fatamorgana gelateria. Fatamorgana was like falling in love all over again. I went crazy and tried all sorts of new and avant-garde flavors: ricotta with citrus, vanilla rice, madagascar chocolate, blueberry chocolate, even balsamic and basil. The flavors were all pure and fresh, but my favorite was the almond orange. It had small bits of ground nuts in it, and managed to be rich and refreshing all at the same time.
Pistachio ice cream, has always been a favorite of mine. Since eating pistachio gelato, I don’t even order ice cream anymore. Pistachio gelato is like popping a handful of freshly shelled nuts into your mouth all at once; with each bite you get a burst of fresh, creamy, nutty flavor. Pistachio ice cream is sort of a pale minty green color, and often doesn’t even have any nuts in it. Pistachio gelato is a green-brown color, with plenty of finely crushed nuts in it: makes me wonder what I was eating before – was it food?
Gelato is made with all natural, seasonal ingredients most of the time. If you’re not certain you’re getting the real deal, look for signs that say gelato naturale or gelato artigianale.
Eating good food, and good gelato, is simply part of Italian culture – just as taking an evening stroll with family, friends, and neighbors (passeggiata), is. It’s a social event, and one not to be missed. As far as I know, it’s not duplicated anywhere else in the world. I don’t know if ALL Italians eat gelato, but when I’ve been out for la passeggiata, it sure seems as if everyone I see is eating gelato. When in Rome…
How far will you travel for gelato?
For more great places to eat gelato in Italy read Hungry? Top Gelato Spots in Lombardia