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It's official – gelato is good for you!

There is no doubt that gelato is much better for you than ice cream. In fact, so little milk is consumed in most parts of Italy, particularly the south, that they really do consider gelato to be good for you.

Many people consider that gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream but this is not so, there is a significant difference between the two, particularly compared to the world famous, creamy, American version. The word gelato in Italian is a shortened version of the word 'congelato' which literally means 'frozen'.

In simple terms, here are the differences between ice cream and gelato:

Fat content

Ice cream is made with cream, some whole milk and quite often egg yolks and has a minimum (legal requirement) of 10% fat. The fat content is usually much higher, particularly with ice creams made at home.

Gelato uses whole milk, less or no cream, egg yolks are rarely used and it usually has a fat content of between 5% and 7%.

Air and churning

Ice cream is churned fast and hard in order to whip in plenty of air which is called overrun, or in other words, the percentage of volume which has been added to the original mixture. This is simple to do with ice cream as the high fat content of the cream makes it easy to whip. The better, more expensive ice creams have an overrun of around 25% whereas the cheaper, commercial ones generally have an overrun of 50% or more and really cheap ice cream can have up to 90%.

Gelato is not able to be whipped in this manner due to the lower fat, higher milk content and is therefore churned at a slower, gentler rate so very little air is pumped into it. This means that gelato is denser, less creamy and has a softer, elastic texture than ice cream.


Ice cream is kept and served at around -12°C (10°F) and begins to melt as soon as it gets warmer than this.

Gelato, with less fat and less air is able to be served at the higher temperature of -6° to -3°C (20° to 25°F).

On the whole, gelato tastes less rich and creamy than ice cream but it is noted for being much fresher and tastier. This actually isn't true, ice cream has just as much flavour but the amount of fat in it coats your tongue which deadens the taste buds. Gelato is softer and smoother than ice cream and with less air the taste is more condensed and a little stronger. It is said that a good gelato is meant to fill your mouth with a burst of flavour and then melt gently away.

In Italy you buy your gelato (pl. gelati) from a gelateria (pl. gelaterie) and they can be found wherever you go. Most will be good but some will be better than others and some will be exceptional.

    Here are a few tips on how to spot a good gelato:
  • The gelateria should make the gelato on site in small batches.
  • The products used should be fresh, natural and seasonal.
  • The colours should be subdued, for example, banana should be the colour of the banana flesh and not the colour of the skin, pistachio should be a pale, creamy green and not a vivid green and peach should be peachy, not orange.
  • A really good gelateria will more than likely display a list of the ingredients used and cater for people with diabetes and allergies.
  • Gelato should not be served with an ice cream scoop. It is traditionally served with a spatula (spatola) and there should be one for each flavour on display. This stops cross contamination of flavours and also means that the spatulas do not need to be washed after each serving and run the risk of adding drops of water to the gelato.
  • The gelato is usually displayed in a colourful and elaborate way, first having been artistically shaped with a special spatula and then decorated with fresh fruit, nuts and chocolate etc. Gelato is served in cups, usually two sizes, or cones and it is normal practice to have two or three flavours. You can, of course, just have one scoop of one flavour, two or three scoops of the same flavour or as many scoops of as many flavours as you like!

In most gelaterie it is common place to pay for your gelato at the cash desk first and it is here that you will have to decide whether you want one, two or three scoops. You then go to the counter with your ticket and decide if you want your gelato in a cup (coppa) or a cone (cono) and then you choose your flavours. If you have your gelato in a cup there will be colourful plastic spoons on the counter for you to help yourself to. It is our advice to also take one of these if you have gelato in a cone and to initially start eating it with the spoon. If you lick your cone on a hot summer's day it will soon begin to melt but using the spoon allows it to stay cool longer. In Sicily, and some parts of the far south of Italy, they also serve gelato in a brioche type bun.

The history of eating something cold and sweet began many centuries ago with ancient civilizations in Asia and Eygypt eating crushed ice with fruit flavourings as far back as 3000 B.C. The Romans began this custom about a few thousand years later by collecting ice from Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius and sweetening it with honey.

Not much changed until sometime in the mid-15th century when the early skill of making gelato began in Italy. In Florence, the Medici family, in a quest to find the greatest frozen dessert set up a competition that was open to all residents. Ruggeri, a local chicken farmer and aspiring cook made something similar to sorbet with ice and fruit juices. It then became common practice for snow to be compacted and stored underground in order for it to be flavoured with fruit and sold in the summer months to those who could afford it. In the latter part of the 15th century, the Medici family commissioned Bernardo Buontalenti, a famous artist and architect, to prepare a feast for the impending visit of the King of Spain. Using all his artistic and culinary skills he presented the King with a creamy, frozen dessert which was the first gelato.

Although Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with inventing gelato it was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a restaurant owner from Sicily, who made it famous throughout Europe. Francesco moved from Palermo to Paris where he opened a café called where he refined the making of gelato and started making new flavours and serving it in different ways. The café, The Procope, became hugely successful and the popularity of gelato spread throughout France and into other parts of Europe.

Gelato finally arrived in America in 1770 when Giovanni Basiolo brought it to New York City.

    Essential terms:
  • gelato - gelato
  • cono - cone
  • coppa - cup
  • one - uno
  • two - due
  • three - tre
  • flavour - gusto
  • flavours - gusti
  • banana - banana
  • caffè - coffee
  • cioccolato - chocolate
  • cocco - coconut
  • fragola - strawberry
  • limone - lemon
  • mandorla - almond
  • menta - mint
  • nocciola - hazelnut
  • pesca - peach
  • pistacchio - pistachio
  • stracciatella - stracciatella (vanilla and chocolate)

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