Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gelato Joy

Howdy, strangers!  I know, I know. I've been completely MIA for the last several weeks while getting my Stateside and globe-trotting life back in order.  I know, I know. This post is still not the Brandied Dried Fig and Vanilla Souffle I promised you before discovering what is apparently the Great Ramekin Shortage of 2010. (Don't worry, the souffle is coming!)  Though I may have been missing for a few weeks, it was with the best of intentions as I can now bring you tales of gelato, tiramisu and panna cotta straight from the source--Italia.  During my recent time in Venice, Florence and Rome I made it my mission to sample all of these Italian specialties and report back.  Tough job, I know.  In this first installment I bring you a taste of the endless joys of gelato.

I will be the first to tell you that ice cream is my favorite food.  Specifically, Graeter's Mocha Chip. Though when it comes to flavors, I think the reason I'm partial to ice cream is one of the same reasons I love cupcakes--the endless possibilities of flavor infusions.  So, though I've enjoyed quite a few cones in my day, admittedly I would have been at a loss to tell you the difference between ice cream and its exotic Italian cousin, gelato. Most of what I could relate came secondhand from friends who had been to Italy and would recite without fail that gelato found in the States was "never the same" as the local stuff.  With this in mind, I set out on my first Italian sojourn determined to try gelatos from North to South, from the reputed "best" to those sold in the heart of tourist town.

As you can imagine, it was a tough job.

My first taste of gelato was at the most renowned shop in Venice, Gelateria Nico.  Located in Dosoduro near the Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim collections, this is a convenient stop after a long morning of museum hopping.  I tried the Tiramisu and, in addition to being put off that you have to order something other than gelato if you want to sit at a table, I found the consistency to be less creamy than most and more similar to the style of ice cream we find in the States.  Consistency is one of the main differences you'll find between ice cream and gelato due to several factors including a lower butterfat and sugar content in gelato (fewer calories!!) and a mixing process that doesn't incorporate air the way ice cream does, producing a gelato that is much more dense.

In Florence I have to admit that my favorite gelato came from an essentially no-name stand located off one of the more touristy piazzas.  Luckily when traveling I stick to my premise of getting off the beaten track and not sticking too heavily to tour guides.  Particularly with something as subjective as cuisine, more often than not I've found guidebook restaurant suggestions to be overrated, and that food does not taste better just because it's famous. (Your thoughts?)  At this stand I picked up a generous scoop of Coconut and was surprised to find flakes of toasted coconut throughout the scoop and not just sprinkled on top, the flavor was rich and the texture perfectly balanced.

In an unfortunate instance of trying out the "best" gelato in Florence, I sought out Il Vivoli.  Don't.  Not only is the gelato so forgettable that I can't even remember what flavor I had, but this was also my only experience with poor customer service throughout 2 weeks in Italy.  Not only was I blatantly ignored by the woman at the counter despite being the only customer, another woman at the cash register proceeded to look past me and make phone calls while I tried to pay.  Um, hello? Am I back in France?

Another high point on my gelateria tour was Grom.  Not only does Grom have a New York location--bonus!--but they pride themselves on an artisanal style of gelato production, sourcing the best ingredients from around the world and taking many from their own 20-acre organic farm in Northern Italy.  I had the Fig semifreddo (kind of like sorbet) and it was To Die. Amahzing.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to Giolitti--another "best of" in Rome.  In this case, the stop was totally worth it, if nothing else for the massive number of flavor choices and the servers in white button-down coats. It's like stepping into an old-timey ice cream parlor.  I got a double scoop of my favorite Amarena (black cherry) and banana, and it was amahzing (until I spilled half of it trying to unlock the dungeon-like door to my 15th century apartment building...).  This is one you'll definitely want to hit in off hours though to avoid the crowds.