Italy is romantic! She has a sort of magic! Her opera! Her to-die-for foods, not the least of which, gelato. It’s bright colors. It’s incredible smoothness … clear, clean sparkling flavor. It’s hard to top it except maybe with “con panna,” a generous mound of fresh whipped cream. “Gelato is ice cream with romance.”
While traveling on Holland America’s Prinsendam, your writer found herself spending a day in Civitavecchia, Rome’s port, a seaside town where visitors lingered happily by the shore licking cones of delicious gelato. The prospects of looking more closely into their gelato were exciting.
Evoking a childhood memory one stranger offered, “Gelato is ice cream busy with the flavors of nut and surprises, citrus fruits and blackberries, nougats and truffles, custards and candied fruits, topped with whipped cream or dusted with cocoa powder.” So creamy, they “slather it into cones, cups and dishes with busy spatulas …”
Italian gelato takes its place in the chilled dessert family of ice creams, sherbets, sorbets, glaces, granitas, Italian ices, frozen custards and frozen yogurts. It is made from egg yolks, milk, water, or soy milk, some sugar plus fresh fruit, chocolate, nuts, small candies, sweets or specially crumbled cookies. Well-made gelato has more egg yolks, more milk, less cream than supermarket ice cream. This makes the gelato twice as heavy as ice cream and creamier. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature which enhances its creaminess and flavor intensity. Up to 50 percent of supermarket iced cream can be whipped air.
Almost an endless combination of flavors are possible with gelato. In the vanilla grouping, there’s at least nine variations. Basic Italian flavors are tiramisu, tortoni and mascarpone. Chocolate appears in at least 26 blends of Netherlands, Venezuelan and Belgian cocoas; coffee weighs in with at least 12 varieties. Chunkiness happens with nuts, coconut, crushed cookies, lavender buds, peanutbutter, fresh ground ginger, all berries, malt, spices and red bean. Fresh fruits run the gambit from cherries to lemon buttermilk, mixed berry to apricot, fig, even fresh green apple. Liqueurs flavorings include brandy, Kahlua, cognac, Bourbon, anisette, oatmeal stout, crème de menthe, prune Armagnac, dark chocolate brandy, Bourbon caramel ginger snap and more. Holiday versions contain eggnog, mincemeat, peppermint candy, spiced Venezuelan Chocolate and Irish cream. Some non-dairy flavors are green tea and Chai.”
The beginning of gelato in Europe goes back to the Arabs, who brought the idea of frozen, flavored water to Italy. Later, using dairy products, Italian iced cream was developed by a Sicilian monk named Francesco Procopio. At first, it was available only to the elite. Later Catherine de Medici carried word of the dessert and the recipe to France when she married Enrico the Duc d’Orleans in the mid 1500s. The French tended to prefer fancy ices, however the Italians kept perfecting their gelato, and today Sicilian gelato is regarded as the best worldwide.
Gelato is not only a taste and consistency. Proper gelaterias are serious, exciting places with unique architecture. Palazzo’s Artisan Gelato and Sorbetto (www.4gelato.com) of Saugatuck, Michigan displays some concepts for Italian cafés designed by Frigomeccanica located in Teramo, Italy:
“Making gelato and sorbetto at home is incredibly easy, states Erica DeMane, in her book, The Flavors of Southern Italy. If you love ice cream I suggest you purchase a small electric ice cream maker, and you can go wild blending flavors and creating just about anything your heart desires.”
When an ancient, romantic country shares one of its greatest joys, its delicious, simple dessert – we’d be less than foolish not to look into it, savor it and see what it’s all about. Flavor combinations seem endless — refreshment seems superb. Gelato can run as high as $3.75 in the U.S. for a double scoop of four flavors. Few tend to complain.