As more and more gelato shops, gelaterie, open in the United States, we need to learn from Italy how to distinguish the real thing from fake or poor-quality gelato and also from ice cream. In general, authentic Italian gelato has less fat and sugar compared to ice cream and it is churned at a slower speed so that less air is incorporated. While it seems counter-intuitive to Americans, gelato has a denser texture than ice cream and is served at a higher temperature. What is obvious to Italians is that gelato has a more intense and natural flavor.
Here are some tips and observations to help you find the best, starting from the outside of the store and working in. First, in Italy, in particular, where there is a gelateria in every piazza, you want to avoid a tourist trap. One clue is the big cardboard cut-out of a cone with a long list of flavors. Generally, the best places are known by word-of-mouth. In the summertime, look for long lines rather than marketing appeals to tourists. Next, check out the signs inside the store. Italian gelaterie are required to display their ingredients, and the best are proud to do so; American shops should do this as well. Fresh, natural ingredients are a prerequisite for quality. If you see vegetable oil or artificial colors or flavors, keep moving.
Next, check out the gelato containers. Plastic tubs do not keep the gelato at the appropriate temperature. Flat, metal tins are much better. Lids indicate that the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperature and that quality is more important than wooing customers with colors and decorations. Also, flat, metal spades are better tools to serve the denser-textured gelato than traditional American curved ice cream scoops. According to my friends, Cesare and Agnese Maganzani, owners of the award-winning La Gelateria Loggetta in Mantua, “most gelaterie in Italy use open containers to attract the attention of both children and adults, which probably increases impulse sales. But air ruins the consistency of the gelato in an hour or so. It is better to serve the gelato in covered containers in a refrigerated counter that is maintained at less than 52 degrees Fahrenheit.”
As you observe the containers, note also the colors of the various gelatos displayed. Without added coloring, a quality gelato will never have vibrant colors, only natural ones. Pistacchio, for example, will not be green but sort of brownish. Mint will be white rather than green, and lemon will be white rather than yellow. Berry flavors should have deep, muted red colors … never shocking pink.
And now, the best part of all… the flavors! For starters, take a taste of the fior di latte, Italy’s basic flavor; it’s probably not a good sign in Italy to find vanilla. Also avoid places that offer crowd favorites like cookies and cream and blue bubblegum. Look for seasonal fruit flavors. In a good gelateria you won’t find any flavor of fruit that can’t be found at the local market. For example, at any one time, Loggetta in Mantua sells 24 flavors that vary according to season and product availability. Classic flavors include fior di latte, hazelnut, chocolate, and gianduja (a chocolate-hazelnut combination). Spring and summer flavors include strawberry, raspberry, melon, watermelon, and peach. Fig is available in August and September; pear, apple, and pomegranate are available in October, November, and December. Loggetta also makes its own gourmet specialties, such as a peach / amaretto / chocolate gelato, green apple with cinnamon, and a beautiful lime-ginger sorbet. And Loggetta also serves vegan sorbet.
It’s worth a trip to gelateria Loggetta in Piazza Broletto in Mantua. If you’re in Santa Barbara, go to Rori’s Artisanal Creamery at 1024 Coast Village Road.