Gelato is a mainstay in any Italian's life and any tourist's blitz of the Italian peninsula. The tradition goes back hundreds of years to the mountains in Northern Italy. Snow was used to keep the mixture of cream, sugar, eggs and flavoring at the perfect temperature all the way back to the 1500s. Italian children are raised with it and you will see locals visiting their favorite neighborhood gelateria in the evenings during the "Passagiata" - when everyone goes out for a walk to see and be seen!
After many years exploring Italy's towns and cities sprinkled across the "touristy" spectrum, a well-respected travel advisor friend and colleague picked up a few tips on how to select the right gelateria for your newly-found discerning tastes. This is important as you'll never find a gelateria willing to give out as many samples as a Baskin & Robbin’s. You may get away with one or two tastes before you commit as long as you ask nicely (i.e. "per favore" and "grazie" etc.) But after that, you've gotta choose.
Here's what you have to look for when selecting your gelateria so you don't get suckered in to a fake gelato tourist trap:
1. Color. Check out the Banana and Pistachio flavors, and make sure they're the right color. "What's the right color?" you ask. The natural one, of course! So, for banana, that's a grayish white - NOT neon yellow, and pistachio should be an earthy pale green, NOT an electric or lime green. If the banana flavor is bright yellow, I'd wonder how many peels they're putting into that recipe (or worse, if they are using a pre-packaged mix), and keep looking.
2. Shape. Gelato is kept at a relatively warmer temperature than the "ice cream" Americans may be used to back in the states. This allows for the flavors to be that much more pronounced and vivid. The right temperature for gelato puts the mixture at an almost-liquid state, so the best gelato will be found when you look in to metal tins behind the window. Touristy places attract customers with piling their bins high (means too much air was whipped in) and stacking it with all sorts of beautiful memorabilia meant to disclose the flavor (a plastic lemon, a jar of Nutella...you get the ugly picture). While nice to look at, you should keep on moving until you find your gelato in metal bins you have to look in to! This is what "real" artisanal gelato should look like:
3. Ingredients. You want real, authentic ingredients in your gelato, don't you? So keep a sharp eye looking out for stacks of artificial flavoring bags just behind the counter. Don't ask me why, but some cheap gelaterias stack their artificial flavoring in plain sight for all to see. That's another immediate indicator for you to keep on walking if you want a memorable gelato experience. Look for the term "Artisanal" somewhere and don't be afraid to ask!
4. Price Unfortunately, there are those smart entrepreneurs who have opened gelaterias in heavily trafficked tourist areas so they can mark up their prices to way above the norm. A great example are the rip-off stores right at the entrance to the Vatican in Rome. Be sure to verify the cost BEFORE you order and pay. If the cost is ridiculous, walk away and keep looking. You won't have to go far to find good quality, delicious gelato at a more reasonable cost. Once you choose your location, you will typically pay first...then take your receipt to the scooper to request your flavors. Most will allow you more than one flavor (2 flavors in a small, 3 in a medium, etc.) and you can choose between a cup (coppa) or a cone (cono). Don't be surprised if a server frowns upon your choice of flavor combinations...True Gelato craftspeople are very picky about which flavors go with which...but that is an article in itself! I've been refused before because the worker didn’t agree with my combination! Seriously!
All in all, you must include at least one gelato per day in your next Italian vacation and I hope you are now equipped with the basics to track down and enjoy the best that Italy has to offer! Mangia!