A Japanese friend who has lived in Italy for about 15 years remembers the oddest thing she noticed when she first moved here – a man walking down the street eating an ice cream.
When you live here for a while, you develop a different relationship with gelato from that of your tourist days. As a visitor to Italy gelato is a treat to be savoured – only here can you eat the genuine article, like an original cappuccino. But over the long-term eating gelato – especially during the hot months – becomes part of your routine, indeed your daily nourishment. I could almost use the word “diet” as our own family doctor recently “recommended it” my younger daughter’s sore tummy.
We have a favourite gelateria in Florence, Badiani. We discovered it by chance on our very first August night in the city, staying at a cheap Airbnb flat a few blocks from the stadium. We arrived into this oven on the night of a Fiorentina/AC Milan match and the kids were as perplexed by the noise of helicopters and bright lights as we were by the civilised purple-clad fans chatting and relaxing outside the local wine bars. Good old Google maps pointed us to a gelateria at the other corner of our block and it turned out to be not only our favourite place since then but one of the best, and least- touristy, in the city.
I am not really a big ice-cream person, perhaps due to eating too much of it during the (J1) summer I spent serving ice-cream in Boston, at the well-known local spot Emack and Bolio’s: my one claim to fame was that I served Mark Wahlberg (then known as Marky Mark).
But living here now, especially with children, I enjoy the taste and flavours of gelato in a way I never did before, with so much more satisfaction. Living here as a (clueless) student I went to the same few places over and over and had no sense of good taste – though to be fair, one of them was Vivoli, still wowing customers today. But I think the scene has improved hugely during those 20 years and gelato eaters have become more demanding.
When you get to a point in the day where you’re hot or tired or in need of a pick-me-up, the smallest sized cone will be enough to completely refresh you, as well as your palate. Eating more than 3 scoops on a large cone – that’s starting to overdo it a bit. And not what the locals would always do.
So here are some tips from me on how to eat gelato like a local.
Gelato versus Ice cream
The main difference is that American-style ice cream uses more eggs and cream and is heavier. Italian gelato – which means frozen, so it can actually refer to all types of sweet cold stuff – uses more milk than cream, contains fewer preservatives (if any) so it was probably made very recently, might have a lighter colour and it has fewer and fresher ingredients. It could still have a lot of sugar, depending on the place, but as long as you know … that’s up to you.
You’ll notice the gelato is not always scooped up into a ball and it’s not hard and icy but soft and nearly melted. The best servers will churn it gently with an oblong metal spoon before being gently piling it into your cup or cone.
Choose your gelateria
A shop devoted to selling gelato is called a gelateria (plural = gelaterie) but a cafe or bar might advertise themselves as such too, and they may serve high-quality gelato.
Look for a sign declaring Produzione Propria – which basically means “we make it ourselves”. (In some cases that might mean they made it from a packet, but you’ll learn to spot the difference.)
Avoid the gelaterie that displays their gelato piled up really high, and with bright colours – especially noticeable for pistachio and banana. If it’s from a pre-made gelato mix you might see a little sign displaying the logo of the dairy company alongside the flavours. But some days you’re desperate and you can’t really go too far wrong!
The best gelaterie keep their gelato in steel containers, even sometimes hidden away so you have to choose from the list of flavours on the board and you can always ask to taste them. Quantity of flavours is not always a marker of quality – some of the best and most local places offer just a few flavours. And that usually suits the local clientele just fine.
Choose your price and pay
First choose what size and price you want, pay for it at the cash desk and take the receipt (lo scontrino) to the counter and start choosing from the wonderful array. So if you want a €2 cone or cup you would ask for un cono/una coppetta da due euro.
In some places it’s okay to choose your gelato first and pay after, but this system is helpful as you don’t have to worry about paying extra to sit down, if there are seats, and you don’t have to dig around for change while holding a melting ice-cream.
Cup (una coppetta) or Cone (un cono)?
Eating from a cone is a more sensory experience and can make it last longer. Good, say, if you’re really hungry or driving a car! As for a cup, you could quibble about the wastefulness of the plastic spoon and paper cup, with no obvious method of recycling nearby. But Italians seem to go for either, depending on their mood.
The smallest size (about €2 or less) will usually be enough for you and in most gelaterie you can fit two flavours (gusti) for that. You tend to order by size and then work out with the server how many flavours you want. It’s not so much about the scoops and size, it’s actually more about the marrying of the right flavours.
If they haven’t given you a little spoon (un cucchiaino) it’s polite to ask for one unless you (or your child) can easily access the dispenser.
Taste it first
It’s fine to ask for a taste while you decide, though asking for 4 or 5 might be pushing it. You can say posso assaggiare? (can I try?) or posso gustare? (can I taste?).
Choose your flavours carefully
Flavours that go well together are usually grouped together, in Italian they’d say they marry well (questi gusti si sposono bene).
So for example you shouldn’t really mix cream-based and fruit-based. Why? Because the textures are different; the flavours might clash; one of them is more melted than the other; or just because the server says you shouldn’t really have the mango and coffee together. Indeed I was once refused my chosen combination at our favourite place – I had to bow to their sense of propriety, though they could have been a little less stern about it!
Remember, try to combine flavours that sit close together in the cabinet.
It can be very dark (fondente) or more milky (cioccolato al latte or just cioccolato) or you might find it mixed with orange (arancia) or something spicy (messicano, con chilli etc).
I grew up with vanilla being the standard neutral ice cream you get (if you haven’t really deserved something fancier after that day’s dinner) but in Italy it’s not always on the menu. When you do find it – it’s called vaniglia – in a good gelateria, it will really taste of vanilla.
These are the plainer, more neutral flavours, to complement a stronger chocolate or nut. But they can be magnificent in their simplicity. You have crema (often like a bakery cream), panna (more like whipping cream) and the simple Fior di latte (milk). This last is worth ordering just to be able to enunciate such a beautiful name.
A Florentine speciality is Buontalenti, named after the local lad (well, actually an architect to Grand Duke Cosimo) who, many claim, brought gelato into the modern world around 1600. It’s a lovely creamy, milky flavour and a delicious secondary choice.
A simple choice, this is a creamy gelato with chocolate chips. Almost as refreshing as my own favourite, menta (mint usually with chocolate chips).
Be prepared for a new taste sensation. Pistacchio nuts are the pride of Sicily and they make wonderfully smooth gelato with varying degrees of nuttiness. A good gelateria will offer several styles of pistacchio and my favourite is (of course) Pistacchio da Bronte – named after the small Sicilian town, which eventually became a variant, through the father of those Yorkshire writers, of my own surname, Prunty.
Note that in Italy it’s pronounced the other way, with a hard “c” – Pistakkio.
I’m not a nut person but my kids assure me you can’t go too wrong with nutty flavours as a primary or counterpoint to chocolate. Hazelnut (nocciola) is common though as it’s an expensive ingredient it’s worth looking for a good-quality and pure version. For a more chocolate-based flavour you’ll find nutella is a common ingredient, as well as Bacio – from the (acquired) taste of the Italian chocolate brand.
A good gelateria follows seasonal pattern of fruits. Some wonderful words to learn here: fragola (strawberry), melone (melon), lampone (raspberry), frutti di bosco (mixed berries), anguria or cocomero (watermelon), arancia (orange), pesca (peach), ciliegia (cherry), fico (fig).
Limone (lemon) is usually year-round and almost a category on its own, with an amazing ability to bring down your temperature and a good measure of the quality of the gelateria.
Semi-freddo and others
This is your section with flavours like Tiramisu or Zuppa Inglese (trifle) which are more like semi-frozen puddingy desserts, not quite ice-cream. Nice if you’re hungry as well as hot.
Some interesting colours are produced from sesame (sesame side gelato, which is gray/purple and considered healthy), liquirizia (licorice, green/brown, let me know if you try it), and a friend swears he once had tabacco (tobacco).
You can also find flavours like riso (rice) and cheese-flavoured gelato like mascarpone, or my current favourite which is ricotta e fichi (ricotta and fig).
Gluten-free and Vegan
Many fruit flavours actually have dairy in them (you can tell by how much the colours of each fruit seem more fruity or more creamy). But more and more gelaterie offer gluten-free or vegan flavours and will usually advertise them. Or you can just ask.
And the best gelato in Florence?
Gelato is good all over Italy though Florence (luckily for us) is considered one of the top spots.
This wasn’t meant to be a guide, but how can I not make a few suggestions?
Downtown the perennial favourites which you’ll find in many guides are Vivoli, Carabè, Perche Nò and La Carraia. I quite like the big multinationals Grom and Venchi, though I prefer the former as they’re all about freshness and have a great location beside the Duomo. Near San Marco there’s the nice Sicilian place Arà è Sicilia that does amazing granitas and on the other side of town at the bottom gate of the Boboli Gardens, at Porta Romana, there’s the friendly and health-conscious Gelateria Yoguteria Porta Romana. But in our house, the favourite by far, even if I find them a little snooty, is Badiani – close to the football stadium and well-off the tourist track but buzzing with well-heeled locals and flat-footed football fans long into the evening. My preferred option for friendliness is further back along the road to the centre, Cavini’s – cheap and fresh and friendly. (In Fiesole I previously recommended Ferro Battuto but as of June 2017 it has not reopened. Best to stick with Le Cure for a gelato nearby.)
How to order like a local
Similar to the art of ordering at a busy cafe, it’s an education to observe how the regulars procure their scoop of the day. Here’s how:
After greeting a few people in the door you drop your coins of exact change in the cashier’s bowl and wander over to the display. You probably already want the same thing you’ve had the last couple of weeks – and many people go for just one flavour in their cup – but maybe you go for something new. You catch the eye of the next server who scoops up your choice in 10 seconds, you’re out the door, hovering to eat it while you chat to another regular. And you’re gone, back to work or your shopping errands or your car, in less than 4 minutes. Or if this is evening-passeggiata time you might linger to chat for another hour. Just play it by ear.
Some other links:
More on gelato in Florence from Emiko Davies
A little history
More on flavours
Wash your Language is a blog about real life and language, by an Irish-Canadian exploring the change in pace in Italy after years in Norway. I offer web copyediting and proofreading as well as translation from Norwegian to English and Italian to English. Read more.