Italy deserves major kudos for the culinary gifts—pizza, pasta, and pesto, to name a few—it has bestowed upon the world. But nothing instantly improves a hot summer day like savoring a cup (or cone) of gelato. Read on for 11 facts you might not know about the dense, refreshing dessert.
1. THE ITALIAN WORD CONGELATO MEANS FROZEN.
In Italian, the word congelato means frozen, and the word congelare means to freeze. Although gelato is the Italian version of ice cream, it’s not merely Dreyer’s with a European, artisanal flair. Like ice cream, gelato contains milk, sugar, and flavorings such as fruit or nuts, but it has less cream than ice cream and usually no egg yolks.
2. EARLY ITALIAN GELATO WAS CLOSER TO SORBET THAN ICE CREAM.
Although we don’t know the exact origins of gelato, ancient peoples in China and Egypt added fruit and salt to snow to make a primitive cold dessert. Ancient Roman emperors reportedly ate similar desserts, and this type of dessert is one of the myriad of culinary inventions that Catherine de' Medici is credited (rightly or wrongly) with bringing from Florence to Paris upon her 1533 marriage to the future King of France. But the lack of milk (Italians had used water instead) meant that early gelato more closely resembled sorbetto (a.k.a. sorbet).
3. A SICILIAN FISHERMAN OPENED THE FIRST GELATO CAFÉ IN PARIS.
In 1686, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a Sicilian fisherman and chef from Palermo, made the first gelato machine. He opened a café in Paris, called Café Procope, which sold gelato and coffee to Parisians and literary thinkers including Voltaire and Rousseau. Amazingly, you can still visit Café Procope, and the restaurant now serves dishes such as duck foie gras, beef tartare, and snails.
4. IT HAS LESS FAT BUT MORE FLAVOR THAN ICE CREAM.
Most people love that gelato miraculously contains less fat than regular ice cream but seems to taste more flavorful. As gelato expert Morgan Morano told NPR, gelato is softer, smoother, and denser than ice cream because less air is churned into it, and it has less butterfat. “Butterfat coats your palate, and if you have less of it you can taste the flavors more quickly,” Morano explained.
5. ITS WARMER TEMPERATURE ALSO GIVES IT STRONGER FLAVOR.
Gelato should be stored at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream. Ice cream is typically served between 0 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit, while gelato is between 7 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmer temperature means that gelato is soft, silky, and more pleasing to your taste buds; your tongue is less numbed by the cold, so you can better appreciate the flavor.
6. AVOID GELATO THAT’S SERVED WITH A SCOOPER.
If you want authentic gelato, don’t buy it from a shop that uses ice cream scoops. Instead, gelato should be scooped with a spade or paddle. The flat surface is better equipped to gently scoop up your flavor of choice. “Not only can you work gelato with the spade to soften it up, but there's a whole artistry,” Morano said.
7. KNOW THE LINGO WHEN ORDERING IN ITALY.
Whether you’re ordering gelato in Italy (or at an authentic gelateria elsewhere), you should know gelato-related terminology. If you’re in need of a serious dose of caffeine, order affogato. You’ll get a scoop of gelato doused in espresso. If you want to make your gelato extra decadent, opt for gelato con panna to get gelato topped with whipped cream. And for an Italian ice cream sandwich, order brioche con gelato.
8. THE GELATO WORLD CUP IS A THING.
Every other year, international teams compete at the Gelato World Cup (called Coppa del Mondo della Gelateria in Italian). Teams from countries including Japan, Morocco, the United States, Spain, and Poland traveled to Italy to compete in the most recent competition, in January 2016. After the teams made their best gelato dishes, sundaes, and ice sculptures, the Italian team won first place. Obviously.
9. POPULAR FLAVORS IN GELATERIAS INCLUDE BACIO, STRACCIATELLA, AND LIMONE…
In Italy, gelatai (sellers of gelato) go way beyond the typical chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Gelaterias offer a ton of fruit-based flavors, as well as richer dessert ones. Popular gelato flavors include bacio (chocolate hazelnut), stracciatella (vanilla with streaks of chocolate chip), limone (lemon), pistacchio (pistachio), fico (fig), and cocco (coconut).
10. …AND VIAGRA GELATO IS A REAL FLAVOR.
Although there are plenty of weird gelato flavors in Italy, Viagra might be the weirdest. Rather than actually containing the prescription drug, Viagra gelato is made with African aphrodisiac herbs. The color is bright blue, and it reportedly tastes like either bubblegum or black licorice (anise). However, a celebrity client once requested that his prescription Viagra be included in a private batch—the gelataio estimated it cost $33 a scoop.
11. GELATO DOES BIG BUSINESS.
Between 2009 and 2014, gelato sales increased dramatically from $11 million to $214 million. More and more Americans are buying gelato, and traditional ice cream companies have jumped on the gelato train. Häagen-Dazs now offers dark chocolate chip, sea salt caramel, black cherry amaretto, and tiramisu gelato, while Breyers’ Gelato Indulgences line has salted caramel truffle, peanut butter chocolate, chocolate hazelnut, and chocolate fudge truffle. As of 2014, the gelato company Talenti is the number three seller of premium ice cream in the U.S., behind Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs.
All images via iStock.