Oct 132013
 
GelatoZ

Luscious, fresh, enticing… bad gelato.

Friends traveling with me are often perplexed to see me stick my head in a gelateria’s door and instantly proclaim it good or bad, despite not having approached close enough to smell, let alone taste, the contents of the brilliant, alluring bins of swirling color. It can be done. There are visible signs of good and bad gelato, so today I am sharing my gelato-assessment method, applicable in Italy and around the world, and hopefully of service to you (especially to several specific friends who are going to Italy soon).

First I want to clarify that pretty much all gelato is delicious, even what I term “bad gelato.”  The very humblest kind of gelato is made from pre-packaged powdered mix, consisting of sugar and (usually artificial) flavors and colors, which can be mixed with milk and popped straight into the gelato machine.  The sweet, cold, creamy dessert this produces is still quite yummy, the way cheap candies or grocery store cookies are yummy despite their mundane provenance.  One is certainly happier eating this gelato than no gelato, but in an area saturated with Great Cuisine, like Florence, or Rome, or Montreal, it is seldom worthwhile to settle for the adequate when the sublime lurks around the next corner.

I also stand by my conviction that the quality of gelato is far more variable than that of ice cream, and far harder to predict from flavor options alone.  Ice cream depends on the fat of the cream to help it coagulate, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are capable of sustaining very complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and also of concealing it if the ingredients (especially the cream itself) are of middling quality. Gelato is fundamentally just sugar and milk, or sugar and fruit in the case of a sorbeto, and the flavors are usually simple (hazelnut) or extremely simple (fior di late, pure milk).  Thus, you can taste it very easily if gelato contains poor milk, poor fruit, or artificial chemicals (many respectable places still use chemicals to help the gelato coagulate and remain the correct degree of softness in the frezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream.

“But I can’t have gelato, I’m vegan and/or lactose intolerant.”

In Florence, Perche no...! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.

In Florence, Perche no…! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.

I want to briefly combat this assumption.  At its heart gelato is indeed milk-based, but good gelato places also make fruit-based sorbetti, which at their best are pure fruit with sugar, and no dairy at all, while some lower quality ones are mixes of water and fruit extracts, like frozen limeade.  These are perfectly safe for vegan and lactose intolerant people, and many dairy-lovers also love, or even prefer, sorbetti to dairy flavors.  Occasionally the fruit flavors contain egg whites to help them stay solid, but this is uncommon in my experience. If this is a concern it is usually easy to find out by asking.  In addition, more and more serious gelato places have started offering a few flavors based on soy milk or almond milk, to open up gelato more to people who can’t have dairy, and to make use of new exciting flavor possibilities offered by new bases. When I attended the 2012 International Gelato Festival in Florence, I think about a quarter of the competing flavors were dairy-free, possibly more, including both exotic fruits and creamy flavors based on non-dairy milks.  And all were delicious.

Now, the test:

#1) Look at the color of the fruit flavors.  Banana, apple/pear, or berry flavors (frutti di bosco) are the easiest tell.  If the fruit gelati are made of pure, real fruit then they will be the color that fruit would be if you crushed it: berry flavors a deep dark off-black purple/red, apple white or brownish or yellowish sometimes with flecks of peel, and banana a rather unappealing shade of gray.  If, on the other hand, banana is a cheery yellow, apple a perky spring green and berry flavors are the light-ish color of blueberry yogurt, then the gelato before you is a mix of milk with food coloring plus fruit extracts or artificial fruit flavor.  Pistachio similarly should be the color of crushed nuts, not bright green.  The artificial fruit gelati can still be delicious, but only pure fruit sorbetti will give you the overwhelming flavor of top quality fruit gelato which tastes more like fruit than the fruit does, hyperconcentrating the fruit’s flavors and bringing them out with sugar.  This matters even if fruit isn’t your thing: making the gelato out of pure fruit is more laborious and expensive than using flavor extracts, so a gelateria with a brilliant dark frutti di bosco is one that is definitely trying to produce the best, and thus also likely to produce a superior chocolate, crema, etc.  Now, sometimes mixes of fruit with dairy can be good, so a blueberry-yogurt-colored frutti di bosco isn’t always a bad thing, but the pure fruit ones are more difficult and more expensive, so they are always a good sign, even if the opposite is not necessarily a bad sign.  Looking for fruit colors is generally my first test, and if a place passes that’s often enough to say “Yes!” without worrying about other elements of the test.  But if still in doubt:

 

GelatoD

Poor quality fruit gelati. In the foreground left is strawberry and the right mixed berry (frutti di bosco), both in very creamy colors betraying the presence of dairy.

GelatoH

Good berry sorbets. Bottom right blueberry, bottom middle blackberry, bottom left sour cherry, top center strawberry, to its left raspberry, left of that an intentional dairy-mixed creamy frutti di bosco.

#2) Is the gelato mounded up in huge tall piles?  Gelato is soft and fluid, and over time it will naturally flow down, like pudding.  The only way to get it to stably stay in a big tall mound is either to freeze it solid (no longer yummy), or to add chemicals that help it remain solid (which can usually be tasted since there is no salt and little fat to conceal them).  Thus big, tall, enticing mounds of gelato can be a warning sign.  The best gelato will usually not stick above the rim of the bin, unless it has just been brought out.  Many very good gelato places don’t even have an open bin, but keep the gelato in round metal containers with lids deep inside the counter.  This means you can’t see the color of the gelato, but is generally a good sign, since anywhere that doesn’t show off the visuals of its gelato is usually good enough that it knows it doesn’t have to, and cares more about protecting the gelato than about showing it off.  You do need to watch out, though, since some places that serve cheap gelato delivered by vans from warehouses receive it in flat bins with plastic wrap over the top, which is then unwrapped and served.  So while tall mounts of gelato are a bad sign, flat bins aren’t a guarantee of quality.  Metal lids pretty much always mean good quality.

GelatoE

Tall, eye-catching mounds of colorful gelato, not a good sign. The green in the middle is either pistachio or mint – either way, that’s food coloring we see.

GelatoF

Flat bins of good gelato, in a range of natural colors. Soft and served with flat paddles, not curved scoops.

Gelato1

Round metal lids protecting top quality all-natural gelato, in Rivareno (Florence).

#3) Look at the flavors of fruit offered: are there seasonal fruits?  Once again this is a sign relevant to both fruit lovers and those indifferent to fruit.  All gelato places will produce lemon, strawberry, and other popular flavors year round, but a gelato place which pays careful attention to the seasons, producing watermelon, apricot, and peach in summer, fig, apple, and pear in autumn, citrus in winter, and diverse berries in spring is another sign that the people in charge care about quality, and are therefore willing to put in extra effort to master a fleeting seasonal fruit which will only be profitable for about a month a year.  This too bodes well for the quality of all the flavors.  Similarly if you see a bright orange apricot flavor offered in December, safe money says that is a 100% artificial flavor, and many of the others probably are as well.

GelatoB

July in Florence. Perche no…! serves blackberry (nearly black), fig (green and speckly since summer figs are young and not red yet), and vivid cantelope. If I saw blackberry in January or mandarin in July, I would worry.

#4) Look at the translucency of the lemon.  A small gelato place may not have any of the more telltale fruits, but lemon is pretty much always in stock.  Is the lemon an opaque, creamy white that looks rather like the white cream-based flavors?  If so, it is milk mixed with lemon extract.  If, on the other hand, the lemon is translucent white or subtly yellowish off-white, so the edges of it are almost transparent like the transparent outer edge of an ice cube that’s in the process of melting, then it is just water and fruit extract.  This again is a bit more difficult and expensive, because it requires better lemon juice to taste good, and is harder to make stay firm, so again it means the gelato makers have put in more effort.

Gelato8

The difference with the lemon is very subtle and hard to photograph. This image may be useful: this is not lemon. The cone on the left is pear and persimmon, while the cone on the right is fior di latte and mango yogurt. Notice how the fruits, on the left, are a little bit more translucent, while the dairy flavors on the right have a milk opacity all the way to their melty edges. Persimmon and mango are both vivid colors naturally, so vivid here, while the pear is subtle and almost white.

GelatoG

The pistachio on the right here is clearly very artificial. The lemon on the left, though, is translucent, and you can see where it’s melting at the bottom of hte bin that it is becoming clear, rather than milky, when liquid. This place (in Venice, where fresh ingredients are extra expensive) is using artificial flavors and additives, but still doing its best to make a passable lemon sorbet.

#5) Do they offer fior di latte, or fior di panna?  These flavors, made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, are the basic form of gelato.  It means they are the flavors that most clearly expose the quality of the milk, and most clearly betray the presence of artificial additives.  In Italy, virtually all gelato places will offer fior di latte, and any one that doesn’t is conspicuous.  Abroad, especially in the US, it is much more rare, because it exposes inferior ingredients, and few non-Italians know what this flavor is (Americans, for example, always ask for vanilla instead, because we’re not used to the idea that the pure white version of a frozen desert could be so good as to require no flavor, not even vanilla).  If a non-Italian gelato place offers fior di latte, it’s often a good sign.  If an Italian one offers fior di panna, that is a sign that they have put in extra serious effort into maximizing the flavor of their dairy (and cream is more expensive than milk) so also good.  But if they only offer fior di latte with chocolate chips, or with flavored syrup drizzled all over it, they could be showing off their syrups, or they could be covering inferior milk.

GelatoA

Center: fior di latte gelato drowned in flavored syrup. The syrups all over these (and the vivid color of the mint in the top left) are warning signs of lower basic quality underneath the sugary drizzle.

#6) Do they offer hazelnut (nocciola)?  This flavor is, gram for gram, usually the most expensive to produce, and to make genuinely powerful.  For that reason, many gelato places save funds by offering chocolate-hazelnut flavors, bacio or Nutella, but not pure hazelnut.  Others compensate with artificial or weak hazelnut.

Gelato13

An interesting case of what is obviously middle-quality gelato. To the left, “pear and Nutella” has used the supplemental flavors of chocolate and hazelnut to boost a pear which is obviously dairy-based. To the right, the vivid green flavor of the fig shows there are artificial colors but there are also flecks of peel, so this is real fig bolstered with additives. Not the best gelato, but far from the worst, and doing the best with what they have.

#7) Still in doubt?  Now you’re ready to ask to taste something to see if the place is good, but what?  Usually you’re going to order two or more flavors, so asking to taste them all in advance is often a bit much.  Traditionally people recommend tasting the hazelnut, since if it has a powerful, good flavor it means they are sparing no expense.  Tasting fior di latte can also work well, since it is the core of all the other cream-based flavors, so if it is strong and pure the rest will be. Another good choice can be to taste a fruit to see if it’s good quality, or anything unusual or subtle, like basil.

Gelato14What do I do if the gelato place is “bad” but it’s the only one around and I want a gelato?

Despair not!  You can still have a delicious experience at a mediocre gelato place, you just need to choose your flavors appropriately.  Usually if a gelato place is mediocre, it is working with inferior milk, and may have to put additives in the gelato to make it stay soft overnight because they can’t afford to make a new batch every day.  These problems can be tasted easily in pure, simple flavors like fior di latte or the fruit sorbets, but you can choose flavors that conceal them, and thus still have a good experience.  Chocolate is a reliable fallback in almost all circumstances.  Another thing to look out for in mediocre gelato places is a complicated flavor mixing two or more flavors, like tiramisu.  A place local to me here has very disappointing sorbets, but respectable chocolate, tiramisu, and pistachio, and remarkably good creative original flavors like root beer or “Elvis” (chocolate, banana, peanut butter) which are well balanced and conceal the mediocre undertones nicely.  Lemon is also a good fallback.  Whenever I have a rough travel day in Italy, I go to the train station gelato place and get a nice cold lemon, and even the terrible gelato they have in a train station is still miraculously curative after a rough day.

For more on gelato, see also my earlier post: Relax.  Have a gelato.

My next gelato-related project is to assemble an International Gelato Atlas listing gelato places around the world, to help everyone who has worked up an appetite find good gelato wherever you travel.  So far it has lots of listings for the USA and Italy but a few for a whole lot of other countries too.  If you know of a good gelato place, please post about it in the comments here, and I will add it to the list.  Please specify (A) location, (B) how much of the above test it passes, (C) if its gelato is all natural, (D) recommended flavors, (C) other attributes you consider worth mentioning, and (D) website if there is one.  Hopefully together we can make a world wide gelato map capable of combatting the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!

Nov 152012
 

I was racing from my office to the gym yesterday, struggling not to spill orange goo on my 18th century reenactment overcoat while wolfing down instant microwave mac & cheese with my reusable pocket eco-spork, when I finally faced up to the reality that the November demands of academia & inevitable autumn illness were not going to give me a chance to finish the next chapter of my Machiavelli series this week, or even next.  But since the holidays are coming, I thought I might share some quick gift suggestions which I’ve accumulated this year.  These are all items I either own, or have gotten for friends, or both, with, I hope, enough variety to make for a fun read, and possibly to fill some corners under your trees.

  1. The photography I have enjoyed sharing on this blog requires a practical, small, portable camera, not easily damaged but quick to use and that takes very good pictures.  After trying many models and doing a lot of research, I can enthusiastically recommend my current camera, a Nikon COOLPIX S9300, which is the top of the COOLPIX camera line, with very high resolution and an astounding zoom.  The 16x zoom is much too powerful to actually be usable unless you set the camera down or use a tripod, but even at half-way-zoomed I could get amazing detail on faraway bits of cathedrals and fortresses.  It eats up its batteries, so you need two, but is a great pocket camera.

    The Roman answer to the iPad. Infinite battery life!

  2. The most exciting, and unusual, of the numerous tablets on the gift market this year has to be an authentic reconstruction of a Roman period wax writing tablet.  A standard technology used throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, this affordable alternative to papyrus or vellum worked by scratching text into a wax surface with a stylus, which could then be wiped smooth and re-used.  Standard for letter-writing and short-term note-taking.  Through this cutting-edge ancient technology, your friends and loved ones can enjoy the miraculous gift of writing, then erasing it, then writing again on the same surface!  Wonders will never cease!
  3. In order to avoid the life-threatening condition known as “gelato withdrawal” I rely upon my dear and trusty DeLonghi GM6000 Home Gelato Maker.  I have been making gelato with it not quite every day for many months now.  It is a little loud but whips up a batch in 3o to 45 minutes and many of the best recipes (yogurt gelato, lemon sorbet, chocolate) require practically no preparation.  It came with a very good basic recipe book, and for some reason is currently $250 instead of $400+ on Amazon.  Also, Amazon allows you to subscribe to chocolate, I repeat, subscribe to chocolate, so fresh chocolate powder is delivered to your house for free on a periodic basis to restock your gelato-making needs.  There is now  no excuse for not having gelato.
  4. Books are often hit-or-miss holiday gifts, since we all love them, but we all have a to-read list a mile long (I must state here the maxim: “Never give a book to a grad student if they didn’t request it.”)  But just the right book can be just the right thing.  This year my three book recommendations are the Unnecessarily Interesting Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an astonishingly exciting and even more astonishingly true account of the life and adventures of the Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor/arms-master/duelist/murderer who should’ve been the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III, and by far the most exciting account of an historical figure’s life I’ve ever read; my manga pick of the year which has to be the long-awaited release of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic Gegege no Kitaro, a post-WWII collection of classic Japanese oral tradition ghost stories framed around an adorably morbid little zombie boy, packed with folklore and second really only to Astro Boy in its seminal position in mid-20th-century manga (English release finally available for pre-order!); or, the meta-book gift ideal for any bibliophile already weighed down by too many books, Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars, featuring excerpts from his “Remedies against fortune” which advise the reader on how to avoid pride and hubris over owning a lot of books.  That’s right, it’s a book about having too many books.  Witty, delightful and bilingual, it is a quick and entertaining read, a rich and rewarding reread, and also features dialogues to prevent hubris if you have a graduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, or are a published author.
  5. In DVD recommendations I prefer to focus on things you have likely not heard recommended elsewhere.  Thus this year’s three pics are: The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous animated film based on the manuscript illuminations of the Book of Kells; the stunning and sadly under-publicized anime film Summer Wars, which is as beautiful, wholesome and delight-filled as a Miyazaki movie but with an action plot; and Borgia: Faith and Fear, by far the superior (and sadly the more obscure) of the two Borgia TV series that were produced last year.  Like all recent over-dramatic historical TV series it makes sex and violence a centerpiece, but they’re the Borgias so it should be nasty, and it does a good job making the sex and violence feel authentically period, while also having the right combination of historical accuracy and storytelling to make it entertaining.  We hope someday there will be a season 2.
  6. Truffle butter.  Truffle butter.  Truffle butter.  Eat the Truffle Butter.  There are many kinds and I cannot say which is best since I haven’t tried them all, but it is out-of-this-world stuff.  Have it on bread, or melt it over fresh pasta, or a white meat, like chicken.  But pasta is always best.
  7. Italian cold cuts are another treat which I mourn on returning to the New World.  While many grocery stores in the US now carry prosciutto, pancetta and even bresaola, the delicacy I miss most intensely is the cured spiced lard which melts across your tongue like butter.  Lardo Toscano or Lardo di Colonnata I have yet to reliably find, but a good Spanish Lardo can be ordered from Boccalone, and other good salumi from Murray’s cheese.
  8. One of the most enthusiastically-received gifts I’ve ever given was “Professor Doctor Sweetie-Pie’s European Adventures”, a glossy photo book of my research travels which made my Mom bounce and cheer and which she has read over and over for many a moon.  Many companies allow one to create these things, but I did mine through Shutterfly, and while they’re a little pricey they really can be a big hit.
  9. Pants are an essential but oft-neglected clothing item, allowed to languish in boringness while shirts and jackets receive all the stylish decoration and superhero logos.  I derive constant joy and frequent compliments from my habit of sewing decorative trim down the side seams of my jeans and other pants, making them with an hour’s effort into something distinctive and fun.  The trims I use come from CelticTrims.com, and can also be added to all sorts of other simple things to make them excellent.
  10. As a frequent flier, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could no longer carry a pocket cutting tool to open plastic packaging etc. without risk of confiscation.  For others with the same problem, small round-tipped metal scissors like these are pretty-universally allowed on planes.
  11. In the kitchen I continue to swear by my Leifheit Garlic Slicer and use it pretty-much every day to turn cloves of garlic into luscious quick-cooking petals of deliciousness.
  12. For travel, I can also recommend a folding travel backpack like this one, which folds almost as small as a reusable compact shopping bag but is much more practical since it’s a backpack.  I usually travel with one and stick it in my pocket when heading out to wander a town, so I can easily carry any shopping.  It’s also useful for when one leaves with one bag but inevitably can’t fit new acquisitions into it for the return.
  13. Spoon and fork that fit in your wallet

    We are all drowning in eco-products, making it hard to tell which ones are actually useful.  I have had several happy years now with my credit card cutlery, little flat plastic silverware that fits inside a credit card slot in your wallet, providing a fork and spoon/knife.  I would estimate that in three years or so they have prevented me from using about thirty plastic forks, but more valuably, they have often provided me with a fork when one would otherwise not be available, and the spoon is firm enough to act as a slicing tool for cheese or fruit.

  14. A trick I learned from my father when thinking of stocking stuffers is that one can often achieve smiles by returning to those items which were exciting when we were ten, and are still exciting even though grown-ups aren’t supposed to be excited by them anymore.  For example, yes you can have little colorful umbrellas in your drinks every day, that’s what being a grown-up means!  Also, remember those little capsules that you put in water and then there’s a colorful sponge that expands out of it shaped like a whale or a dinosaur?  Well they’re still just as fun now as they were in the science museum gift shop when you were barely tall enough to peer over the display case.
  15. Life without olive oil is not worth considering.  Now that I no longer have access to Italy directly, I have been doing a survey of the best olive oils stocked in the US.  For a basic one, even carried by some grocery stores, I have been very impressed by California Olive Ranch, which is now my new default oil.  For something more extraordinary, The Olive Tap produces incredible infused oils and vinegars, and I can particuarly recommend their out-of-this-world Tangerine Balsamic (I am not a tangerine fan but this is the best thing to put on a salad I have ever, ever, ever tasted!), and their Blood Orange Olive Oil.  For imported Italian oils I have enjoyed Ottavio Private Reserve, but can’t find a good online source.
  16. And when in doubt, there are 10,000 things you want on ThinkGeek.com.  Just don’t buy them all.

 

Jun 072012
 

The following map will help you find excellent gelato and food in Florence, guaranteeing that whether you’re hungry for a gourmet dinner, some quick pizza, or just delicious frozen treats, you’ll know exactly where to go.

I will not claim that these are the only good places in Florence, nor even that (among the restaurants) they are the very best, but they are all fabulous, and all affordable.  If you eat at these places it will be delicious, you will be happy, and you will remember it for a very long time.

RED PINS indicate restaurants.
BLUE PINS indicate gelaterias.

Clicking on any pin will give you more information, including a brief description of what makes this restaurant special and delicious. Sadly, it may be necessary to drag the map or adjust it using the arrows to see the full blurb, however. Enjoy!

Relax. Have a gelato.

 Posted by on January 30, 2012  Food  6 Responses »
Jan 302012
 

I was cheered recently by the juxtaposition of a pair of articles on my Italian news feed:

Both articles struck me, of course, as perfectly natural, since, as the ever-groaning gears of the Italian government, law and economy grow slower and more exhausted under austerity pressures, the only sane reaction is to relax and have a gelato. Gelato is an indispensable defensive measure in my experience of life in Italy, where truly obnoxious and stressful things do happen a lot, and you have to just accept that, 50% of the time, whatever you were trying to do just won’t happen.  The shop you spent an hour looking for is closed for no reason?  Relax.  Have a gelato.  The hotel you booked turns out not to exist?  (This DID happen to me, in Modena).  The paperwork you waited in line for 2 hours to file turns out to require something they never told you you didn’t have?  A pickpocket got you on the Rome 64 bus?  The museum you were looking forward to turns out to close early on the second Tuesday of each alternate month?  The romantic cobblestones broke your suitcase’s left wheel a half-mile from home?  These things happen all the time here, all the time, not to mention the constant frustrations of impossible-to-open doors and whimsical plumbing.  But even something as frustrating as a pickpocketing is much easier to deal with sensibly, and feels much less like the end of the world, if you relax and have a gelato.  I generally have a gelato the instant I get off the plane when I arrive in Italy, to give me the stamina necessary to brave the mobs around the baggage claim.   In fact, “Relax.  Have a gelato,” has become so ingrained in me as a default reaction to stress or failure that I habitually say it at home, to the great chagrin of my poor US-bound housemates, who would love to relax and have a gelato, were gelato achievable in the New World.

Luscious, seductive... bad gelato.

“But it is!” you say.  “They have gelato at the fancy grocery store by the mall.  Or at the import shop, or that pizzeria downtown, or in little Italy.”  They do.   There is gelato in the US, quite often these days, but, the important thing to note, is that it is (almost) always bad gelato, mere Hershey Bar ranked against artisanal truffles.  I have had good gelato in North America, in three locations, the Suite 88 gourmet chocolate shop in Montreal, the ChikaLicious Desert Bar in New York City (their cupcake bar across the street also has apple gelato of extraordinary quality), and, of all places, the underground cafeteria in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (here too get the apple flavor).  (Note: the organic gelato chain GROM also has branches in NYC, and I expect these too would have respectable gelato; my full thoughts on GROM another day.)  But for the most part, even in Italy-town subsections of US cities, the gelato is no better than one would find in an Italian train station.  Not what a gelato snob would call “good gelato,” and I am, I will comfortably admit, a true gelato snob.

See the fibrous and variable texture of the apple gelato on the right? That's a good sign.

What is the difference between good and bad gelato?  Good gelato is made from all natural ingredients, as pure and as few as possible, while bad gelato is made with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and coagulants.  Good fruit gelato is made directly from the fruit, bad from fruit extracts.  Really bad gelato is made from a powdered mix with no fresh ingredients at all.  Keep in mind that I do not say this as any kind of organic food purist.  I do often buy organic when I can, but I will never pretend that organic always tastes better, merely often.  I do not shrink from eating radioactive orange mac ‘n’ cheese out of a box when the craving hits me, and I heartily repented of my folly the one year I procured an organic turkey for Thanksgiving, and discovered to my horror and chastisement the true merits of the hormone-stuffed, brine-injected Butterball.  But gelato is very delicate, because it is so pure, involving so few ingredients.  You can taste the chemicals when there are chemicals.  You can taste the quality of the milk and fruit used, and if you frequent a place you can tell day by day how ripe the figs were, how in season the oranges.  Bad gelato has an inescapable tinge of candy-like artificial flavor.  It’s still a yummy substance, still worth eating, but it’s infinitely inferior to the pure article. There are, from what I have uncovered, four reasons for the scarcity of good gelato in the US.

  1. Fresh gelato without preservatives does not last more than a day, and has to be made from scratch every morning.  This is labor-intensive and expensive, and is why so many places even in Italy don’t bother.
  2. The companies that manufacture and distribute commercial-sized gelato makers in the US want to make continual money off the restaurants that buy them, so have designed them to require the mix, and not to work with fresh ingredients, so the restaurants will have to continually subscribe to fresh batches of mix.  The kind of machine you get in Italy, that uses real ingredients, exists in the US only in the tiny use-it-at-home form, but is nearly impossible to find industrial-sized.
  3. Gelato, being so sensitive, requires really top quality fresh ingredients, both the milk and the fruit.  Such ingredients are expensive, and actually rare in the US where fruit is, usually, harvested unripe, and milk ultra-processed.  It is difficult and above all expensive to find ingredients of gelato quality in the US, and most restaurants could only cover costs if they charged more for their gelato than most people will pay for a scoop of ice-cream.
  4. American ice-cream is, in fact, pretty good.  It’s not gelato, and does not excel at the same things, but it is good.  If gelato excels at accentuating the purity of a single flavor: lemon, chocolate, milk; American ice-cream excels at creating triple chocolate fudge peanut swirl mars bar cookiedough crunch peach marshmallow ripple surprise.  These luxurious, over-the-top concoctions are delicious, and also complex enough to largely mask the artificial preservatives and inferior dairy that tends to go into US ice-cream.  Such products are  satisfying, mass-producible, preservable, and cheap.  Good gelato, which is more expensive to produce and doesn’t last, struggles to compete commercially.

Pear, persimmon, crema & yogurt gelato at Rivareno (Florence). Few flavors, but so good!

Reinforcing scholarship: in a published poll, when asked which they would prefer, an ice-cream shop with (A) 25 flavors or one with (B) flavors that were all really good, most Americans chose (A), most Italians (B), and the northern sections of Europe mixed both choices.

(This, by the way, is, I suspect, why, among Rome’s elite gelato joints, the world-famous Giolitti is so popular with Americans and San Crispino with Europeans.  I recommend going to both, as each excels at some things the other does not.   More on these when I eventually review different gelato places (if wordpress will ever let me create the kind of index I want to use to do so, grumble, grumble.)

What is the difference between gelato and icecream?

Friends enjoy elaborate cones at Giolitti (Rome).

I get this question a lot, and have two answers. In a technical sense, gelato is made with much less fat than ice-cream, in fact gelato is usually made with milk, not cream, but it has much more sugar, to compensate, since milk and sugar are the things that keep frozen concoctions soft and creamy.  A fruit gelato is, at its purest, a sorbet and contains no dairy whatsoever. In an aesthetic sense, however, gelato is much more about accentuating the substance from which it is made, whereas ice-cream is about combining flavors.  Strawberry ice-cream is an experience of the delightful comingling of strawberry juice with cream, producing a rich, strong, syrupy dairy experience, and reminding one pleasantly of strawberries and cream if one has ever had them together; strawberry gelato is the experience of eating a soft frozen strawberry, with no presence of dairy or commixture.  It is in the fruits and the nuts that this difference is most extreme.  A top quality chocolate gelato is quite similar to a top quality chocolate ice-cream, but a pistachio gelato is like eating a real pistachio, and a raspberry gelato will sometimes leave you with seeds between your teeth, which ice-cream never would.  Gelato, real gelato, doesn’t taste like it’s flavored with the thing, it tastes like it’s made of the thing. This last fact often makes it difficult for foreigners in Italy who are ordering gelato for the first time to choose flavors they will actually enjoy.   Pistachios and Pistacho Ice-Cream do not taste the same, and many people like one and not the other, and consequently make the wrong choice when trying to guess whether or not they’d like Pistachio Gelato.  I myself would run in terror from watermelon icecream, since I know from dumdums and artificial lemonade the horrors that watermelon flavor can inflict, but watermelon gelato (gelato di cocomero), which tastes like the entire fresh summer zest of a real watermelon distilled into each bite, is one of my great delights.  Conversely, many people like cherry syrup, in cocktails, on cakes, in Dr. Pepper, and these people are often wildly disappointed at the first bite of a cherry gelato, which bears no resemblance to the syrup, but simulates the experience of a, usually very acidic, sour cherry. Vanilla is the pinnacle of this cultural flavor misunderstanding.  Many Americans come to a gelateria wanting to try the equivalent of vanilla, and different people propose different equivalencies, but I have concluded, with careful study, that there is not an equivalent.  There are three equivalents.   This is because there are three different reasons people like vanilla ice-cream:

  1. Do you like vanilla for its pure, milky, creaminess?  The absence of any secondary flavor to interfere with the richness of pure dairy?  In that case you want fiore di latte (flower of milk) or, at a really good gelateria, fiore di panna (flower of cream), a gelato made of the pure milk or cream with sugar and nothing else to interfere.
  2. Do you like vanilla for its rich, custardy feeling, preferring the yellower French Vanilla flavors to traditional vanilla?  In this case you want crema, custard flavor, modeled on the eggy custards that fill pastries and doughnuts.
  3. Do you like the actual flavor of the vanilla bean, with its memories of Christmas cookies and traditional perfumes?  In this case and this case only you want gelato di vanilla, if they have it, but be warned: it means it that it’s really, honestly vanilla flavor, like a cookie, or liqueur.

Thus “Gelato is Italian ice-cream,” remains one of the more misleading truths involved in Italian travel.  Gelato is indeed Italian ice-cream, but one cannot apply the same logic to it, and there is nothing like a 1:1 correspondence between which flavors one should order in a gelateria and an ice-cream parlor.  Unfortunately, this concept is difficult to pass along quickly.  You must remember, that I feel true emotional pain whenever I see a happy-looking person step up to a truly terrible gelato place when there’s a good one next door, and I very frequently strike up conversations with passing anglophone tourists which lead inevitably to my showing them a good gelateria.

Witness a small tragedy on the Ponte Vecchio.

At this point follows the test, and the suspense, when I start recommending flavors.  Will they listen?  Will they not?  Since often I’m recommending flavors they would never want in ice-cream.  I can generally convince people about one flavor by having the employees give them a spoonful to taste, but a lot of people just aren’t prepared to believe that “Yogurt and Mandarin Orange” or “Grapefruit and Sour Cherry” are winning combos.  “I’ll take Chocolate and Chocolate Chip.” My two recent favorite people I took to gelato places were both middle-aged American men, with wives in tow who refused on diet grounds to get gelato and thereafter ate a hunk of their husbands’.  One, when we arrived at Giolitti and I started discussing flavors, simply said: order for me, I trust you.  One dark chocolate-coated whipped cream-stuffed waffle cone with Champagne, Sour Cherry and Fleur de Sel Caramel Gelato later, he was a very happy man.  The other I took to Perche no…! (The sensibly named “Why not…!” gelateria which is the reason I live on the street  I live on here in Florence).  I recommended Yogurt, Strawberry Mousse and Mixed Berry (Frutti di Bosco).  He ordered Chocolate and Coffee.  After he tasted his, I let him taste my own cone.  He sighed and smiled.  “Well, you told me so.”

New Travel Tips Section

I am (if I can persuade WordPress to condescend to let me) about to create a new “Travel Tips” index section of Ex Urbe, in which I will gradually review restaurants, museums, hotels, coffee bars, and also provide general city-specific travel tips, things like where the public restrooms in Florence are hidden, and which are the better-tasting Roman water fountains.

Bad gelato, lurking in its homogeneous slimyness!

I shall initiate it with an updated, web-friendly but also printable version of my little guide: How to Spot Good and Bad Gelato.  So vital is the skill that I, in fact, routinely distribute it as a handout to my students, and have often been thanked for it. I will also, in it, review specific preferred gelato places in major Italian cities, but sticking always to one principle: There Is No Best Gelateria.  There are bad gelaterias and good gelaterias, but in ranking the good ones against each other, I have never found one which beat all others in EVERY way.  Each has its points.  Perche no…! excels at sorbets, seasonal fruit flavors and mousses, Rivareno at smooth, creamy, antique flavors, GROM at its raw, organic feel, San Crispino at its meringue semifredo assortment and complex crema variations, Giolitti at its luxurious, elaborate cones and ocean of flavors, Vestri at its chocolate (Oh, its chocolate!), and each of these has three or four signature flavors which cannot be rivaled by the others.  I would never order frutti di bosco at Giolitti, nor fail to order it at Perche no…!; the converse for Caramel.  Both remain superb gelaterias. Remember, though: even bad gelato is still very, very yummy.  So, even if you don’t have access to the best, relax.  Have a gelato.

Bologna for a Day

 Posted by on October 5, 2011  Italy  No Responses »
Oct 052011
 

I made a day trip to Bologna, our neighbor to the north, home of one of the greatest old universities, world-renowned in the Renaissance for its medical school.  A friend who studied professors’ families and households had invited me to join her on a boat tour of the medieval underground canals which were constructed to allow for easy transportation of goods throughout the city.  The tour, alas, was canceled due to insufficient water for the boats to move, but being stranded in Bologna for an afternoon with an expert on its history is no large hardship.

The pulpit of one of the medieval sections

We visited a complex of seven small medieval churches, built successively at different times and gradually connected together into a chimerical complex in which one steps out of a long Gothic nave only to step into an octagonal Byzantine one, then on into a colorful brick cloister that might have been built in Venice, and so on, style by style room by room.  The cathedral is entirely baroque, and since Bologna was never quite so affluent as Florence, especially in the Baroque period, a masterpiece in painted fake marble, painted fake architecture, even painted fake porphyry, but with a few remnants of its displaced Medieval predecessor lurking in corners here and there.

Hundreds of whimsical faces adorn this  facade

We also visited some exceptionally expressive wooden and terracotta sculptures – both media underrepresented in Florence’s great galleries of stone and bronze, and took a meandering walking tour of the city’s long medieval streets and Renaissance facades (much to the chagrin of my friend’s daughter whose panino we were commissioned to deliver at 1 and didn’t place in her hands until around 4).  Many of the raised porches survive on massive dark medieval wooden beams, something almost absent in Florence which neoclassicized everything it could touch.  Again terracotta is a great component of these old facades, which families constructed to impress on passers-by their wealth and distinction, and not only saints but grotesques and even character portraits are common accents between arches and columns.  Again the touch of the great northern neighbor Venice is conspicuous in the rich pinks and peaches of these narrow roads, and in the window trimmings, elaborate and white like wedding cakes, as well as in the occasional winged lion.

Outside Dominic’s basilica stands this tomb of an old professor from the university, with a sarcophagus showing him lecturing to students at their desks

I was delighted to be reminded that Saint Dominic is buried in Bologna, the founder of the Dominican order with its great tradition of scholarship and pursuing truth, for which I have particular affection.  Bad timing relative to evening mass kept my pilgrimage brief this time, but I must return, both to examine the great saint’s tomb, which dozens of famous hands contributed to making a true masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, and to enjoy leisurely contemplation of the life of monastic scholarship he pioneered.  Also gelato.  Knowing I answer to “gelato snob” my guide took me to two exceptional establishments, one tucked inconspicuously in a portico which offered extraordinary seasonal real fruit flavors including Pear with Cinnamon and Spiced Apple, both of which were stunning, and a second, large and clearly famous place (delightfully close to Dominic’s resting place) which offered Ricotta with Sicilian Lemon, pear, and a Granita di Pompelmo Rosa (pink grapefruit granita) which packed the full, intensified ferocity of the most aggressive natural citrus.

The papal triple tiara and crossed keys tell you these balls belonged to a Medici pope, so Leo or Clement; Clement in this case.

“Medici balls!” I cried as we reached the university, and there they were, bulbous and grandiose over a gateway.  My companion, mainly a social historian, had apparently taken little notice of pope Clement’s marble signature, and correctly observed that the building must have been renovated during his papacy, but to me it was a more striking moment.  The Medici crest, with its collection of five or six balls, representing medicinal pills (Medici <= Medico <= doctor) is on virtually every decoratable surface in Florence, a universal reminder of the great patrons, their many projects, and their eventual victory, so when I leave Medici country I always enjoy the telling contrast of their absence, and the presence of some other local symbol, the Venetian Lion of St. Mark, or the…

Oh good grief.. excuse me, I hear trumpets …

(half an hour later)  Right.  Not a big thing, just a parade and concert by the brass band of the Florentine civic militia corps of something something that have amazing hats.

Where were we?  Medici balls in Bologna.  It hit me just as it was intended to, a shocking, unexpectedly long reach by the neighbors who were certainly never lords in Bologna, but still had their fingers in the university which was Bologna’s pride and fame.  I was impressed; centuries later I was still impressed.

There was also a Roman legionary cohort camped in the main square.  But since the trumpeters have slowed me, the Legio I Italica Novae Moesia (67-425 DC) must wait for another day.

 

A pope gazes down over (his?) Roman troops camped in the square

More whimsical faces in stone ornament this monastic cloister

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Medieval wooden porch

Another decorated palazzo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hopefully next time the canals will have enough water for me to tour the underbelly.

Oct 012011
 

Florence is full of activities and events as well as sights and sounds and people, and if there are sometimes long silences between my entries, it is the silence of activity. This week I haven’t even had time to download Doctor Who.

After describing the many festivals that flood the centro with activity, I went – in all innocence – to the market Saturday morning only to find my return blocked by a vast Noah’s arc built out of Chianti bottles drawn by pure white bulls and accompanied by the guild representatives, flag tossers, and girls in peasant wear handing out autumn fruit, all squarely between my fresh salmon steak and my refrigerator.  It was the festival to celebrate the new wine, since the earlier Chianti harvests had just finished their fermentation, producing the young, extra-fruity un-aged wine one only gets in October.  Sunday another 10 AM marching band (just one this time) roused me from snoozing.  What would it be this time?  Public banquet?  Patron saint?  A groggy descent revealed a wall of emerald green cotton and numbers, since a run for Cancer had flooded the city with literally thousands of Italians of all ages in matching t-shirts, who when I arrived were flooding in a great mass north toward the cathedral.  It was quite a fight getting out the front door.

My front door is the brown one in the section that's made of rough stone. It's the base of a medieval tower.

Now, 2,000 green-clad runners or no, opening my front door is generally a… I would say suspenseful act, but since I live at the top of a medieval tower, the descent of 111 steps takes so long that one falls into a kind of distracted hypnotic zen state half-way down, so even friends who visited have said that they, like me, tend to reach the bottom having completely forgotten why they were descending at all.  It’s an experience like waiting at a bus stop or going to the bathroom, when you know there is no other activity you can or should be doing, so the mind is free to flit from path to path until you’re mulling about a friend’s Christmas present or a book you read fifteen years ago, and your mind is still on that when you open the front door and–bam!–nun in your face!  That was four days ago, a lively old nun habbited in tan and gray (four points, +5 for driving a car; in my game you score different numbers of points for spotting nuns of different colors doing different things, and tan and gray is rare), there she was three feet from my face when I swung the door back.  There’s a front step outside the door, and there is always someone sitting on it eating a gelato or consulting a map, and this morning it was an old man chatting with a nun driving a station wagon who had pulled up so close that I had to slide sideways down the length of the car to gain my liberty.  Another day it might be a clutch of arguing Russians, or a lost Japanese art historian, or football fans giddily stripping the shrink wrap from their treasures purchased at the Florence football team merchandise shop right next door.

It is a rather different drama opening the door before 8:30 AM.  The early bus to the institute rouses me often now in the hours when Florence herself wake up.  Her morning face is altogether different.  Like the ancient Romans, the Florentines have the good sense to banish commercial traffic to off-hours, so every dawn a fleet of trucks and vans, compact and white for the most part, diffuses through the city to supply the many shops and restaurants.  The Disneyland crowds don’t rise until after nine, so in the slanting dawn light, as the last street-cleaning machines Zamboni their way across the cobbles, only a scattering of groggy early-bird tourists stand by churches or statues reading from fat guidebooks or clicking away with the elaborate, heavy cameras carried by those serious enough to set an alarm, even on vacation, in hopes of catching Florence without her crowds.  My front door is often blocked by a load of soda bottles, vegetable crates, or infinite bottled water.

The guilty delivery van at its stealthy work.

And bad gelato.

There you see it, unloaded box by heavy box, seeming to smoke as ice mist wafts from the freezer vans which deliver the unforgivable black underbelly of Florence’s cuisine.  I am very serious about gelato, my friends, as one should be about one of the great achievements of our civilization, so it is with no hyperbole that I call it sin when these places serve this artificial, plasticy sugar gook produced in vast vats in the hidden countryside and smuggled in at dawn to masquerade as one of Italy’s great art forms.  O tempora; o mores!

Bad gelato: artificial colors, all monotextured and monochromatic (the fruit has no speckles or peel)

Some places, true, do serve a decent delivery gelato, and in places like Venice one can do no better, but the difference between McDonald’s and a fine flame-roasted burger dribbling salt and savor is not more radical than between this bad gelato and the real produce of fruit and milk and human energy served at the places where they make it real, fresh, each day.  Bad gelato has its charm, much as lollypops or macaroni and cheese from a box are sometimes satisfying, but just as one doesn’t choose a lollypop over fresh black raspberries dipped in Godiva chocolate, when in somewhere serious like Florence Don’t Eat Bad Gelato!  Don’t Do It!  Look at it!  Sitting there in its slimy saccharine flatness like mediocre yogurt!  True gelato is the color of the real substance it’s made of, not its color-coded artificial form, and tastes, well, not like something flavored with a substance but like the substance itself, not strawberry flavor or banana flavor but an actual strawberry, an actual banana, but amplified and intensified, distilled past its natural perfection.

Spectacular as it is, this still only qualifies as mediocre gelato, made with a mix of fresh and artificial ingredients, and not created on site but still of superior quality

Sometimes, I confess, I break down and find myself calling out to people I see walking into bad gelato places.  “Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but there’s a much better and much cheaper real gelato place on that corner right there!”  I try not to do it too often, but I can’t watch!  I just can’t watch.  Sometimes I hear it from people in the US, “You know, I went to Italy and the gelato there wasn’t any better than at XYZ place here in the states!”  I shudder every time.  It’s true, and if an Italian went to America and ate MacDonald’s he might report at home with honesty, “Their burgers aren’t any better than we have here.”  That is why I sigh watching the cold vans trundle past, and why I still say, after “Dov’è il bagno” (where is the bathroom) the most important phrase to know in Italian is “Cerco una gelateria buona, con gelato vero, fatto con ingredienti fresci, non artificiali.” (I’m looking for a good gelateria, with real gelato, made with fresh ingredients, not artificial ones.)

To the left, a cup of genuine top quality gelato, from Perche No!… (Why Not!…), my favorite Florentine gelateria and certainly the best in the center, especially for the fruit flavors.  In the front you see Frutti di Bosco (fruit of the forest i.e. berry, combining raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and redcurrants.)  Note how the color is rich and dark, what you would get if you just put the fruits in the blender and let her rip.  In the back the pale, unappetizing green gelato is made of fresh figs, speckled with their seeds, and divine.  A good gelato place also only makes gelato with fruits in season, so fig is the autumnal treat.

My front door is often blocked by a load of bottles or soda, vegetable crates for the fruit stand or infinite bottled water for the restaurants. but

My Fight with Florence

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  Florence  2 Responses »
Aug 072011
 

Florence's Ponte Vecchio after dusk.

Me – I’m going to stay inside all day and do work.

Florence – But I’m Florence.  Florence is better than work.

Me – No, I’ve been here more than a week now, it’s time I wrote some Ex Urbe entries and shared some of what I’ve done so far.

Florence – I have pizza…

Me – I went to more than a dozen museums, and so many restaurants to describe!

Florence – Gelato…

Me – It’s Vasari’s birthday; I really want to write about him today.

Florence – Frescoes, sculpture…

Me – You’ll have frescoes tomorrow.

Florence – But I have perfect weather today, cool and breezy and just humid enough.

Me – I opened the windows.

Florence – A beautiful sunset, curls of twisty pink cloud growing steadily purple as the sky turns richer and richer blue, wouldn’t that look amazing next to the green and white stripes of my Baptistery, or the gold stone tower of the Palazzo Vecchio?

Me – Look, I’m just trying to write home about how wonderful you are!   Can’t you stop being so wonderful for a few hours?

Florence – I have live music.

Me – I don’t care.

Florence – A live orchestra tucked away in one of the squares below, notes drifting up: Bach, then Vivaldi, you know you love Vivaldi…

Me – I’m not listening.

Florence – Crowds cheering, drums…

Me – Not listening.

Florence – Fireworks…

Me – Wait, really?

Florence – Fireworks, crackling, over by the Duomo, just low enough that you can’t quite see them beyond the houses.  You know I haven’t had fireworks by the Duomo since Easter.

Me – … … …

 

I lost.