I set myself three challenges this summer in Italy: to improve my Italian (errr… I’ll myself a generous 5/10 for that one), to see Florence (tick!) and to discover the Holy Grail of Italian cuisine – the ultimate gelato.
However, creating a gelato guide turned out to be a lot more complicated than I first thought. On one of my first nights in Italy I started my quest by asking a seasoned gelato-enthusiast for recommendations on the best flavours and flavour combinations, but instead was met this response:
‘Well, first you have to choose your gelateria.’
Choose a gelateria? Is there such a thing as a bad gelateria? How can you tell the good from the bad?
‘Make sure it’s homemade.’
How do I do that?
‘Cono or coppetta?’
‘Frutta or Crema?’
‘What about seasonal flavours?’
It turns out that there is a lot that separates the gelati amateurs from the gelati connoisseurs (or conoscitore – see! my Italian is improving, promise). Here are just a few tips from a keen gelati apprentice (a young gelato-hopper, if you will), which set me down the right path:
- 1. Look for the word ‘artigianale’
This word means homemade. These days a lot of Italian gelati is made in factories and shipped out across the country, so this word ensures that what ends up in your cono (cone) or coppetta (cup) is not mass-produced, but made fresh in-store, so you can really taste and see the difference. The flavours are intense, often made fresh in the early morning and sold out by the evening.
- 2. Look at the colours.
In particular, there are three flavours (gusti) that you can look at to make sure that your gelateria is legit:
- Pistachio – is it a deliciously apple-crisp vibrant green? Bolt. True pistachio should be a gross bogey-colour somewhere between snot and gravel. If your pistachio is the colour of freshly cut grass then your gelateria is using colourants and chemicals to achieve that hideous verde.
- Banana – is it a warm buttery yellow that reminds you of summers on the beach, pina coladas and getting caught in the rain? Leave. Similar to pistachio, a proper banana gelato should be a muddy browny-grey that reminds you of old discoloured chewing gum, and is damn delicious because of it.
- Vanilla – look close. No, closer. Even closer. Can you see the teeny tiny specks of black in the vanilla? Good, then that means actual vanilla has gone into that mix, and not just extract. You’re welcome.
- 3. Spatula
If your server is using a scoop then run a mile. Spatulas all the way.
- 4. Are there locals there?
If the gelateria’s clientele are tourists and foreigners then this place is not the best in town, so instead you should…
- 5. Ask around.
In the UK, if you stop someone on the street and ask for the best chippy in the area, you will be met with a plethora of responses. The answer depends on whereabouts you live, where your family go, where your friends go, how much salt and vinegar they douse the chips in, the consistency of their mushy peas, what they use to wrap the chips, whether they do scraps, how the juicy the doner meat is… (I feel another blog post coming on…) the list is simply endless. It’s all about personal tastes, history and brand loyalty. You get a different answer every time.
Gelaterias are not like that. You ask anyone in town and they will know exactly which gelateria is ranked the best in the area and why.
‘Oh, I’m not sure, I don’t really eat gelato…’ said no Italian ever.
I have looked out of car windows in disbelief as host families have driven past three or four perfectly good gelaterias just to take me to the ‘best’ one, several miles out of town.
Can I taste the difference? Maybe. My gelati palette isn’t quite Masterchef-level yet, but I figure an entire town can’t be wrong if they all agree on one place. And their recommendations haven’t let me down yet…
So now you’ve picked your gelateria, it’s f.i.n.a.l.l.y. time to pick your flavours. Here is the most important Italian phrase you will ever need:
‘Posso assaggiare?’ = Can I taste?
The answer is always yes. Always yes. As many flavours as you like. This is a serious business.
Frutta or Crema?
Flavours are divided up into these two categories:
- Frutta – fragola (strawberry), limone (lemon), coco (coconut), melone (melon), arancia (orange) etc.
- Crema – cioccolato (chocolate), nocciola (hazelnut), caffe (coffee), tiramisu (yum) etc.
Frutta is best for hot summer weather, as it’s sweet and refreshing. Think of combinations such as mango and coconut, pineapple and coconut (can you tell I like coconut?), apple and pear, or orange and lemon.
Crema is good for slightly cooler weather, evenings and if you’re just feeling like being a big fat bitch that day. Must-haves include tiramisu and coffee, milk chocolate and hazelnut, or pistachio and… in fact, just double or triple pistachio is fine.
Or go crazy and mix up frutta and crema like the freak that you are! I’m talking about apple and cinnamon, hazelnut and banana, or chocolate and cherries… ok, must stop drooling over my keyboard…
Why, oh why, if you are in a gelateria you would want to choose something that isn’t gelato, I don’t know. But, gelato’s little sister and lesser-known counterpart can be equally as tasty and cooling.
What is granita? Granita is essentially a slush puppy. A fruity frappe. Whisked up ice and syrupy goodness. A gloopy sorbet with more icy bits. Sucked through a straw and eaten with a spoon, it is particularly popular in it’s home region of Sicily.
Always go for lemon, it’s transcendent. Never go for mint, unless you enjoy drinking icy mouthwash.
So you have your trusty Google Translate or Word Reference app up and running to figure out the gelato flavour names in Italian where colour or pictures may have failed you, but sometimes there are some curved balls that don’t quite translate. Here are some that you are likely to come across:
- Zuppa Inglese – The literal translation is ‘English Soup’. However, don’t be put off because there are no peas or carrots in sight. This is the Italian name for a dessert beloved by all British grandmas: trifle.
- Malaga – Yes, Malaga like the boozy Spanish holiday resort frequented by 18-year-old Brits. Hence the flavour: rum and raisin.
- Baci – The word means ‘kisses’ but is actually the name of a kind of chocolate sold in Italy. It includes milk chocolate and hazelnuts.
- Puffi – Ok, stay with me on this one. Puffi is the Italian name for Smurfs. Yes, as in the cute blue cartoon characters with little white hats. This ice cream flavour is usually bright blue (obvs) and flavoured with vanilla, aniseed or bubblegum, sometimes with little white marshmallows on top. It is not a suitable flavour choice for anyone over seven years old.
So, what’s my verdict?
There’s a whole world of gelati out there! So many rules; some strictly to be obeyed, others made to be broken. I did my best to try different and unusual flavours every time I came across a new gelateria with excellent results nearly every time:
My favourite flavours this summer have included pomegranate, watermelon, amaretto (as in the alcohol, not the biscuits), guava, mango, violet, lime and mint, and coconut (did I mention I love coconut?).
I hope this brief introductory gelato guide will help you and your taste buds make informed gelati choices as much as it has helped me on my epic culinary journey around Italia’s gelaterias/my waist-widening fat-fest of a summer (it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it).