Gelatos (and Other Desserts) of Italy
Think of Italian ice cream and you're probably thinking of gelato. In Italy, gelato is an art form, and producers make full use of the country's bountiful larder of ingredients — whether it's fruit, herbs, liqueurs, or indeed chunks of other desserts — to create some sumptuous flavours. You'd be missing out by simply opting for a couple of scoops of vanilla on your cone.
Finding the best quality gelato in Italy
Gelato contains less cream and more milk than ice cream, and therefore less fat. It's also churned more slowly, so less air gets trapped, making it denser. A third difference is that gelato is stored at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, making it softer and easier to scoop.
It's worth seeking out handmade gelato, rather than mass-produced product aimed at tourists, so it's good to know what signs to look out for. Firstly, gelaterias selling mass-produced gelato are often in the main tourist areas, and because rents tend to be higher there, owners rely on high footfall and cheaper ingredients to make their profits. It's usually best to seek out gelaterias off the tourist trail where locals go — obviously you'll get more choice in the big cities.
Look for flavours of fruit that are in season, for example figs and peaches in summer, and berries in spring, to ensure the freshest produce. Colours should be natural too — for example, when have you ever seen the inside of a banana that's anything but a dull yellow? Because of the denseness and temperature of gelato, it shouldn't stand up in the tray on its own — if you see gelato piled up, looking fluffy, it could be down to additives. The sloppier it looks, the better!
Popular creamy gelato flavours
Some of the simplest Italian gelato flavours are also some of the most popular. They include crema, a very basic gelato that tastes a bit like custard, and is often served along with a scoop of something with a stronger flavour. Fior di latte also has a very subtle sweetened cream flavour, while fior di panna is more like an ice cream, due to its cream and sugar content, and dulce de leche is made with sweetened condensed milk.
Cannella (cinnamon) gelato is simply crema with ground or powdered cinnamon, while zabaglione is crema with the fortified wine Marsala added. Slightly more complicated is stracciatella, which is made from a base of fior di latte; warm chocolate is drizzled over the gelato and hardens, then it's all mixed together to create chocolate chips.
Popular chocolate-based gelato flavours
You'll find a mouthwatering array of chocolate gelatos in Italy, and there are even gelaterias offering multiple chocolate varieties from different parts of the world. Lovers of dark chocolate can go for cioccolato fondente (or the even darker cioccolato fondente extra noir) gelato. At the other end of the spectrum is cioccolato al latte (milk chocolate).
Bacio (Italian for "kiss") is another popular flavour; it's a mixture of dark chocolate and chopped hazelnuts that hails from Umbria. There's a smoother textured chocolate and hazelnut gelato known as gianduia, which contains milk chocolate and comes from Piedmont.
Cioccolato all'arancia is a dark chocolate gelato with added pieces of candied orange peel, plus a dash of Grand Marnier liqueur, while there are some spicy flavours too, like cioccolato con peperoncino — dark chocolate with hot pepper — and cioccolato all'azteca, the Mexican-inspired gelato infused with pepper and cinnamon.
Popular gelato flavours with nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are popular ingredients in Italian gelato. In addition to hazelnut flavours like those mentioned above, you can also sample mandorla (almond) gelato, which often contains toasted almond paste, and cantucci, a gelato that contains the Tuscan almond cookie of the same name, which has a sweet, nutty flavour.
Pistachio gelato is a good indicator of the quality of a gelateria. It should be naturally pale green in colour, so if you see it served bright green, it's probably full of colouring. Some pistachio gelato varieties, like the Sicilian pistacchio di bronte, contain locally grown nuts. Pistachio gelato usually goes well with a chocolate or crema gelato. And you don’t have to limit your gelato eating to when the weather’s warm. Castagna (chestnut) is a seasonal variety usually served around the Christmas period.
Other common gelato flavours
Menta (mint) is another common flavour of gelato; it's sometimes served on its own, but often contains added chocolate chips, or perhaps some crème de menthe liqueur. Look out too for amarena, which features red swirls of sour cherry in a fior di latte base.
Noce Di Cocco (coconut) gelato has a creamy, light flavour. It is sometimes served with grated coconut and added vanilla sugar. And why not swap your cup of coffee for a caffè gelato? Just like your favourite brew, you can order anything from an espresso-heavy gelato to one that's more like a latte.
Other frozen desserts
It may seem appalling to suggest anything but gelato in Italy, but there's a wide variety of other sweet offerings throughout the country. Here are our top picks.
Affogato: a scoop or two of (usually vanilla) ice cream or gelato is put in a cold coffee cup, and espresso is poured on top. Sometimes a liqueur like amaretto is added, and biscotti served on the side.
Tartufo: originating from Pizzo in Calabria, this dessert features two or more ice cream flavours held together by a layer of frozen fruit or fruit syrup (raspberry, strawberry, or cherry are common). Melted chocolate is added to the outside to create a shell.
Spumoni: think of multi-layered ice cream and Neapolitan might spring to mind. But before that there was spumoni, which includes flavours such as pistachio, cherry, and chocolate, plus sometimes added fruit, nuts, and even rum. Neapolitan was a version launched in the United States that contained flavours more popular with Americans, such as chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.
Meringata: a semifreddo (half-frozen) dessert, meringata is a cake composed of alternating layers of meringue and whipped cream. It's taken out of the freezer and left to partly defrost before serving.
Sorbetto and granita: Frozen blended fruit (sorbetto in Italian, sorbet in French) is not a gelato, though it's often sold in gelaterias. It's an ideal choice when you're seeking refreshment on a hot day, and often other ingredients are added, for example peach with lavender. Some gelaterias place pieces of fruit on top of the sorbetto dishes so you can tell what it is, but if language is a problem, here are translations for some common fruit flavours:
Granita is like a sorbet, but has coarser grains. It's semi-frozen, and contains simple ingredients of sugar, water, and flavouring, which can commonly include lemon juice, mandarin oranges, coffee, or mint, while in-season produce like berries appear at various times of the year. Granita such as the Sicilian granita di mandorle, an almond granita that's often eaten with a brioche roll and coffee, is popular for breakfast too.
You can also read more about:
Where to go for a long weekend in Italy.
Italy's best cycling and hiking routes.
When's the best time of year to visit different parts of Italy.
Where Italy's best beaches are.
Italy's best food cities.
Our Italian wine guide.
Italy's top archaeological sites.
Nick Elvin contributed to this post.