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Top Tips for Finding Authentic Gelato in Italy


Hand holds up two ice cream cones with gelato in Italy
Hi, I'm Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

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Hi, I'm Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

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Gelato—one of Italy’s most beloved contributions to world cuisine after pizza and pasta—is said to have been invented in Renaissance Florence by alchemist Cosimo Ruggieri at the court of Catherine de' Medici. So, it seemed only natural to reach out to a local food writer, gourmet tour purveyor, and self-proclaimed “gelatoholic” Coral Sisk of The Curious Appetite for insider tips on how to choose genuine gelato.

“I eat gelato almost every day,” admits Sisk. “Whenever people ask me those ‘what would you eat for the rest of your life if it could only be three things?’ kind of trivia, the answer is always gelato.” Here are her rules of thumb for spotting the real thing.

Know the basics

Gelato is translated as “ice cream,” but this all-Italian frozen treat is different from its international counterpart in a few key ways. It has a lower milk-fat content, slower churning, and warmer serving temperature than ice cream, so the final product is much softer and creamier.

Because of this, gelato is portioned out of stainless steel tubs—Sisk awards extra points to gelaterie that use tubs with lids to maintain their temperature—with a flat spatula. It’s then scraped side-by-side with other flavors into cups or cones rather than balled with scoops and stacked neatly and vertically. If your gelato is hard enough to be balled and stacked, it’s not a good sign.

A traveler holds two gelato ice cream cones.
Gelato should be soft, creamy, and denser than ice cream. | Photo Credit: Rover stock / Shutterstock

Look for a sign

Artisan gelaterie advertise their made-in-house wares with a sign outside that will say “produzione propria” (homemade) or “gelato artigianale” (artisan), though this is not foolproof. “They could still be using pre-made mixes for their ‘house-made’ gelato, since it’s technically made in-house,” explains Sisk. “These pre-made mixes often come with a long list of ingredients and are full of sugar to mask their mediocre raw ingredients.”

These prepackaged mixes and enhancers are then prepared with machines on the premises and, voilà, you have “artisan gelato.” So, look for a sign but don’t go by advertising alone.

Don't judge a book by its cover

“Beauty is as beauty does,” Forrest Gump famously said. When it comes to gelato, beauty does very little. You may be tempted by bright and fluffy towers of gelato displayed along the most trafficked tourist routes but Sisk says: “No to big, neon-colored mounds. Please avoid the big mounds! And no to bright colors. There should be no bright colors where bright colors do not exist in nature.”

Bright colors are a sign of color additives or the use of “flavor gels” and commercial juice mixes instead of natural ingredients. Meanwhile, mounds indicate that air has been pumped into the gelato to make it voluminous instead of flavorful. The best gelato is flat and dense with muted colors, a sure sign that there are only fresh, natural, and raw ingredients.

Colorful gelato as seen through a display window.
You might want to give those brightly colored gelatos a miss. | Photo Credit: Tuzemka / Shutterstock

Notice the seasons

Like most Italian cuisine, gelato is closely tied to the seasons. If you find a gelateria selling strawberry or peach flavors in the depth of winter, you may be looking at something short of “artisan” gelato. You’ll find more fruit flavors from late spring through fall, while creme flavors are more likely to be available all year long. Avoid flavors that are clearly artificial and defy nature no matter what month of the year it is, though. Buttered popcorn? Bubblegum? “No,” says Sisk.

Pair carefully

Because of its softer texture, different gelatos tend to meld together in your cup or cone, making the choice of gusti (flavors) vital. Choose complementary frutti (fruit-based sorbetti) or creme options—the latter is an umbrella category for everything that is milk- or cream- rather than fruit-based, including chocolate, hazelnut, and inventor Ruggieri’s original fiordilatte flavor. And you can always ask your gelataio for recommendations.

A true artisan gelateria is invested in their customers’ gelato experience and will be happy to help you pair the perfect flavors. Keep in mind that a classic cup or cone is usually two flavors; additional flavors increase both the size and price of your gelato.

A traveler enjoys eating her gelato.
Pairing the right flavors is a key part of the gelato experience. | Photo Credit: Zoe Vincenti / Viator

Do your homework

Finding true artisan gelato in tourist hot spots such as Florence, Rome, and Venice can be a challenge, so make a list of recommended local gelaterie before visiting. “Italy has a plethora of quality raw ingredients, yet establishments in tourist cities like Florence continue to favor business and profit margins over preserving gelato’s integrity,” laments Sisk. “That said, finding a worthy cone in the historical center is tough but not impossible.”

Here are a few go-to gelato shops that have earned the stamp of approval from true gelato aficionados:

  • Florence: Sisk recommends Perché no! (Via dei Tavolini, 19r) in the city center. “I’m constantly amazed by the quality, creativity, and the genial service offered from this tiny gelato hole in the wall, now plowed by tourists hours on end daily.” Her other top picks include Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r) and Cantina del Gelato (Via de' Bardi, 31).
  • Rome: Rome also has an excellent selection of artisan gelaterie … if you know where to go. Fatamorgana has a handful of locations across the city (Via dei Chiavari is their centro storico shop), as does Gelateria dei Gracchi. Both are often named among the top gelaterias in the city. Otherwise, head to landmark Giolitti, established in 1900 and still run by the original family. Stop in their original shop in Via Uffici del Vicario, 40 (near the Pantheon) to admire its elegant vintage interiors.
  • Venice: There are a number of excellent gelato shops lining Venice’s winding canals and narrow alleyways. Locals particularly love Suso Gelatoteca in San Marco, Gelateria Nico in Dorsoduro, and Gelateria Millefoglie Da Tarcisio in San Polo. For a cone far from the tourist crush, head to quiet Gelateria Pasticceria Peter Pan in Castello.

Find the perfect gelato experience for you

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