What Is Gelato?

What Is Gelato?
Italian gelato (which means frozen) has become very popular all over the world for its unique texture and the variety of flavors. Italians love gelato but they rarely make it at home. Especially in summer, in fact, taking an after dinner stroll to enjoy a fresh made gelato at the local gelateria (gelato parlor) is for many the favorite way to spend the cool hours of the evening outside. Few things can beat the pleasure of sitting outside a café of an Italian piazza – at a table, on a bench or even on the steps of the local church – slowly enjoying a cup or cone of creamy delight watching the world go by. Everybody should experience that.

While gelato and ice cream are often considered the same, technically they are not. The two popular sweets might at first look similar, but gelato has indeed quite a few differences that make it unique in taste and texture.

What Makes Gelato So Unique?

• Gelato contains less fat than ice cream. While ice cream has a higher content of cream and fat (approved by U.S. Federal Code at 10% minimum), gelato is made using more milk than cream, with an Italian law regulated 3.5% of fat content. Gelato has also less egg yolks, used generally only for yellow custard-based flavors, like zabaione or crème caramel.

• Gelato is churned at a much slower speed than ice cream, which makes it dense and typically more flavorful. The faster and harder churning method used for ice cream allows for more air to be incorporated and this makes it fluffier and with more volume per pound of ingredients.

• Gelato and ice cream are served at two different temperatures. Due to its difference in density, in fact, gelato is served normally at a warmer temperature than ice cream, at about 17 degrees F (-8 degrees C). Ice cream is best served instead at about 10 degrees F (-12 degrees C), which would make gelato too hard and ruin its unique texture.

Who Invented Gelato?

The history of gelato is very old and dates back ancient Rome and Egypt, where frozen desserts were made with snow and ice taken from local mountains and stored in underground cellars. However, it was when the Moors conquered Sicily in 965 that the real art gelato making started in Italy. At first, snow was simply mixed with the flavorful essence and juices of local plants and fruit, like jasmine, rose, mandarin, lemon, blood orange as well as mulberry and almond, creating a delicious first type of slush, or granita, like it’s still called today. When sugar and cream were also added into the recipe, the real first gelato was born.

With the retreat of the Moors from the island a couple of centuries later, the art of gelato making was preserved by the Christian nuns of Sicily, who started making it and selling it to earn some much needed money for their convents. Later on, in 1686, a Sicilian fisherman, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli perfected the first ice cream machine.

Meanwhile the popularity of gelato had made its way spreading from Sicily to the rest of the Italy, which at the time was divided into many city-states competing for power and status. The court of Florence became soon the most powerful and elegant of all, initiating the golden era of Renaissance in Europe. The culinary arts were one of the many forms of art appreciated by the Medici family who ruled the city, and in 1550, Bernardo Buontalenti of Florence served the first cup of gelato to a young girl, who liked it and made him famous. She was Caterina de’ Medici, the future queen of France, who thankfully didn’t give up her heritage when she moved from Italy, and introduced her new king and country to the elegance of the Italian Renaissance fashion and food – gelato included.

Finally, it was Giovanni Basiolo who brought gelato from Italy to North America in 1770. Here it became today's ice cream and 6 years later the first ice cream parlor opened its doors in New York. The rest is history.

Gelato in Italy Today

Through the 1800s, gelato remained a privilege of Italian aristocrats and wealthy families, who could afford the luxury of an ice cellar in their home. This finally changed around the 1920s when the first gelato cart was invented in the northern city of Varese, near Milan, and gelato became broadly popular.

According to statistics, Italy is the only country where the market share of handmade gelato is 55% over the industrial one. Additionally, more than 5000 Italian ice cream parlors today provide employment in Italy for over 15000 people.

Cinzia Aversa, 2014

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