A year ago I splurged on a trip to Italy; mostly to Rome, with a two-day side trip to Florence.
And I returned a gelato fiend. It’s kind of hard not to get a taste for the stuff when it is literally everywhere – Rome and Florence are as thickly-gelateria’d as we are with coffee shops here. There are open-front places with takeout windows; dim shops with wood counters that have been there since the 1930’s; pristine white-tiled places where the staff dresses in spotless lab coats. The places where the gelato is kept sealed in steel tubs is always better than the places where it’s on display in the window in colorful billowing piles.
Because the taste is what you should care about. “The best way to judge a gelateria,” a chef in Florence told me, “is to look at the color of their banana or their pistachio.” Sometimes you’ll see the banana gelato tinted a garish yellow; but, he pointed out, bananas aren’t yellow on the inside. Same too with pistachios – they aren’t green. “If their banana or pistacchio gelato are white or gray,” he said, “it’s a good place. Because they care all about how things taste.”
Same too with sorbets. I had a double-scoop from one Roman shop, and went with two types of sorbetto — apple and grape, both wedged together in the same cup. The two were nearly the same color – a couple of different shades of taupe. Well, apple juice is this color, I thought, and shrugged, and tasted.
The two looked the same, but oh my word, you could certainly taste the difference.
There was one day in Florence I actually hit my personal Peak Gelato. I had already signed up for a “pizza and gelato class” at a cooking school catering to tourists for that day, but as I began my wandering I discovered that Florence was having its annual gelato festival. All you needed to join in was a festival pass; that offered you five coupons, each of which could be traded in for a free scoop at one of the tents that had been set up in the three main city piazzas; one of the tents was entirely filled with small-batch “artisinal” gelaterias, each trying out exotic new flavors.
I went through three coupons right there. Then a fourth at another tent I came to after some further wandering around Florence. I still had the coupon for the “gelato cocktail” at the end of the night, which sounded sort of like a boozy take on a milkshake. I figured that there would be time for that after the gelato class.
Except the gelato we made in class was really good. Cioccolato fondente – the really dark and bittersweet chocolate that had come to be my crack, with so much cocoa powder in it you could feel the powdery grit on your tongue for a second before the butterfat from the milk smoothed it away. They let the little kids from the class handle the actual mixing part and had it going in their commercial-grade gelato maker while we ate our pizzas, and then served us huge triple-scoop goblets of the stuff for dessert. I staggered out after the class, briefly considered tracking down my gelato cocktail, but I honestly felt more like some plain water instead.
I learned a bit of a secret in that class, though – before the gelato portion of the class, I told the chef I had an ice cream maker at home in the US and asked if I could use it for gelato. Were there many differences in technique? He got a funny look on his face and said “I’ll….explain later.”
When he got to the gelato portion, he nodded to me and said “someone asked me what the difference was between making gelato and making ice cream was. And the answer is…nothing.” Literally the only difference between gelato and ice cream is the temperature at which they’re served.
My big churn is a bit too unwieldy to use regularly, though – it takes too much time to prep for a batch, and the batches are a bit too big to eat all at once. But Mr. Shrimp Grits tipped me off to a much smaller ice cream maker, which comes with two separate churns so you can have the means to make a small bowl for yourself all the time. I finally broke down and ordered one, and have been happily churning out sorbetto kiwi and sorbetto amarena and sorbetto fragola for about a week and a half now. The cioccolato fondante will have to wait until there’s a bit more room in the freezer – that is getting a fuller batch.