The walk from our hotel just off Piazza Maggiore to the best gelato in Bologna, Italy took one hour mostly through narrow, winding residential streets, many of which had no street signs.
The early afternoon temperature had leveled off at about 74 degrees. The sky was infinity blue. It didn’t matter that our map was not to scale and the written directions we were given by the young man behind the hotel desk grossly understated the length of the trek. The quest for the best gelato in Bologna had taken on the extra dimension of a tour of parts of the city where visitors seldom go.
After tasting what actually may have been the best gelato in Bologna, we had to walk back to the piazza. That’s two hours of walking for 20 minutes of pleasure. But isn’t that what vacations are all about – exploration and adventure?
That all happened several years ago, before gelato started to show up on menus and in super market freezers across the U.S. But here’s the scoop: little if any of what we are seeing in the U.S. is really gelato. It’s a bait and switch scheme and many Americans don’t seem to mind because they have the mistaken notion that gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. It isn’t.
Gelato and ice cream are two different creatures. However, without real gelato on hand for a taste comparison, it can be difficult to state with certainty that any given restaurant isn’t serving authentic gelato. The same is true of the “gelato” you find among the tubs of ice cream in the super market.
I had been skeptical of “American gelato” for years, probably because America marketeers have no shame when it comes to mislabeling food. Over time I realized the more upscale Italian restaurants were not listing gelato on their menus. Instead they offered ice cream or sorbeti. It was the chain restaurants, some small stand-alone restaurants, and some resort restaurants that listed gelato on the menu when they were serving ice cream. Many of them weren’t even Italian restaurants.
I expressed my doubts about American “gelato” to friends and family for years and they usually would tell me I was wrong, that what we were eating was real gelato because “gelato is Italian for ice cream.” I got this even from people who had tasted gelato in Italy.
The Rubicon was crossed during a visit to the Sonoma County wine country in Northern California. At dinner one evening I opined firmly and finally: the gelato on the menu was not real gelato. I got immediate push-back from our traveling companion: “gelato and ice cream are the same thing; gelato is the Italian word for ice cream.”
That’s when I decided I had enough. The gauntlet was thrown and it sent me down the research trail that I previously had intended but postponed. Here’s what I learned: GELATO AND ICE CREAM ARE NOT THE SAME. That’s not opinion; it’s not a matter of taste; it’s fact.
Ice cream is mass produced, full of air, and high in fat. Gelato is none of those.
The most fundamental difference between ice cream and gelato is the fat content. Gelato is made mostly with milk and generally is about 93% fat free. Ice cream is made with heavy cream and by law must contain more than 10% butterfat. Two other key differences in the manufacture of the two desserts are air content and temperature. Ice cream manufacturers typically whip their products to contain as much as 50% air by volume. Gelato does not have all that air whipped into it. The result is gelato is denser with a richer flavor. That’s what makes gelato thick and creamy without the use of heavy cream.
Finally, gelato usually is served at about seven degrees, a warmer temperature than ice cream. It melts faster in the mouth and results in truer flavor without the overwhelming coldness of ice cream.
OK. So why don’t American producers turn out real gelato instead of falsely labeling ice cream as gelato? It’s partially because of the law governing labeling, partially in the interests of protecting profit margins, and partially a matter of American tastes.
A cynic would say they don’t do it because they don’t have to; if American’s are willing to accept gelato that isn’t gelato, why bother? A more practical response has to do with the cost of re-tooling a production facility to produce a product different from the ice cream currently being turned out. The cynic would come back by saying: right, why go through the expense of re-tooling if customers are willing to accept gelato that isn’t gelato and pay a premium for it.
The website World of Ice Cream reports, “Premium ice creams are made with fresh cream (not condensed or powdered milk), real eggs and natural flavorings. The quality of the ingredients aside, lesser ice creams also have more air whipped in. More air means softer ice cream that scoops more easily and melts more quickly. Premium ice creams have little air added. Gelato has no air added.”
The site goes on to say, “Gelato and some premium ice creams are so dense that they require a slightly higher serving temperature, a perfect point where your scoop is firm but not hard … Gelato recipes usually include more egg yolks, more milk and less cream.”
Soft serve ice cream is yet another matter. It usually comes in at between 3% and 6% milk fat, is produced at about 4 degrees centigrade and contains air that is introduced at the time of freezing. The air can be as much as 60% of the volume of the finished product. Whether it’s ice cream, soft serve, or gelato, the amount of air effects the taste of the product. A low quantity of air gives the product a heavy, icy taste and makes the product appear more yellow. Higher air quantity produces a creamier, smoother and lighter color product.
To avoid crystallization ice cream must be frozen quickly. With soft serve ice cream freezing is accomplished by a special dispensing machine at the point of sale – that point where the vendor pulls down the handle and the swirl of ice cream comes from the spout. While soft serve is closer in texture to gelato than is the hard packed ice cream, in fact neither is gelato.
So, there it is: the reason the gelato you eat while gazing at the Fontana di Trevi in Roma or after a one-hour walk from the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna tastes different is because it is different. And the reason the chocolate chip ice cream you order for desert at your favorite restaurant doesn’t taste like gelato is because it isn’t, no matter what it says on the menu.
Now, pass that tub of butter pecan ice cream to hold me over until my next trip to Italy.