Jul 10, 2010

Italian gelato 101

Gelato is among Italy's most loved and consumed foods, but where do its origins reside? And exactly how is it produced? Grab a scoop and discover the evolution and characteristics of Italy's most popular product.

The history behind gelato is uncertain. There are two theories, and the first asserts that the inventor of Italian ice was a Renaissance artist who lived off his sculptures, paintings and set designs for the sumptuous parties Cosimo I de’ Medici would throw at the Florence court. Bernardo Buontalenti was his name, and, according to a legendary tale, his frosty invention happened during the majestic plans for a banquet honoring very important Spanish guests. On the night of the event, he managed to astound his VIP audience with a curiously chilled concoction made with bergamot oranges and lemons, obtained through a clever use of ice and rotating barrels.
Before Bernardo's engineering inventions, the only chilled foods in existence had been "sorbet" hailing from the Middle East, imported to Italy by the Crusaders. Astonishing how a foodstuff made with crushed ice mixed with citrus-based beverages could survive the Arabian Peninsula's climate. Today we call that miracle granita.

The second theory on the birth of gelato relies on the figure of Francesco Procopio de’ Coltelli, a Sicilian who invented a machine specifically intended to blend cream, fruit and ice into a homogeneous mix.

Francesco knocked at the Versailles doors of the Sun King Louis XIV, bearing tubfuls of the new food which immediately fascinated the monarch, and the royal entourage in his wake.

With the king's endorsement, in 1686 Francesco opened a cafe on Rue de la Comédie Française, in Paris. His creamy chilled specialty became the leading attraction, with Parisians flocking in droves just to taste the Sun King's ice cream.

Whether it was indeed Buontalenti or Procopio who invented gelato is still open to question.

Fortunately, the first true chronicled gelati we know of were those created by Italian immigrants from Veneto and Friuli, who at the turn of the century, established in Austria and Germany–two of Europe's leading industrial ice cream manufacturing countries.

The turning point in the ice cream industry came when, in 1927, a gentleman from Bologna–Otello Cattabriga–invented the first automated gelato machine, thus making the product available to a wider public.

So its precise origin may still be debatable, but one thing is for sure, gelato was invented by Italians.

What is the difference between gelato and ice cream?

I get asked this question a lot.

Gelato is not simply an Italian word for ice cream. It is, in fact, an entirely different and unique product, separate and distinct from ice cream. Gelato contains many ingredients as ice cream–water, milk, sugar, flavorings and air–but in uniquely different proportions.

The three most distinctive differences between gelato and ice cream are low butterfat content, low overrun, and extreme freshness.

Butterfat content
In many jurisdictions, a frozen dessert cannot be called "ice cream" if it does not have at least a certain percentage butterfat content. Gelato butterfat content is typically one tenth of regular ice cream. The majority of gelato flavors are made with whole milk instead of cream.

Overrun is a measure of air which is injected into the ice cream during production. A high overrun means a lot of air is added to the ice cream during the making, low overrun means there is not much air added. Typical North American-style ice cream can have an overrun of 100% or more. This literally means that half of the ice cream by volume is composed of air. In contrast, artisan gelato has a much smaller overrun, around 30-40%. But some less scrupulous Italian gelato makers have figured out that a higher overrun can cut ingredient and raw material costs. So steer clear of frothy, excessively sculpted and over abundant gelato: it's mostly all air.

At an authentic gelateria, the gelato is made from scratch daily. Unlike many overseas ice cream parlors, the gelato here is made on the premises. True Italian gelato is not produced in large quantities and then stored. There are no preservatives added to create an artificially long shelf life, so typically, gelato is made fresh for consumption within a day or two.

The combination of extreme freshness, low butterfat and low overrun results in a product that is denser, creamier and more intense than traditional ice cream. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream and has a cleaner, more smooth perception on the palate.

The best artisan gelato can be divided in two greater families: those which are egg/cream-based (chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, hazelnut, zabaglione, etc.) and those that employ fruit as their main component.

The blend that will eventually end up in a generous scoop in your wafer cone, usually starts with the mixture of liquid components, like water and milk. Next are added the slightly thicker components, like evaporated milk, eggs (obviously only in the "creams" category, not in fruit gelato), and glucose.

At this point this blend is heated to maximize homogenization (process in which the fat droplets are emulsified and the cream does not separate). When the heated blend reaches 40° C (104° F), the solid components are added, like sugar, natural thickeners (like agar-agar, or carob flour), ground coffee and cacao powder. This blend is then further pasteurized to guarantee absence of bacteria.

The following stages of production involve vigorous mechanic agitation and brisk stirring; churning in low temperatures, and maturing. These are two very important steps. By resting, the proteins in the milk and eggs absorb the moisture present, which stops the forming of irksome ice crystals, a veritable gelato no-no. Gelato should be velvety, smooth and creamy. If it's sandy and tooth-gritting because of grainy ice in its texture, it definitely is not gelato. This is also the delicate stage at which perfect gelato is whisked just enough and not pumped with too much air to obtain low overrun.

During the churning at low temperatures, gelato finally ices and becomes the creamy frozen delight that we know. At this point the water present in the blend changes from liquid to solid state, and most importantly, this is when artisan gelato makers add the typical ingredients which will define their gelato flavor: freshly squeezed fruit juices, fruit chunks, cacao, gianduja, vanilla, hazelnuts, pistachios, etc.

The final stage of the gelato production is when it is set to harden. The mixture is refrigerated at lower temperatures (-20° C/-4° F), and will be stored like that until beautifully dollopped on a wafer cone or in a coppetta, the typical Italian 3 to 8-oz tub.

Although gelato can be a year-round treat, strolling the avenues of the Eternal City in summer, we always discover newly elected ice cream shrines, where coppette and cones come filled with unconventional new glacial flavors.

The whim and talent of genuine Italian gelatai are beyond measure. Here are a few personally tried and tested fashionable flavor combinations:

Nero d'Avola Sicilian red wine and dark chocolate
Wild strawberries and spumante
Raspberry and sage
Basil, honey and walnut
Ginger, cardamom and almonds
Provençal lavender
Gorgonzola and pears
Poppy seeds
Wasabi, made with dark chocolate and horseradish
Kentucky, which is a blend of chocolate, tobacco, coconut-ricotta, and a splash of pure zabaglione
Candied rose petals
Rice and cinnamon
Saffron and ricotta

The list goes on...


  1. oh lola...love gellato....we used to have a shop nearby and it was the best summer treat...unfortunately the economy killed it...we miss it so...yummy post!

  2. Mmmmm, I LOVE gelato! And these flavors are so intriguing. I'd love to try them all! Candied rose petals? Ooooooooooh.

    Always such a wealth of fascinating information here. (love those cone houses below, too. It WOULD be lovely to retire in one.)

    I'm so sorry to hear about your rough patch. I hope things are looking up for you now. Thank you so much for your sweet comment and visits. I hope you have a blessedly beautiful and delicious summer!

  3. What a delightful and most educational post! I never knew the ins and outs of gelato and, with this, I could pass for an expert!

    I would love to try all the flavors you mentioned!!

  4. Gelato is just excellent! I just ordered Ciao Bella online which is in Grand Central in NYC and was worth every penny!!

  5. yum yum yum!... my italian grandmother would take me for this lovely treat on any summer's day that i visited with her.
    it was homemade at her local italian australian cafe... fond memories :)

    love to you...
    on another note Lola, if time permits visit with Tessa~aerial armadillo as she is seriously unwell. x

  6. I'm ready for samples, even if just in my imagination.

  7. It's early in the morning and I want to have gelati for breakfast! I usually find it had to resist but your post has made it impossible!

  8. Oh. My. God. What a beautiful post, Eleonora! Pity that I am reduced to consuming only granita because of my lactose intolerance... Well, granita is pretty darn good anyway! :-)

  9. This post has made me starving. It's true that I am only 6 km from real gelato artigianale, if I could afford the calories, which I can't. Oh me, og my!

  10. O.K. Lola, You are pulling me closer to ITALY! Hitting my weak spots ;)
    I am Ga Ga for Gelato! ~Nice job~

  11. So many gorgeous flavours aren't there. Interesting to read about gelato today, very tempting!

  12. Oh, cruel and unusual punishment to be reading about gelato and not have access to any! All those flavours you've tried sound amazing. I don't have much gelato sampling experience, but to date my favourite is Tartuffo, preferably eaten while sitting outside a gelateria in Pizzo. If elsewhere, maybe pistachio or nocciola. Not too adventurous, perhaps, but delicioso!

  13. You are a deAr.

    I will be back soon, for good


  14. Brian~ oh how sad! Well then, you have to make it at home!
    Bella~ Thank you, Bella. Friends, children and writing about sweet things makes it all better.
    RNSANE~ You know, it can be done! I could be your gelato guide...
    NYC Style~ Great! Enjoy every scoop.
    Robyn~ Thaks for the pointer re T. And thanks for your words here, always so generous and soothing they are.
    Rosaria~ Book that flight, I'm telling you...
    Bodach~ Thanks for your visit! Who ever said you couldn't have gelato in the morning?
    Saretta~ Inquire about soy milk gelato...
    Judith~ I know, but resisting is not good. Hooray for pleasure!
    CChuck~ He he, your a gelato fan too, eh?
    Lindy~ And these are only a FEW of my favorites... :)
    Louciao~ They say a proper gelato has to pass the pistacchio and nocciola test: they are the basic, simple (and hardest to achieve) key flavors that define good gelato.
    KJ~ Come back any time, the door's always open.

  15. Thank you very much for the info, no wonder they taste so damn good here! I'm going to have to go out and get one now... Luckily we have our very own gelateria in the village, so I won't have to go too far!!!

  16. Thank you so much for writing this so clearly. I've been asked this question countless times (how it differs from ice cream) and, finally, I'll be able to explain.
    Interesting flavors there.... I'll stick to Bacio for now OR the yogurt. Is it made the same way as the gelato?
    Have a great day!

  17. They are opening a Mexican Pelateria next door to my office. I'm in trouble now :)

  18. That was very interesting. I love gelato. No visit to Italy is complete without gorging myself on gelato everyday. Sometimes it's the only thing I eat the whole day long :)

  19. Dana~ Good question about the yogurt gelato. I have a feeling that procedure differs. But I'd need to research before I give you a proper answer.
    Lisa~ Oh, yeah. Paletas... sinful. I remember eating them off the cart in Playa del Carmen 20 years ago, when the street wasn't even paved yet!
    Loree~ Gelato is a perfect summer meal substitute, it's packed with protein/vitamins, minerals and replenishing moisture!

  20. Gelato is my favorite memory of Rome!

    I was very young when I visited there with my parents. While some of the sights were wondrous to behold (I especially liked the Colloseum [ sp?] and the many feral cats who called it home), my favorite thing to do was go down the street about a block from our hotel and buy a gelato. My knowledge of Italian is almost non-existent, so I ordered the same flavor every time - Tutti Frutti! It was magnificent, and I have never tasted Gelato as good as that anywhere here in the US.

  21. Wonderful post. One of my first great impressions of Italy was the ice-cream. There's nothing like it. We in North America unfortunately don't see the value in "cooking fresh daily."

    About the ingredients, just so I'm sure because my wife has allergies and we may be heading to Rome shortly, no eggs are used?

  22. Jim~ Thank you for sharing such a great sensory memory! The procedure is different, that's why it tastes unique.
    Alessandro~ Thank you for your visit and lovely comment! In some gelato flavors eggs are indeed used, like for example vanilla and crema which is a yellow "custard" flavor. Also zabaione includes eggs. You should ask when buying your gelato, many artisans have begun using soy milk for lactose intolerants. My neighborhood gelataio doesn't employ eggs at all, for example.

    Email me for further info, I host gelato tours and other foodie advetures! Ciao

  23. I will keep that in mind thanks!

  24. I believe Francesco Procopio opened the first coffee house in Paris.


  25. Alessandro~ Give me a ring when you and your wife are in town!
    Commentator~ Yes, indeed. I forgot to mention about Procopio's later exploits! Thank you for the reminder.