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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel Mellor

Gelato: 10 Ways to Tell Good From Bad

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Not all gelato is made equally—here's how to tell the difference


This article might make use of affiliate links which help support the website. This article was originally published on Matador Network by Nathaniel Mellor of Only A Bag.

 

First off, what even is gelato?

Gelato in a cone in front of a sign that reads "gelato"

For a little introduction article, click here. But if you just want to stay on this page, I can give you the quick version.

Gelato is made from cream, milk, and sugar. It's slowly-churned just above freezing and it produces a dessert that's almost like liquid ice cream.


Now That I Know What It Is, How Do I Find Good Gelato?

Location, location, location

Many gelato aficionados know before stepping into the gelateria if the gelato is going to be good based entirely on location. In Rome, if you’re near the Spanish Steps, or the Trevi Fountain, there’s a good chance you’re not going to find great gelato. Gelaterie in places with high rent (around tourist sites) will use inferior ingredients (hydrogenated oils instead of cream) and quick-churn the gelato, forcing air into the mixture so they’re able to save money by selling a smaller amount (by weight) of poor-quality gelato.


Color and flavor

Walking past a gelaterie, you will normally be able to see the gelato displayed. One warning sign for poor-quality gelato is artificial colors.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a gelateria is using artificial colors, so you can use pistachio, a flavor that almost everyone will have, as the “canary in the coalmine”. While pistachios are green, pistachio gelato leans heavily into the realm of light brown/tan. If you find pistachio gelato that’s a rich green, even if it looks decadent, it’s made with artificial colors (and there’s a good chance they’re cutting corners elsewhere).


The one place where this rule fails is with the “Smurf” flavored gelato, the violently-blue gelato available in almost every gelateria. This flavor is mainly intended for children, and while some highly-artisanal and upscale gelaterie don’t offer it, most good-to-pretty-good gelaterie do in order to appeal to families.


Gelato shouldn’t be artificially-flavored. You aren’t saving for months and flying across an ocean just to have the exact same flavor you could have found back home. While telling the artificial flavors from the natural ones can be difficult (especially if you aren’t having multiple gelatos a day), using the color rule from above will make it easier. If they’re faking a color, they’re probably faking flavors as well.


Are gimmicks a bad sign?

It’s not uncommon to find a gelateria that has gimmick; sometimes this is the only way they can stand apart in a big city like Rome against tons of competition. Sometimes the gimmick is as simple as adding a little chocolate sauce into the bottom of the cone or flavoring the panna with cinnamon, as seen at Come il Latte (www.comeillatte.it), or more over-the-top, like having a full-on chocolate fountain wall, like the Venchi (https://it.venchi.com/). While a gimmick isn’t always a bad thing (who doesn’t like a cone filled with chocolate sauce?) it can mean the gelateria spends more time on Instagram-worthy locations than the quality of the product.

Some gelaterie, like La Gormandise (http://www.lagourmandise.it/) in Rome, eschew gimmicks of all kinds, including any identifying signs on the door, which can also be considered a gimmick going in the more subtle direction.


What about those metal cylinders?

Instead of displaying gelato in stainless steel trays, gelato is traditionally kept in small, steel canisters called pozzetti. While these can often be divisive in the gelato-reviewing world as some critics think the gelateria is hiding their gelato so a potential customer can’t see it, many critics prefer the old-school display and understand that the gelateria doesn’t rely on attractive colors to bring in customers, but the flavors available.


The panna

The whipped cream on top is the pièce de résistance of the gelato. It’s the make-or-break. Ideally, the panna is whipped heavy cream and nothing else; no flavoring, no sugar, nothing. Some gelaterie will have a “panna machine” that is not dissimilar to a shaving cream machine at a barber’s. While this isn’t a telltale sign of bad gelato, panna from a machine will often contain thickeners, fillers, and gums to make the cream more appealing.

You want to find panna that is made in house, or fatto in casa (pronounced “fah-toe een cah-zuh”). If you’re not sure, you can always ask before ordering.


The cone

Of course, this only applies to those of you who prefer a cone over a cup. Many artisanal gelaterie will make their own cones, and the smell of baking cones is a great sign that the same care went into the gelato. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Since there are so many cone makers in Italy, it’s not uncommon for a good gelaterie to purchase cones to use.

The ones to avoid are the places that use the classic “cake cone” that melts as soon as gelato touches it.


What’s with the giant mounds?

A common sight in Florentine gelaterie are mounds of gelato, piled well over the edge of the stainless steel trays, in which the gelato is displayed. This is a great warning sign. Typically, the only ways to achieve that kind of height, especially in the summer, is over-freezing, using stabilizers, over-churning (adding so much air into the mixture that it won’t fall due to weight), or a combination of all three.


Seasonal flavors are key

Italians are all about seasonal flavors, whether it’s lemon season or almond season. With this in mind, Italians are often looking for seasonal flavors at their local gelateria. Fruits like watermelon, apricot, and cantaloupe are commonly seen as seasonal sorbet flavors in the summer, whereas hazelnut, fig, apple, and pear (or variations thereof such as the ever-famous pera e ricotta, or, ricotta and pear) start popping up late in the summer, and early in the fall.


How much should I be looking to spend?

Like everything, gelato prices are rising. In 2022, spending two euros ($2.20) on a cono piccolo (small cone with a maximum of two flavors) would be normal. Maybe you’d find a place that wanted two euros and 50 cents ($2.80) for a small cone. Now, in 2023, it’s not uncommon to pay three euros ($3.30) for a small cone. However, if you’re being charged more than four euros ($4.40) for a small cone, chances are you’re at a touristy gelateria.


What if I see a place with tons of flavors?

Just as with any restaurant, if you find a gelateria that is offering more than 12 flavors, this can mean the quality isn’t as high as it could be. Too many flavors means a low turnover, and a low turnover means you’re eating week-old (or older) gelato.

The only place that seems to be consistently good and has a large variety of flavors available is Fatamorgana (http://www.gelateriafatamorgana.com/web/) in Rome, as they are often rated highly by food publications and locals alike.


So, what am I looking for with good gelato?

The ideal gelato is made without artificial colors and flavors, has a homemade cone and fresh panna, with a seasonal flavor, that costs less than four euros.

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