The plane has touched down, the seatbelt sign has gone off and the cabin crew has said you can disembark. You’re in Florence, home of gelato and your desperate to get your hands on some, but before you rush off in search of the best gelato in Florence
, let’s take a minute to figure out the answer to a question that has plagued humankind since the beginning of, well, humankind. What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream?
Gelato. Ice Cream. What’s the Difference?
I scream, you scream, we all scream for… GELATO!
Gelato you say, what’s that? I mean, isn’t it really just the fancy, Italian way of saying ice-cream? In a word, no. In 1998, when Häagen-Daz tried to introduce gelato to its range in the U.S., the endeavor was a failure. No one understood the difference between the two. Gelato is Italian and it does mean ice-cream, but it’s also its own thing. For those wondering, the word comes from congelato, which you’ve probably already guessed means frozen. But, let’s elucidate, because saying, “gelato is its own thing,” doesn’t quite answer the question.
Like ice cream, gelato is made using milk, sugar and the flavorings of fruit and/or nuts. But, gelato uses less cream, more milk and generally, unless added for a little flavor, no egg yolks. Gelato is also softer and smoother. Silky even. Unlike American ice cream, gelato has less air churned into it (American ice-cream can contain as much as 50% air).
There is also less fat in gelato because it uses less butterfat. Butterfat! What’s that? Butterfat comes in cream and milk products. It keeps ice crystals small and ensures a thick, heavy mixture. This is what guarantees that nice, round scoop you get with ice cream. If you’ve ever stopped to notice, gelato is more fluid and elastic. Butterfat also serves as a palate blocker. It coats the inside of the mouth and prevents the rich depth of flavor that comes in frozen confections from shining through. This is why people often regard gelato as being the tastier treat.
When it comes to serving, gelato and ice cream also differ. You see, ice cream is served colder. This means that your poor taste buds are numbed by the cold, denying you the full experience of all of gelato’s sweet goodness.
A Brief History of all things Gelato
Although gelato is definitely a product of more recent times, the roots of this most delicious of cold deserts are in ancient civilizations.
You can trace back frozen sweet treats as far back as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. They are said to have served, in divided silver chalices, snow flavored with fruit juices. The snow used for these early day treats came from Mount Terminillo in the Apennines and the Sicilian and Neapolitan volcanic mountains of Etna and Vesuvius. They were a firm favorite of Emperor Nero. Fun fact, Cleopatra, when visited by her Roman lover, Anthony, would have them brought to him. That’s right Cleopatra and her boyfriend ate slushies.
All things frozen begin with refrigeration. No refrigeration, no gelato. And, we all know that no gelato makes for a sad world. So, you have one of Muhammad's disciples to thank for discovering a system to freeze fruit: pouring them into ice. Yes, we can hear you going “duh.” It does seem fairly obvious. But, mock not because it marked an important moment in the evolution of frozen sweet treats. You see, this was the birth of “sharbat” (Arabic for “to drink”) an iced drink often flavored with cherry, pomegranate or quince.
Arab traders picked up Sharbat while trading with the Chinese. They then brought it West and introduced it to Europe via the Mediterranean. More specifically, Sicily. Over time, Sharbat became sorbet and civilization crept a little closer to Gelato.
The Renaissance introduced two of the most important players in the development of gelato, Bernardo Buontalenti and Ruggeri. Buontalenti hailed from Florence and was an esteemed architect, military engineer, painter, sculptor and apparently, a foodie too. He often organized opulent banquets. These are reported to have been glorious affairs that served up an endless array of delicious courses that always ended with a frozen dessert.
Ruggeri, a Florentine chicken vendor, participated in a cooking competition organized by the Medici family. For the competition, he put together a frozen dessert that so impressed the prominent Florentine family it won him not only first prize, but also a position as a dessert chef. When Catherine de Medici married Enrique, Duke of Orleans and moved to France, Ruggeri’s and his recipe went with them. Years later, when Catherine’s granddaughter, Henrietta, married then King of England Charles Stuart I, her chefs, who too knew the recipe, also took it with them to England.
Although gelato’s reach had now extended beyond Florence, it still remained behind the walls of palaces and gates of castles, only to be enjoyed by royalty and the elite. That is until Francesco Procopio de Coltelli, a Sicilian from Catania, moved to Paris and, in 1686, opened up Café Procope. Here, amidst the hubbub of a crowded café where philosophers, artists and politicians of the likes of Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, sat and drank coffee, gelato was presented to ordinary folk.
In the 18th century, with the rise in emigration to the United States, gelato made its way across the Atlantic. However, once there it slowly began to change. More butterfat was added and the family-oriented tradition of a gelateria was substituted for mass production. Gelato became ice cream and the nuanced, but significant difference lost.
Where to go for best Gelato in Florence
Here’s a piece of advice, do not, by any account stop an Italian on the street and ask him where you can find the best ice cream in Florence. Remember, there is a difference between gelato and ice cream, and the locals will make a point of reminding you. Truth is though, when you’re in Florence you could pretty much fall over into a gelateria that would serve you some of the city’s finest. But, if you want every mouthful of your gelato eating experience to make your tastebuds sing, then make your way to one of these places. They serve some of the best gelato in Florence, Italy.
1. Grom – Via del Campanile
Grom is a successful franchise with gelaterias all over Italy as well as having shops in Manhattan, Tokyo and Paris. Don’t let that put you off though; they haven’t sold out. It’s just that their gelato is that good. If you don’t believe it, the lines that tour the block are sure to change your mind. This is one of the best gelaterias in Florence and it ain’t just a tourist spot either. Here, locals and tourists queue together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting to get their hands on gelato made from the highest quality natural ingredients. Their menu changes monthly and boasts a great mix of flavors from pistachio to raspberry and dark chocolate.
2. RivaReno – Borgo degli Albizi
This gelateria, owned and operated by four friends who quit their jobs in the “real world” to open Italy’s best gelato lab, runs on passion. Using fresh ingredients, RivaReno prepares its gelato on the day and incorporates both classics and more imaginative creations into its menu. Here you can sample flavors like mascarpone or “Morena” and cream with black cherries and a black cherry sauce. There is plenty of room inside to sit and in the summer months, this place stays open from 12.00 til 12.00. Perfect for a mid-summer, midnight treat.
3. Vivoli – Via Isole delle Stinche
Vivoli, which is near the Basilica di Santa Croce, is said to be the oldest gelato shop in Florence. It also claims to be the best gelateria in Florence too. Something you will have to decide for yourself. Although its roots go as far back as 1929, Vivoli did not dedicate itself entirely to gelato until some years later. This is a no-cone zone, only cups, but they fill them with some of the creamiest, tastiest traditional flavors of gelato. Worth every reasonably priced penny.
4. Badiani – Viale die Mille
Located just outside the city center at Campo de’ Marte is Badiani. Another stalwart of Florence’s gelato scene, this place first opened in 1932 and has very recently opened up a franchise in London. It serves up a flavor named after 16th century Florentine, Buontalenti, the man credited with the invention of gelato. For those willing to brave their gelato in the heat of the day, Badiani has an outside seating area. For everyone else who likes their gelato a little less soupy, there is a spacious inside seating area as well.
5. Gelateria La Carraia
Across the Ponte All Carraia in the Piazza Nazario Savro is Gelateria La Carraia. This is a Florentine favorite (with a queue to prove it) that serves up the best-balanced gelato. Rich and creamy, but light and fluffy are the order of the day here. So, top your cone or cup up with some fantastically priced samples and then venture out for a walk along the River Arno. What better way to spend the afternoon?
For gelato, Florence is where it’s at. They take it so seriously they even have a gelato festival. Yes, you read that right. An entire festival dedicated to gelato. I mean, do you really need to hear any more about it? Okay, fine. The festival tours eight Italian cities showcasing how gelato is made and hosting a bunch of gelato-making classes. The best bit though, is that you get to sample tons of different types of gelato and vote not just for the best gelato in Florence, but the whole country. So, for the cost of five euros, you can spend an entire afternoon hopping from stall to stall tasting everything from mango to Nutella flavored gelato.
Gelato Making Courses
Once you’ve worked your way through Florence’s gelaterias, surely you’ll want to know how to make gelato. So, why not try your hand? You are, after all, in the gelato capital of not just the country, but the entire world. And, remember, when in Rome, or in this case Florence, do as the Florentines do.
Try Florence’s 3 hours pizza and gelato making classes. Local chefs teach the lessons all year round to intimate groups no larger than 25 people. They also include a dinner with a wine tasting. This course will teach you about the history of gelato and why it’s Italy’s favorite dessert. You will also gain an understanding of the basic raw ingredients, flavors and principles of presentation. By the time you come away from the class, you won't need to know where to find the best gelato in Florence because you’ll be making the best gelato in Florence.