Italy offers so many bucket list-worthy experiences — sipping prosecco at a piazza-side cafe in Venice, lounging on Sicily's postcard-worthy beaches, or zooming past Roman ruins on the back of a scooter — that you could quickly lose count.
Not to mention Italian cuisine. For us food travelers, no trip to Italy is complete without seeking out a few iconic dishes — the best pizza, the best pasta, and, my favorite, the best gelato! There are a lot of classic Italian desserts we adore but none beat a crispy waffle cone packed sky high with handmade Italian gelato (I’m a pistachio and stracciatella gelato gal myself).
Unfortunately, though, all gelato is not created equal. A lot you find in Italy doesn’t come from quality ingredients.
So how are you supposed to find the best gelato when you travel to Italy? Well, we’ve got you covered!
PSA: Benvenuto To A Non-Gelato-Shaming Zone
As a gelato enthusiast (who makes her own homemade gelato), I’ve had my share of outstanding and not-so-great. I've embarked on extensive hunts in many Italian cities for a top-notch shop or gelateria (pronounced “geh-lah-teahr-eeah”).
Is it worth the effort to find a spot making artisan gelato using the simple, local ingredients? Absolutely.
Look, even so-called bad gelato can still hit the spot. If you just want to enjoy a couple of scoops as you meander cobblestone streets at sunset, you don’t need to investigate every gelateria in town.
We're not here to shame your gelato choices, but rather show you what to look for when you crave the top-notch stuff.
The Difference Between Gelato And Ice Cream
Before we talk about what makes quality gelato, let's discuss how it's unique. Gelato is often referred to as “Italian ice cream” but there are distinct differences.
The main ingredients between gelato and ice cream match up — dairy, sugar, and eggs — but the proportions vary. Gelato uses fewer eggs or sometimes no eggs at all as well as more milk and less cream, so it has a lower fat content.
Also, it gets churned at a slower rate, so it contains less air. The result? A more dense, more flavorful dessert.
The key to that intensity is the temperature. Have you ever gotten a scoop of gelato, headed outside to take a photo, and noticed it already dripping down your hand That's because it's stored at a temperature 10-15°F warmer than ice cream. So, it doesn’t numb your tongue, but it melts quickly allowing you to fully experience the flavors.
Not All Gelato Is Created Equal
The truth is, an artisan, handmade gelato made with natural, locally-sourced ingredients is simply a superior product. Everything is balanced so even a small scoop is satisfying.
Subpar gelaterie use a powder mix and you can taste it — it often has a sticky, slightly grainy texture that coats your mouth in an unpleasant way. You’ll find you chase the flavor with more bites until you’ve filled yourself up on sugar but oddly still crave something more.
Fortunately, you can spot the differences between a poorly made gelato and a well-made artisan gelato without having to purchase a cone — here’s what you need to know.
Observe The Gelateria
The hunt begins before you step foot in the shop because you can learn a lot about a gelateria by simply peeking inside.
First, get off the beaten path. Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, gelaterie in the heart of the tourist district often won’t use an artisanal process. Those shops cater to tourists, so they can compromise on quality and charge more, leaving out-of-towners none the wiser.
Decor also reveals a lot. Amazing gelato doesn’t require an enormous plastic ice cream statue outside or heaps of colorful, eye-catching LED lights. Some of my best experiences have been at dimly-lit shops with a few wobbly chairs.
Finally, the gelato storage containers reveal a lot about the quality. It is best stored and displayed in metal tubs as they will regulate temperature better. In other words, if you see plastic containers, search elsewhere.
The Magic Words
To find authentic gelato, look for it labeled as artigianale (artisanal) and fatto a casa (made in house). Know though that there is not an industry-wide organization that regulates the use of these terms. As such some gelaterie will say theirs is made on site, but they still use a powder mix.
Luckily, the ingredients list won’t lie. Good gelato shops demonstrate their commitment to quality by putting a list of ingredienti on display (if you don’t spot a list, simply ask). Avoid places using ingredients like artificial flavorings, colorings, and vegetable oils.
Eat First With Your Eyes
Another tip: simply take a look. Pop in, say ciao, and examine the offerings to see if you've hit the gelato jackpot.
A solid gelateria will use seasonal ingredients that are sourced locally. So, if they sell peach gelato in the dead of winter, they aren't committed to quality.
Also, authentic Italian gelato will look a bit different than you might envision. Rather than vibrantly colored, sky-high mountains, you’ll find tightly packed metal tubs with lackluster colors. It doesn’t look as appetizing but what it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in flavor.
Due to gelato’s dense quality and higher temperature, it can’t stack up tall — gelaterie do this to lure in passers-by. The same goes with bright colors. A neon yellow or fire-engine red gelato likely contains artificial ingredients.
You might find flecks of the key ingredient in the gelato, like tiny bits of watermelon seed in anguria, strawberry seeds in the fragola, or crunchy bits of hazelnut in the nocciola. Finding these little pieces in the gelato means very good things on the horizon for your taste buds.
The best way to test a shop is to look at the pistachio. It's a year-round flavor so it's a perfect gauge. If the pistachio has a bland, gray-green hue and chunks of pistachios, you've probably found authentic Italian gelato.
Tried And True Italian Gelato Flavors
You could do everything right and sadly still not find a shop that passes the test. Still, even a gelateria that doesn’t tick off all the boxes can still have a few star flavors which will almost always taste delicious.
Since they don’t rely on seasonal ingredients, chocolate, stracciatella, and fior di latte will almost always satisfy a craving. If you want something fruity, lemon is a good bet and one you’ll find year-round as well.
There you have it: you now know how to find the best gelato in Italy. Now it’s time to perfect those skills with lots and lots of taste tests!
Have you found an exceptional gelateria in Italy? Tell us about it in the comments.
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