For starters, ‘gelato’ is not just the Italian word for ‘ice cream’, whatever your phrase book would have you believe.
To create the authentic Italian gelato, artisans use much less fat in the mixture compared to ice cream, and churn it at a slower speed so that less air gets mixed in.
This contributes to a denser texture and more intense flavours than fluffy, whipped ice cream. Gelato is also served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, allowing the flavours to shine through.
However, Italy doesn’t regulate how terms like ‘gelato’ and ‘artisanal’ are used, so it can be tough for the uninitiated tourist to distinguish between the truly good stuff and the cheap imitations.
The Local spoke to an Italian gelataio (gelato maker) and one of Rome’s top food authors to identify the tricks anyone can use to spot real gelato a mile off.
They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but you should absolutely judge gelato by the container it’s served in. Look for flat metal tins, which may have lids on them. Plastic tubs are a definite no, but metal tubs don’t always guarantee quality on their own.
Lids are always a good sign, as it shows the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperatures – and that the gelateria is respected enough that it doesn’t need to draw in customers with bright colours and fancy decorations (see the next point).
The denser texture of gelato as compared to ice cream also means that flat, metal ‘spades’ are better tools than curved ice cream scoops, so take a look at how the ice cream is being served.
For a quality gelato, you want one with a high proportion of natural ingredients, and that means no (or very little) added colouring.
“A quality gelato will never have very vibrant colours, but natural ones,” explains gelataio Domenico Maggiore. “For example, pistacchio should never be green like you might think, but brownish.”
For berry colours, look for deep, muted reds rather than shocking pink, and lemon should be white rather than yellowy.
Look at the tone as well. Maggiore warns: “Gelato should never look shiny – that means there are too many sugars, or that it’s oxidized, which means it’s old.”
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Deep berry colours are a good sign – and note the flat metal spades. Photo: An Mai/Flickr
Remember how a key difference between gelato and ice cream was that the former has less air and a denser texture? This can help you identify the real stuff in a shop.
“Consider the height of an ice cream in the container; if it is piled up too high and doesn’t melt, it means it is rich in vegetable fats and emulsifiers,” explains Maggiore.
Rome food journalist and author Katie Parla adds that the whipped-up mountains of ice cream might be unsafe as well as lacking in flavour. “Gelato overflowing its bin carries the defect of being above the legal service temperature, creating food safety risks,” she warns.
Even if you know exactly which flavour you’re going to order, it’s worth seeing which other options are on offer, as this can give a valuable clue to the gelato’s quality. Tourist favourites such as cookies and cream and bright blue bubblegum (usually called ‘puffo’, which means smurf) are generally a bad sign – though good gelaterias might still offer them as a crowd-pleaser in addition to quality flavours.
You might also spot the exact same flavours and labelling in several different stores, which is a giveaway that this isn’t artisanal gelato but mass-produced, either delivered in bulk or made from a mix. Fruit flavours which are out of season show that they probably aren’t using fresh ingredients. In a good gelateria, you won’t find any fruit that can’t also be found at local market stalls that month.
Smurf ice cream. Photo: Romana Klee/Flickr
So what should you look for?
Seasonal fruit flavours are a good sign, and any quality gelateria will serve fior di panna/latte, the basic ‘plain’ flavour of pure milk or cream (it’s rare, and usually not promising, to find vanilla flavoured gelato).
These simple flavours should be strong and creamy, without embellishment like sauces or chocolate chips, and if they’re not on offer at all, it’s a sign the shop is using inferior ingredients. Most gelaterias offer free tasting spoonfuls (and if they don’t, get out of there!) so try the fior di panna – if it’s bland or covered up with added flavours, it’s a sign that the other flavours won’t be up to scratch either.
“A microscopic fraction of Rome’s thousands of gelato shops use all natural ingredients,” says Rome foodie Katie Parla, who has written an award-winning cookbook and offers food tours of the capital. She says fresh, natural ingredients are a “prerequisite for quality”, and that all Italian gelaterias are required to display their ingredients.
Study the list, and if you see ingredients like vegetable oil (olio vegetale) or artificial colours and flavours (usually shown as a number and letter code), Parla advises you to “run away”. The same applies if the ingredients list itself is hard to track down: most gelaterias are proud to show you what goes into their creations.
This tip is based less on the science behind gelato-making and more on common sense. Clued-up visitors to Italy know that it’s generally best to avoid the tourist trap restaurants with chequered tablecloths, long menus in many languages, and a charming waiter beckoning in customers from the street.
Apply the same logic to gelaterias: often, the very best won’t need to do a huge job to look inviting, because if the gelato’s good enough, word will spread. That means a huge sculpture or cardboard cut-out of an ice cream cone could be a red flag, and if there are dozens of flavours on offer, they’re unlikely to all be premium quality.
Photo: Simone Ramella Flickr
Still not sure you can track down the best gelato on your own? Parla offers several tried and tested recommendations for visitors to Rome, where she promises “a taste of the real stuff”.
Gelateria del Teatro, Fatamorgana, Gelateria dei Gracchi, and Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè each have several branches dotted around the centre, and in Trastevere you should visit Fiordiluna. Other top gelato shops can be found on the outskirts of Rome: Al Settimo Gelo in the north-west, or Otaleg in the Portuense district.
This article was first published in 2017.