Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Exploring Italian Gelato Culture

Gelato is probably the most famous Italian dessert. Ice cream is made worldwide, of course, but the Italian version, the gelato artigianale to be precise, has its own character, twist, and well-deserved fame, so let’s see how it all started and unfolded.


The Origins

The ancestor of the modern gelato appeared in the ninth century in Sicily, which was then dominated by the Arabs. The Arabs loved a frozen drink called sherbet (the name later evolved into sorbetto) made from fruit juice and then frozen with ice from Etna or other local mountains.


The first “proper” gelato, however, would be born a few centuries later. In 1565, the architect Bernardo Buontalenti—who served at Caterina de’ Medici’s court, in Florence—made, according to the records, the first gelato ever with the ingredients we all know and (mostly) still use today: milk, cream, egg white, lemon, sugar, salt—which decreases temperature—and snow (yep, still no fridges around at that point). More than a century later, Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli developed the first gelato recipe and, together with the first gelato maker (gelatiera, or macchina per gelato), brought it to France, where he opened Café Procope, which is still in business today.


The first person to patent an ice cream maker was American Nancy Johnson, in 1843. The machine was later perfected, and the patent acquired, by William Young and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the first totally automated gelato maker was on the market. The cone (il cono) came soon afterwards—and there’s so much controversy about who invented it that we’ll skip this part—and with that, et voilà, or better, ed ecco… il gelato! More improvements followed—freezing techniques, just to name one, so that you no longer needed to climb mountains to make an ice cream—but the core of gelato has remained basically unchanged since then.


Gelato artigianale vs gelato confezionato. Toppings? No, grazie

Italians love their gelato deeply. They have eat year-round, with a peak in the summer. On average, every Italian eats around four kilos (almost nine pounds) of gelato every year. The number combines gelato artigianale and gelato confezionato, or industriale.


The gelato artigianale is made of fresh ingredients only (and therefore lasts only a few days), while gelato industriale is what you would normally call ice cream: industrially created, and made to last longer. There are many other differences, including the serving temperature (gelato artigianale is served at a higher temperature and therefore tends to be softer); the production method (gelato artigianale is made with a slower churning process, while gelato industriale incorporates more air so that it melts more slowly), and the ingredients themselves (gelato artigianale has a lower fat content).


Italian gelato is normally served with no toppings—there’s actually no such thing as toppings in Italy. Especially in touristy cities, you might find gelaterie offering toppings, but this is not really an Italian tradition. The only thing you should get on top of your gelato (either served on a cone or in a coppetta—small cup) is panna montata (whipped cream), which should be artigianale itself. If you’re in Roma, chances are you will be routinely asked vuole della panna montata? and the whipped cream would be for free. In other cities, especially in Northern Italy, and despite the outrage of people coming from Roma, panna montata is an extra charge.


Flavors and Trends

The very classic gelato flavors—the ones you would find in every gelateria—are fior di latte, cioccolato, stracciatella, crema, nocciola, and pistacchio, (all milk-based flavors, called le creme), and limone and fragola (fruit-based, hence called gusti alla frutta). These basics can be customized by the gelateria, and so they might advertise the specific percentage of cocoa in the cioccolato, the pistacchio might be salted, or they might tell you which city the pistachios are from (Bronte, for instance). Gelaterie might have their own signature flavor, or—more and more often—offer low-suger, high-protein, vegan, or milk-free flavors. Sometimes, they feature very extravagant flavors, like Gorgonzola cheese and honey or Parmigiano-Reggiano, and while these may be worth a headline, they generally do not conquer the general public taste.


In addition to the long-standing panna montata free-versus-not-free issue, other local differences you might find concern the texture of the cone. Cones might go from very thin—not super tasty, with a pointy bottom—to a waffle kind of cone, thicker and tastier. If you happen to be in Bologna, you might notice the cestina— a short, thin cone that is flat at the bottom—offered as alternative to cono or coppetta.


If you’re wondering where to go to taste the best gelato in Italy, stop wondering. And do not even think of asking someone from Italy about it. Everyone will tell you that their city has the best gelato. The truth is that gelato quality is normally pretty high everywhere throughout Italy. You might want to try to trendiest flavor, or just enjoy a fior di latte & cioccolato old-school cone. In any case, buon gelato!



By Claudia Quesito


Also read:

Summer Vacations in Italy: Essential Travel Phrases and Tips

Exploring Italy (In Person or from Home): A 2023 Summer Guide

Why You Should Go to Italy for Your Summer Abroad Program



Comments are closed.