You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a scoop—or ten—of creamy, authentic Italian gelato. This delectable frozen treat got its start in the 16th century, when a Florentine named Bernardo Buontalenti served his creation at a banquet held by the powerful Medici family. Nowadays, gelato is practically synonymous with Italy. With fresh, local ingredients (like lemons from Sorrento, hazelnuts from Piedmont, apricots from Vesuvius) and a sinfully smooth texture, it’s no wonder that true Italian gelato has become a worldwide sensation.
With seemingly endless gelaterias scattered across Italy, finding the perfect cup (or cone) of gelato can be a tall order. To make it easier, we’ve created this comprehensive guide to the best gelato in Italy. Read on to learn more about this creamy concoction and how to find the very best in a variety of Italian cities.
The Differences Between Gelato and Ice Cream
Many people think that “gelato” is simply Italian for “ice cream,” but the two actually differ in quite a few ways. Firstly, while both are made with milk, cream, and sugar, gelato contains no egg yolks and has a much higher proportion of milk to cream than ice cream. Less cream means a lower percentage of butterfat, which can often overpower the flavors. Gelato is also churned at a much slower rate than ice cream, and thus incorporates less air to create a denser, silkier texture. The two treats also differ in their serving temperatures. Authentic gelato is generally served at around 10 to 12°F, which is 10 to 15°F warmer than ice cream. The colder the dessert, the more the ice numbs your tongue and dulls your taste buds to flavor.
How to Spot the Best Gelato Shops
- Look for less vibrant colors. We to gravitate toward bright, flashy displays, but resist the urge! Quality gelato will have a higher proportion of natural ingredients, and thus no (or very little) added coloring.
- Find shops that keep their gelato in round metal tins with lids. Lids indicate that the gelato is kept at the correct temperature and that the shop doesn’t need to lure its customers with bright colors and decorations.
- Look for gelato that’s served with a flat paddle, not a scoop. Paddles, or spatulas, allow the gelato to be worked and softened. Scoops alert you to a stiffer, less gelato-like texture.
- Avoid shops with flashy signs out front. Really good gelaterias won’t need the extra advertisement; their quality will spread through word-of-mouth.
- Note the height of the gelato mounds. Giant piles might actually fall above the legal serving temperature. Good gelato is soft, and over time it will melt and settle like pudding. Gelato that’s so stiff that it stays piled is probably over-whipped, and therefore not the silky, dense consistency it should be.
- Are the fruit flavors seasonal? Most flavors come and go with the season: peach and watermelon in the summer, apple and pear in autumn. You shouldn’t see watermelon in the winter or pear in the summer. Another thing to keep in mind with flavors is the labeling itself. If you see a brand name listed alongside the flavor, the gelato has probably been mass produced or made with industrial mixes.
- Look for a list of ingredients. Good gelato shops take pride in what goes into their gelato and will post ingredients in a visible spot. Ingredient lists with “E” followed by a series of numbers indicate additives and preservatives. Another sign of these is gelato that’s too shiny or opaque.
11 Best Gelato Shops in Italy
This neighborhood shop earned the top prize at the 2017 World Gelato Tour—a three-year competition featuring 1,800 gelato-makers from across the globe. The winning flavor? Pistachio, made from three types of Sicilian pistachios slow-roasted for 24 hours.
Flavors to try: pistachio (obviously), bacio (chocolate hazelnut), coconut
Gelateria I Caruso
It doesn’t get much better than watching ingredients churn themselves into gelato right in front of your eyes. At Gelateria I Caruso, you can watch the whole process through a glass window. And if that weren’t enough, they’ll even top your gelato with a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream if you so desire.
Flavors to try: melon, mandarin orange, cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate)
Gelato San Lorenzo
It’s all about the high-quality, seasonal ingredients at Gelato San Lorenzo. Flavors include pineapple rosemary, ricotta anise, and honey walnut, in addition to a variety of vegan options. The mixtures contain 25% less sugar than many other gelato bases, as the fruits, nuts, and honey add a great deal of sweetness on their own.
Flavors to try: raspberry basil, zabaglione (a creamy eggnog-like flavor sweetened with Marsala wine)
La Sorbetteria Castiglione
With its silky smooth texture, this heavenly gelato knows how to turn a few heads. You’ll need to walk a bit outside of the immediate city center to find it, but La Sorbetteria Castiglione is well worth the trek.
Flavors to try: lemon ginger, cinnamon pear
Served within 24 hours of being made in-house, the gelato here is a revelation. The flavors are pure and powerful and the staff is friendly. A winner all around.
Flavors to try: fior di latte, lemon, pear
What could be better than top-notch gelato with flavors like apricot cake and white fig (with caramelized figs from Cilento)? Top-notch gelato served (if you’d like) ice cream sandwich-style inside freshly baked brioche. Because, oh yeah, this gelateria is also a bakery.
Flavors to try: coffee, ricotta, white fig
This shop consistently ranks among the best gelaterias in Florence, and with good reason. Generous portions, reasonable prices, excellent service, and a menu packed with rich, decadent flavors? Yes please.
Flavors to try: Green apple, orange chocolate, pistachio
Opened in 1929, Vivoli is considered the oldest gelato shop in Florence. If you can get past the small portions, high prices, and the fact that there are no cones, the flavors are transcendent and the texture as smooth as velvet.
Flavors to try: pear caramel, cassata (cream base with dried fruits and nuts)
La Gelateria della Musica
Who doesn’t want a little live music served up alongside their gelato? La Gelateria della Musica is all about creating a sweet, musical experience. Many of their flavors are even inspired by famous songs and artists.
Flavors to try: salty Bronte pistachio, basil lemon, and bread, butter, and jam
Head to Suso for scoops of diving gelato along with views of Venice’s famous Rialto Bridge. They offer gluten-free and vegan cones, as well as a selection of vegan gelato—including dark chocolate and amarena cherry.
Flavors to try: sour cherry pistachio, Malaga (rum raisin), and Manet (chocolate, hazelnut, and pistachio)
La Mela Verde
Opened in 2009, this small, tucked-away shop is a short walk from St. Mark’s Square. In addition to its rich specialty flavors (including strawberry grape and ricotta with pistachio), the gelateria also serves up tantalizing crepes and slushes.
Flavors to try: Sicilian almond, cremino (chocolate and hazelnut), Bussola biscuit (butter cookie)
A Guide to Italian Gelato Flavors
Some flavors, like pistacchio and banana, need no translation. With others, though, it may help to know exactly what it is you’re ordering. Here’s a quick guide for the less-obvious flavors:
Cioccolato fondente: dark chocolate
Cioccolato al latte: milk chocolate
Cioccolato con peperoncino: hot pepper-infused chocolate
Cioccolato all’Azteca: spicy Mexican chocolate with cinnamon
Bacio: dark chocolate and hazelnut
Gianduia or gianduja: milk chocolate and hazelnut
Fior di latte: sweet cream
Zabaglione or zabaione: custardy eggnog-like flavor sweetened with Marsala wine
Stracciatella: cream base with drizzled, hardened chocolate
Zuppa Inglese: a play on the British trifle—a cream base with sponge cake or cookies and sherry (literally “English soup”)
Riso: similar to rice pudding
Panna cotta: cooked cream
Cassata: cream base with chocolate and dried fruit
Frutti di bosco: mixed berries
Amarena: cream base with sour cherry sauce
Tarocco: blood orange
Malaga: rum raisin
Puffo: Italian for “Smurf”—bright blue, anise-flavored
Affogato: gelato with a shot of espresso poured on top
Con panna: with a dollop of whipped cream
Granita: a coarse, flaky, slushie-like consistency
Semifreddo: a light, mousse-like texture
Ready to jet off to Italy? Let’s go!