Archive for Food

How to Spot Good Gelato from 15 Feet Away

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 keep it soft, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are lend well to complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and are also very effective at 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 sorbetto, 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 freezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream. Thus high quality gelato is (in my opinion) better than the best ice cream because it showcases its excellent ingredients better than the ice cream does, but bad/cheap gelato tends to be worse than bad/cheap ice cream because ice cream’s natural fattyness and saltiness effectively conceals poor ingredients and artificial additives. Notice also that the best grocery store gelato brands (like Talenti) wisely tend to focus on flavors which combine multiple ingredients (salted caramel, cherry and chocolate, mint chocolate) since mixed flavors more effectively conceal the softening additives which grocery store gelato needs to contain to let it last overnight.

Speaking of lasting overnight, another difference between gelato and ice cream is that ice cream keeps better. Both substances are suspensions of tiny ice crystals, which gradually clump to form larger and larger ice crystals, which is why old ice cream has lots of hard bits in it, and sometimes freezes into a solid block. But gelato forms these much faster than ice cream does, since fat and salt slow the clumping process, so gelato without additives can’t even last overnight without freezing into a block, whereas ice cream can. This means the best gelato must be made anew every day in small batches, increasing the labor and meaning anything unsold at the end of the day is a pure loss for the gelateria.  In contrast, ice cream can last several days, even a week, so ice cream places have lower labor costs and lower losses on unsold product, a key reason why ice cream parlors can be supported by much smaller communities whereas gelato places require a high population center to ensure that sales move quickly — or else they have to include additives which make the gelato taste funny.

“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:


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.
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.

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

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.

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.
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.

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.

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 combating the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!

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A Food Map of Florence

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!

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Real Mozzarella

Time once again for me to sound like a madwoman, but there are some topics for which the modest, objective vocabulary of sane discourse is not well suited.  This is true particularly of experiences which bring on moments worthy of the phrase “so happy I could die”: the experience of perfect spring weather on the prow of a sailing ship, of standing before Botticelli’s Madonna della Magnificat, of a farewell dinner at a favorite restaurant with six best friends, of having the world’s top expert on your subject praise your article, and of biting into real mozzarella.

Some readers will not have tasted real mozzarella yet, but those who have already know what I mean.  For those who have sunk our teeth into the velvet, meaty milk-flesh of a real mozzarella, which bleeds whey as it explodes with flavor-hypersaturated salt-cream, it is as difficult to believe it is the same chemical substance as string cheese or Domino’s pizza as it is to wrap one’s mind around the fact that dribbling, drowning water is in fact two-thirds breathable oxygen.  It’s not similar.  It’s not the same food, not even in the same mental category, like roast pheasant and turkey sandwich slices, or matzah and a baguette.  A true mozzarella is milk white, often in ball form, and best preserved submerged in brine.  It is soft, resilient, very slightly spongy, and usually salty, though some are made with little-to-no salt when intended to absorb surrounding flavors, as in  a salad or a filling.  A large ball will have a skin layer of a distinct texture, which is not a separate substance wrapped around the mozzarella, but the result of a chemical change caused by the surrounding liquid leaking in.

Fresh real mozzarella is softer and wetter than the "low moisture" mozzarella used for American pizza, so it creates a wetter, jucier result (sometimes even soggy) but also doesn't need to be shredded and distributed evenly the way dry mozzarella does.

My personal theory about why good mozzarella gives the brain such a direct blast of pleasure-center positive reinforcement is that it so richly combines the taste experiences of infancy, specifically nursing and weaning.  The pleasure center of the brain is programmed to fire off as positive reinforcement when a baby takes certain actions necessary for life, of which the first is nursing.  Fatty, sweet, salty milk liquid is thus a primordial addiction, and mozzarella with its never-chilled sweet-fat-salt is arguably more similar to breast milk than skimmed, refrigerated cow’s milk is.   When weaning approaches the pleasure center fires off anew to teach us that chewing and swallowing and solids are also good, and mozzarella’s soft, fleshy texture thus feeds that general solid food addiction too.  This is all pure hypothesis, but there is a staggering power to the experience of real mozzarella, not quite like any other food in the raw burst of “Yes!” that shoots through the psyche.  So delightful is a good, true buffalo mozzarella that I have known certain people at schools or institutes to tell the kitchen that they’re vegetarians just because the vegetarian alternative is occasionally mozzarella, and the heaven of mozzarella once or twice a month is worth giving up meat the rest of the time.

Let’s clear some terminology.  Buffalo mozzarella, or mozzarella di bufala means mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk.  In Italy, mozzarella made from cow’s milk is called fior di latte.  Mozzarella di Campana means it is made from milk from the region of Campana in southern Italy, which is supposed to have the best milk, and where, legend has it, farmers offer miraculous roadside mozzarella stands, just as those in New England offer apples or summer fruit.   Buffalo milk is fattier than cow’s milk, making a richer (and even more luxuriantly calorific) cheese.  Fior di latte is also a gelato flavor, and is completely unflavored pure sweet milk.

Sometimes mozzarella is braided like this, which makes it firmer and stringier, with less soft middle - not my preference.

The best mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, but not all fiore di latte mozzarella is bad, nor is buffalo mozzarella necessarily good, since there are many opportunities to mistreat it.  Time is one enemy, as fresh mozzarella quickly degenerates, and refrigeration, unfortunately, is another, but chemicals, ingenuity and starting with the very best ingredients mean that there are a few store-brand mozzarella types which, if not actually as good as their fresh cousins, are a respectable substitute.  In the US, Trader Joe’s carries a mozzarella good enough that, when I bought some as part of a wedding breakfast banquet for newlywed friends, it made them both eternal converts.  In Italy, Cirigliana, Mufala and Mozzarella dei Preti are the best brands I have found in grocery marts.  (In my experience, the mozzarellas that come in a large transparent bucket tend to be good.)

Once only in my life I have had genuine farm fresh mozzarella, made when I ordered it, at the farm with the buffalo right there, and it was so delicate that when I touched it it bled milk.  That experience may not e repeatable outside a few corners of agricultural paradise which even in Italy I rarely have the opportunity to visit, but that does not prevent me from tearing up when I bite into a good grocery store version.

My taste of farm fresh mozzarella, which I will never forget. (Also, one of the best birthday presents ever: Thanks, Mom!)

Yet a “good grocery store version” is not easy to come by in many regions of the unhappy Earth.  Even at upscale grocery stores which in the US now often offer fancy mozzarella, alluring in its brine-bath, the odds are, in my experience, one in three at best that the cheese within will turn out to manifest mozzarella’s true  majesty.  1/3 of the time it will turn out to be practically unsalted bland mush, and another third it will be only a pale shadow.  It is worth trying, but at $5+ a ball at most yuppie-marts it can be a frustrating gamble, since the fail condition is pretty-much overpriced playdough.

Yet there is hope!  This particular elegy to the Boddhisatva of cheeses was spurred on by this article on how to rehabilitate lame store-bought mozzarella too make it taste like real mozzarella.  Two-sentence summary: when mozzarella is refrigerated it undergoes a chemical change which makes it retain more moisture, making it become bland and dry in contrast with unrefrigerated mozzarella, and giving it a solidity which melts to create the stringy texture associated with American pizza.  Empirical study shows that can overcome and partially reverse this chemical process by soaking the mozzarella in salted warm milk for an hour or two (circa 110 degrees Fahrenheit, 43 Celsius).  I have yet to try the experiment myself, but if it proves true, it may be one of the greatest technological advances since butter.

Sometimes mozzarella is made into a bulb with a vase-like neck like this. This is intended to be tied with a cord and hung up to dry, or to be smoked.

And then there is Burrata.  Last year I sent a friend off to Italy with instructions to eat at my favorite Roman restaurant Cul de Sac, and there to order, from their vast cheese menu, the Burrata.  Seeing him again months later I asked if he had done so.  “Yes,” he answered with maniacal glee.  “Three times.”  Burratta is the more luxuriant cousin of good mozzarella, made by wrapping a shell of mozzarella around a belly-ball made partly from mozzarella and partly from raw cream.  BEWARE: I have encountered “Burrata” in American grocery stores, notably at the Whole Foods flagship store in Houston, but an old burrata easily becomes bitter, a nasty awakening from hope for those who have tasted the sweet cream original.  Some burrata are so packed with cream that they are really half cheese, half butter, and at farmer’s markets they are sold wrapped up in leaves.  One New Years’, I brought such a burrata with me on the overnight train from Florence to Paris where I served honeymooning friends breakfast in bed with a hot Parisian baguette to spread the cheesy-butter on.  None of us would undo the experience given a second chance, but I know all three of us look back on the feast with some small sense of mourning that we allowed ourselves to become irredeemably addicted to an experience which can only be achieved by crossing the border from Italy to France before non-refrigeratable cheese goes off.

Another good way to find real mozzarella is at a good restaurant.  Caprese salad, a dish made by alternating slices of mozzarella and tomato, sometimes drizzled with olive oil, is always a gamble since at a good place it will be divine and at a bad place super lame.  But it is good enough to justify the gamble, if you watch for the right signs.  The major bad sign is if the restaurant has caprese sitting around on display, either in a case in the front, or under plastic wrap.  Such caprese were cut ages ago, whereas a good one has to be cut immediately before being served, or else the soft mozzarella collapses.  As for good signs, really the best you can say is that a good place will serve a good caprese.  The best sign is if mozzarella is an option by itself, or if a place has a cheese menu.  Generally a restaurant will not offer a mozzarella, or a burrata, or any cheese, by itself unless it’s good, since without the tomato to help cover it it’s embarrassingly obvious when they’re using bad supplies, and Italian customers would not stand for it.  Thus, if it’s alone, you can usually trust it – if it’s in a caprese, it could go either way.

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Relax. Have a gelato.

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.

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Cheater’s Italian Cooking

One of my great life goals has been a delicious pasta sauce that can be made in the time between putting the pasta in the water and draining it, and that has minimal clean-up and non-perishable ingredients, so you can have them constantly on-hand.  I have succeeded.  The winning sauce is a variant on Amatriciana, a rich, tomato based red sauce with onion and pancetta, and with my modifications, it can be prepared in five minutes.

A sauce that can be made between putting the water on and draining it is relatively easy to achieve, but when one has just come home from work, haggard and voracious, the six-to-ten minutes it takes water to boil are invaluable.  They can be used for e-mail, changing out of work clothes, asking family about their days, doting on pets, or the ever-popular staring into space while the brain-drive defragments.  The effort to quality ratio was also a dominant factor in the development of this recipe.  While a fresh red sauce is better than most jar sauces, it’s generally only a bit better, and the small difference makes the effort of making something from scratch and cleaning it up hard to justify.  Thus my requirement was a sauce that can be created in 5 minutes, which generates minimal clean-up, and tastes considerably better than jar sauce.

Two great and widely-applicable cheats enable my nearly-instant Amatriciana, which are applicable in many contexts and have exponentially accelerated my ability to prepare any Italian dish and many others:

Dried Onion:

“I have an edible object!  I want to cook it!”

Great Cheat #1: Dried Onion

Even not knowing what the edible object is, I can still prescribe a technique that works 75% or the time:  In a large pan, simmer finely diced onion in delicious oil and/or liquid (olive oil & white wine, sesame oil and/or mirin & soy, take your pick), add some salt and basic seasoning (garlic, ginger, spicy red pepper, again take your pick), chop up edible object(s), add to onion mixture along with any chopped secondary food objects you may choose to contrast it, fry until cooked.  This is universal and easy, but not quite easy enough for a five-minute sauce, since it involves (A) having a perishable fresh onion on hand, (B) peeling and chopping said onion, (C) enduring onion vapors, (D) waiting for the onion to cook, (E) cleaning up peels, stems, splinters of onion, cutting board.

Dried onion solves all five problems.  Heat half a cup or so of liquid—any liquid—in a pan, sprinkle in a tablespoon or two of dried shredded onion, simmer for 20 seconds and the onion will reconstitute, and begin to cook and caramelize like fresh onion.  I use white wine (since here cheap white cooking wine is literally cheaper than water) but olive oil works, mead works, apple juice or cider works, and in a pinch water works.  It can’t substitute for fresh onion in a salad or a salsa, but for any of those myriad recipes, from marinara sauce to curry, which involve infusing onion into a mixture without having chunks of onion as an important ingredient, it solves infinite problems.  The primary drawbacks are (A) finding dried shredded onion, which is only carried at larger or specialty groceries, and (B) cooking it long enough for the pieces to get soft, or else they are detectably a little chewy in the final mixture, but the latter is rarely detectible and frankly doesn’t bother me when it is, and the former is countered by the fact that dried onion keeps indefinitely, so once you’ve found some you can buy a hogshead of it and have tasty foods for many moons.  Suddenly a whole world of 30 minute recipes become 20 minute recipes, and 20 minute recipes enter the realm of our between-pasta-stages ideal.

Frozen Garlic:

Likely you too have enjoyed the mild savor of a whole garlic clove roasted until it becomes soft and sweet.  As a pizza topping or accent in a sauce.  Problem: it takes a while.  Solution: a garlic clove which has been frozen and thawed again cooks to softness much faster, in a matter of five minutes instead of up to twenty.  These days, jars of pre-peeled garlic can be bought in many grocery stores.  Simply throw one in the freezer and, as you start your sauce, toss a handful of frozen whole cloves into the pan to simmer.  Five to seven minutes and they’ll be soft, sweet and completely done.

Gratuitous Product Placement:

MY APARTMENT HAS NO FREEZER.  Consequently certain aspects of the culinary world are cut off, among them frozen garlic.  I must thus resort to a slightly-less-convenient but even more delicious alternative enabled by the Leifheit brand Comfortline Gourmet cutter.  It is a hand-held slicer which in a matter of seconds transforms peeled fresh garlic cloves into perfect paper-thin slices that look exactly like rose petals, and cook with incredible speed to perfect tenderness.

I ran across this particular device when I went to the nearest hardware and kitchen store to acquire a good cheese grater.  I found the grater of my desiring—the round kind with the crank which grates with amazing speed and minimal bloodshed—and it was shelved in the shop clearly paired with this little garlic slicer, with the unspoken motto, “If you’re serious enough to want this cheese grater, you want this garlic slicer.”  And oooh was it right.  Now I do have to go to the bother of peeling my own garlic (4-8 seconds per clove, oh noes!) but when done, the petal-like slices cook in approximately one minute, and are a lovely addition to, well, everything.

To Business:

Now, Amatriciana (Ah-mah-tree-chee-ah-nah) is the winner, an extremely rich and mildly spicy red sauce using tomato, bacon or cured ham of some sort, and, in the Roman version, lots of onion.  (My next goal is a vegetarian version, but the meat really does power the sauce, so every veggie variant I’ve tried has been not enough better than jar sauce to justify the difference.  Sorry, Aang.)

Amatrice is a town on Lazio, near Rome.  The official website of the Comune of Amatrice explains the history of Pasta Amatriciana, and is propagandistically insistent that the true beast can only be prepared using Amatrice guanciale, a special cut of salted bacon-like cured meat made only in Amatrice, and pecorino cheese also from Amatrice.  I will, out of respect for the town, post their official recipe for real Amatriciana in my recipe section, and publically confess that, yes, it is better, but (much like the difference between the pizzeria O Vesuvio next to my apartment and the pizzeria Le Campane 20 minutes across town which has less charcoal edge to the crust) it is not enough better to justify making the effort very often.  Amatriciana is usually served on the indomitable Bucatini (which for its floppiness merits being nicknamed “Jackson Pollock pasta” or “Finger-painting pasta”) but is also good on any noodle.

An efficient, printable version of my “Cheater’s Amatriciana,” with quantities and all that busywork, is posted in the Recipes & Cooking section above.  Here, I wanted instead to share the sequence, since Amatriciana is best summarized as: “Fill your pan with yummy.  Now add tomato.  Done.”   Thus, I narrate the process here only for the sake of those who enjoy the vicarious pleasure of food voyeurism:

Start the pasta going.

Add diced Pancetta to the pan, or failing that thick-cut bacon or, in Amatrice, guanciale.  Simmer until the fat softens and savory, salty liquid starts to pool in the bottom of the pan.  Throw in some whole frozen garlic cloves at this stage for more garlic savor.

Add a half-cup or so of white wine, which at this point should flare and sizzle in the pan and lose its alcohol within a few seconds.  Use it to re-hydrate the onion, which quickly becomes golden and sweet.  Add petals of fresh garlic at this point for even more garlicness!

Sprinkle salt and ground spicy red pepper, or chopped fresh spicy pepper.  Add a can of crushed tomato.  Enjoy.

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“Get your piping hot tripe!”

Locals enjoying their "Trippa Fiorentina"

In Florence, daily meals become a pleasure, but there remains the peculiarity that, divine as the pizzas and pastas and cheeses are, the actual Florentine delicacies, the ones invented in Florence by Florentines, are generally a bit less inviting than the broader Tuscan and Italian offerings. “Bistecca Fiorentina” (Florentine-style steak) is excellent, of course, but take, for example, the Florentine lunch special of choice, “Trippa Fiorentina”, spiced tripe. Tripe. Honest to goodness, it’s tripe, chopped, fried tripe. Roadside carts sell it like hotdog stands as a quick lunch, and locals crowd around, and you can smell it for blocks. In a cuisine centered on bringing out the best of fine quality ingredients, a rich milk, a powerful tomato, Florentine lunches focus on the part of the animal that tastes like… well… what its job is. If someone wants to argue that the American hotdog is itself a rather questionable food, despite being a hotdog eater I can’t really deny it, but a hotdog stand does not make a city block smell like a hybrid between a cow’s butt and a urinal. I am an open-minded diner and have tried tripe many times in many forms, Italian, Chinese, and it always tastes like tripe. I can’t understand it. I know the words “traditional” “local” and “delicacy” are often code for “what we ate while under siege when we ran out of cats,” (if you don’t believe me, hunt down a Tuscan recipe for “stinco” i.e. boiled pig’s knuckles). Still, they clearly love it, and if people have the option to eat buffalo mozzarella or tripe and choose tripe, then… I will try it again. I’ll wait a few months, and with sincere effort… maybe. One does acquire some local abilities by osmosis after a while. After my first six months in Florence I gained the inexplicable ability to recognize saints Cosimo and Damiano in a painting even if they don’t have their characteristic hats. So perhaps a year will be enough to master even tripe.

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A Simple Breakfast

A simple breakfast from the corner store.

I didn’t have time to go to a restaurant for lunch, or to make it to the good market, so I had to make do with what I could grab from the little corner store at the end of my block.  Still, not too shabby.

Good Mozzarella di Bufala, tomatoes, basil, a sweet Prosciutto Toscano, young first crop figs, redcurrants, young Pienza (the official cheese of Pope Pius II), a tall glass of milk, fresh blood orange juice, and salad with Greek feta and Italian oil and vinegar.  (As you read I’ll give you three guesses and a few paragraphs to figure out which of these things was the hardest to find).

While everyone expects to be wowed by the restaurants in Italy, the grocery stores are just as overwhelming, and many of my most memorable Italian meals have been at home.  Grab a few fresh veggies and fry them in olive oil, serve over pasta.  But even cooking things is often unnecessary.  Italian cuisine is about ingredients: good vegetables, good cheese, good meat that you can just eat, no need for preparation, eat.  In Venice, where all but a golden handful of restaurants are tourist traps, I usually just go into a grocery store and buy a quarter kilo of whatever cheese is freshest and sit by the canal and eat it (and offer it to any sad-looking anglophone strangers who wander by, and are inevitably delighted).  The cold cuts too are a centerpiece instead of a substitute for real food.  Most countries never have and never will consider cold cuts a main dish, but if you get really good ones they don’t need to be disguised with a sandwich and its toppings, they are, by themselves, perfect.  Real prosciutto literally melts on your tongue like butter and fills your mouth with the soft sweet salt of paper thin meat – more flavor from one ounce than from an entire pack of common store “salami”.

It’s actually slightly unsettling how much better the ingredients are.  Figs and oil one expects to be better here since here is where they come from, and redcurrants and Pienza cheese (a soft, chewy cheese with the texture of colby or jack, but with a mild Romano-esque tinge, gentle and filling; completely different in its aged state which is so strong down the Romano spectrum as to be almost spicy) you can’t find in most corner stores, but it’s the simpler things that are slightly alarming.  Milk, for example.

Keep in mind here that I’m a serious milk drinker.  I don’t just like milk, I actually systematically explore milk, comparing different brands, farms, percent mixes.  I’m not a 1% person or a skim person or a whole milk person, since I like all of them, each for its unique qualities, the creamy instant-full-feeling of whole.   I can therefore say with some confidence that milk here is better.  It just flat out tastes better than milk in America.  The common, cheapest of the cheap store brand milk tastes as good as the fancy expensive organic stuff in the US.  In fact it tastes as good as the extremely expensive un-homogenized stuff, except for not having the lumps of half-formed butter peppering it as it glides down.  Why?  The only answer I can come to is production without hormones.  I’m not saying this out of any environmentalist agenda, just as a neutral observation from someone who’s tasted a lot of milk.  Italian tomatoes being superior is one thing–they get better sun here, better soil, the tickle of the Mediterranean in the air–but cows are not photosynthetic.  EU restrictions on artificial hormones is the only real difference I can think of.

That and the fact that Italians care about ingredients.  In fact, the whole cuisine is about ingredients.

No one can win an argument about which is the best cuisine in the world, and I won’t argue that even the finest (non-truffle) pasta dish is usually not a match for a proper French or Turkish pastry or a really good tuna nigiri, but I think I’m right in saying that Italian is the best simple cuisine in the world.  The most delicious pasta sauces are usually still just a few ingredients prepared in a very simple way.  My Amatriciana and Carbonara I can make in the time between when the pasta goes in the water and when it’s soft enough to eat.  Because so little is done to the ingredients, their quality really shows through.  This is likely why it developed in Italy, where the vegetables and other food are naturally so good, so doing almost nothing to them is best.  Elaborate kitchen alchemy is necessary only when the fundamental foods are, well, the sorts of things subsistence cultures had to eat.   French baking is an art form, as are German sausages, all kinds of curry, but when what you have are truly good ingredients, Italian is definitely the best way to bring them out.  That also makes it the easiest great cuisine to become proficient in.  Anyone who wants to achieve a fine French sauce, or even cook a really, really good steak, requires a decent apprenticeship.  Good Italian?  One session in the kitchen with me and you can wow friends and neighbors, and I didn’t have much more than that with the Italian Moms (and American professors) who taught me.

A standard Italian glass beside my own.

Have you had your three guesses yet?  That’s right!  The most difficult thing to find was: a tall glass of milk.  Specifically a tall glass, as for reasons passing my understanding the standard sized drinking glass in Italy holds about three mouthfuls of liquid if that.  I had a grand hunt up and down the shopping district hunting for a glass large enough for what I never realized was apparently a rare perversion: taking a deep breath and downing a huge, cool glass of water, or taking a large volume of something with you to accent a meal.  Between that and the fact that water is so scarce and expensive in restaurants, and wine so common, I remain among those baffled that the Italians don’t all die of dehydration.  In Rome where public fountains provide free water everywhere it’s one thing, but in Florence where said fountains are scarce and, when present, inevitably broken?  Must be the patron saints.  Or… who would be the Roman god of hydration.  Neptune, maybe?  Apollo?  Castor and Pollux perhaps?  Leucothea?

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