The base for gelato is a custard typically made with eggs, sugar and whole milk (though there is also a variation called 'sorbetto' that doesn't contain dairies). The hot mix then slowly cools off to allow the water to bind with the milk proteins and ultimately give smaller crystals when frozen. Real fruit, chocolate, nuts are then added as flavors. The freezing process happens in small batches in a mixer, and this incorporates air increasing the volume by 25-30%. Gelato should be stored at a temperature between -10 and -15 °C and consumed within a few days.
Ice cream is usually made with half cream and half milk, normally through a cold mix process. The production lines work in air to even double the product's volume. Ice cream is stored at a temperature around -20 and -25 °C and can last for a few months.
So, your gelato is not likely to be authentic if:
- Too sweet. Italian gelato gains its flavor from being denser, slightly warmer, and from containing natural, high quality ingredients, not just sugar. The flavors are generally quite simple (see below) - in Italy you will find no marshmallows, peanut butter, Oreos, Reese's and -please!- nothing savory.
- Served too cold. Authentic gelato is preserved at a less cold temperature to preserve its creaminess - if the store has too many flavors for what they can sell daily, this is a sign that the product is not freshly made and is deep frozen to extend its fridge life.
- Containing too much fat. Artisan gelato would be completely solid in a deep freezer. If the product is still partly soft, this is a sign of higher fat content (if you get a chance to see it melt, gelato melts quickly turning into a milky drink, ice cream instead slowly separates into a thick foam and a watery part).
So, now that we know how to differentiate ice cream (or bad gelato imitations) from authentic gelato, let's talk about what gelato really is for the Italians.
Gelato is a dessert, a refreshment, a summer treat, and even a small meal. The main place to get gelato is in a 'gelateria' (gelato parlor). Gelaterie are very common all throughout Italy, but especially in those cities where it gets particularly hot during the summer. During winter, the ones that stay open often only have limited flavors, or even alternatives such as 'gelato caldo' (warm gelato, a relatively new invention which is more of a mousse) or just whipped cream (with cocoa or cinnamon powder). Gelaterie serve gelato to go either in individual portions (in cones or disposable cups), or larger quantities in insulated containers (priced by the liter and considerably cheaper than the equivalent amount bought in individual portions; in some cases empty cones are also available, complimentary or for a fee). More elaborate preparations are sometimes offered, usually intended for sit-down customers (compositions with wafers or bisquits, melted chocolate, whipped cream). Gelaterie, as well as most pastry shops, also may offer 'semifreddi' (gelato cakes), and, like many cafés, also use gelato as the base for 'frullati' (Italian-style milk shakes), or for 'affogati' (gelato drowned in coffee and/or liquors).
As far as flavors go, as we were saying gelato can be of two main types: milk-based (creams - or 'creme' in Italian), or water-based (sorbet - or 'sorbetto' in Italian), which originated in the Southern Italy, but is available all throughout the country. Traditional cream gelato flavors include: fior di latte (the white gelato base), cioccolato (chocolate), vaniglia (vanilla - which, by the way, has an intense flavor and doesn't mean flavorless!), stracciatella (fior di latte and chocolate shavings), nocciola (hazelnut), torroncino (from 'torrone'), caffè (coffee), pistacchio (pistachos). Newer flavors include Tiramisù and panna cotta (from the corresponding desserts). Traditional sorbets flavors include: limone (lemon), fragola (strawberry), pesca (peach), mango and other fruits. It has to be noted that even the biggest and most popular gelaterie don't usually have more than 50-60 flavors, the smaller ones only have 10-20 (a good turnaround is needed since gelato can't be stored for too long and is usually produced overnight, directly on the premises).
Restaurants also offer gelato as a dessert, either by itself or with fresh fruit. In formal dining, a sorbet is sometimes served as a palate cleanser in between courses.
Industrially made gelato can also be bought in supermarkets, though this type, slightly higher in fat, is stored at a lower temperatures (to extend its shelf life), and needs to be taken out of the freezer ahead of time before being served.