How to spot a quality hand-made gelato ice cream in Italy

Food & Wine

The differences between industrial ice-cream and the real Italian artisan gelato

During every season of the year, one of the most delicious things you can eat in Italy is of course GELATO, Italian ice-cream! The real deal gelato is rich in flavor, scrumptiously creamy, fruity or chocolaty and always refreshing on a hot summer's day.

In Italy, you never have to look far to find an ice cream. On almost every street corner there's a bar or gelateria selling ice cream in all kinds of flavors and colors. There is a world of difference though between authentic gelato handmade by an artisan and factory produced ice cream. It's without a doubt the genuine artisan gelato that you will want to taste during your stay in Italy.

Artisan gelato is made with fresh and local ingredients without the use of preservatives and colorants. It is produced in small quantities in the workshop located behind the gelateria. In recent years a number of gelato parlor chains have opened up with a central workshop from where the gelato is distributed to the various parlors where the final stage of production takes place.

Gelato was originally intended to be consumed immediately and doesn't need to be stored in freezers, unlike factory produced ice cream that is produced in large quantities and frozen solid to be stored for long periods of time.

So how can you spot hand-made artisan gelato and recognize the difference between the real deal and the fake? It's really not as difficult as you might think. Start by avoiding the bars in the busy tourist streets with whipped up ice cream in the most unnatural colors.


1. Low versus high

Artisan gelato is made with fresh ingredients; you couldn't whip it up if you tried, and is therefore low in the container it's kept in. It doesn't contain any artificial preservatives and is often kept in containers that are covered with a lid to preserve the quality of the gelato.

Factory ice cream is whipped up and stored in open containers, sometimes even exposed directly to the hot sun. The only way to keep ice cream like that is if it contains a lot of cream, sugar, chemicals, and preservatives. So if you see gelato that looks like whipped cream it is not the real deal.


2. Natural colors versus artificial colorants

Artisan gelato doesn't contain colorants. Therefore, many flavors don't have bright colors but are whitish or brownish. Except for chocolate of course with its dark brown color or bright colored fruits like strawberry or mango. The pistachio nuts are brown and just slightly green inside; therefore pistachio gelato shouldn't be bright green but brownish or dark greenish. Mint flavor shouldn't be vibrant green either, the plant is green, but the gelato should be of whitish shade.

Factory ice cream contains a lot of artificial colorants. The best example of unnatural color and taste is the bright blue Smurf ice cream that you can find in many bars around Italy. Brightly colored ice cream might look more attractive, but in the end, it's the flavor that counts. Taste with your mouth and not with your eyes.


3. Unusual flavors versus standard

The artisan gelato maker gets up early every morning to create a fresh batch of gelato. Preparing the product with fresh ingredients takes time, and that's why a gelateria offers a limited number of different flavors. Gelato makers love to experiment though, and that means that you can come across some very unusual flavors like ricotta and figs, apple pie, gorgonzola cheese (!), wild fennel or pineapple with ginger. Factory ice cream comes in standard flavors and tastes the same wherever you go.


4. Genuine and pure versus sugar and fat

A high-quality gelato is not too sweet and not too creamy and leaves you with a refreshed taste in your mouth. It's an art to find the right balance between the primary ingredients such as milk, cream and sugar and the secondary ingredients like fruit and chocolate that provide taste. Sugar is not only responsible for the sweet taste we love so much but also functions as a natural preservative.

Factory ice cream contains a high dose of sugar, fat, and preservatives so it can be stored and even kept in a hot bar under the sun. Instead of refreshing you it will leave you thirsty after you ate it.