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Off the Eaten Path: How gelato differs from ice cream

Gelato started showing up in North America in 1770, dates back to 16th century

I scream, you scream, we all scream for gelato! Okay, ice cream ... we all scream for ice cream. But lately, more are screaming for gelato, more than ever. So what’s the big deal anyway and what exactly is the difference? 

I just returned from four weeks in my beloved Italy. This was my first visit post-pandemic and therefore I had a lot of catching up to do. Usually when I arrive, there are a few things that I need to enjoy immediately because I crave them and because the North American versions are just not the same. Gelato is one of those things. 

Gelato is made of a few simple ingredients; milk, cream, sugar, flavouring and some varieties include eggs. (Crema)

Ice cream traditionally is made with a custard base of cream, milk, sugar and eggs or egg yolks, plus flavouring. Gelato typically has less fat and more sugar. Ice cream is higher in fat and stored at a colder temperature. Gelato is creamier, lighter and melts faster. It also typically has a higher ratio of flavouring added. 

Pistachio gelato should taste like eating pistachios in gelato form.

The difference between a good gelato and a great gelato comes down to the ingredients, the equipment used and the experience of the gelato maker.

Like all good food, the ingredients are the most important of all. So it is no wonder that in Italy the best gelatos can be found simply because some of the  best almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, coffee, lemons and countless other raw ingredients that make for the best gelato flavors can be found there too. 

Never any additives, preservatives or colouring. 

The easiest way to spot an all natural gelato is by the color. It should be the colour of the natural flavour. Banana flesh is light beige in colour, not bright yellow so banana gelato should be light beige in colour too. 

The gelato-making process has evolved over the years and it keeps getting better and better. Modern equipment spins faster and allows for less air to be incorporated into the gelato, both of which create a more creamy consistency with no ice crystals. Ice cream has much more air added to it and therefore the consistency is quite different. 

Finally, the experience of the gelato maker is important as well. Like a lot of artisans in Italy, gelato makers also often run in families. Like pastry chefs, bread bakers, olive oil producers and wine makers, these skills are passed down through the generations. The family secrets are never shared to outsiders so if a family is really good at something, they like to keep it in the family.

So how exactly does one find the best gelato in town, when in Italy? It’s simple and this applies to many culinary specialties in small town Italy. You ask the locals. You will quickly learn where the best is and who makes it. 

I love this about Italy, the locals are almost always your best resource and they will always share this, because secretly, every Italian wants to be a food critic. 

Gelato goes all the way back to 16th century Italy and started showing up in North America in 1770. It has never been more popular than ice cream here but it is showing up in more shops and restaurants than ever. Gelato makers are able to acquire imported gelato machines and even train in Italy but sourcing the best flavoring ingredients can get tricky and expensive. 

If you are not planning a trip to Italy soon, you can find housemade gelato at Starberry Cafe on Woodlawn Road in Guelph. They offer six flavours to choose from. But you better get there soon as it is only available in the summer season.