Gelato is one of the best-loved Italian exports in the world. Everyone knows it comes from Italy, but not many may be aware it is a product with a long history, intertwined with the very history of Italian cuisine.
During the dog days of summer when temperatures soar, we are fortunate to envelope ourselves in air conditioning, but we still love to quench our thirsts and satisfy our palates with something cold and flavorful. For many centuries, people living in hot climates refreshed themselves with treats made from simple natural ingredients – water, flavors from fruit and mountain ice or snow. Gelato, the delicious summer treat, is close to the hearts of most Italians and Italian Americans. We may have some ice cream from the supermarket in our freezers, but to truly satisfy our cravings, only real gelato will do. If we are to be accurate, it should be noted that the word ‘gelato’ means frozen and although we often think of the dessert in its milk-based form, its origins include frozen flavored ice as well.
Italian gelato is considered by many to be one of the world’s most perfect creations. Rich, creamy and bursting with flavors of fresh fruit, nuts, chocolate and spices, gelato is a delight from the very first taste. Sun-filled days and eating gelato are memories imprinted on virtually every Italian’s mind. During the long summer months, Italians head to the local gelateria to choose from a large variety of flavors. From the vantage point of the 21st century, it may seem incredible that a form of an iced delight could have existed before the modern luxury of freezers, but it did.
Roman Emperors were known to have enjoyed frozen desserts many centuries before Marco Polo, eating ice from the volcanoes Etna and Vesuvius, covered with honey. Italy has also played the most important role in introducing frozen desserts to Europe. In the ninth century, when Sicilians were introduced to sugar cane, it revolutionized Sicilian cooking. They began to sweeten their drinks, both hot and cold, with this new product, but the evolution of gelato is really the story of Sicily in the south and Florence in the north.
In the mid-16th century, the Medici family of Florence sponsored a culinary contest for the most unusual and delicious dish. Cosimo Ruggeri, a chicken farmer by trade and a cook in his spare time, took part in the competition. Ruggeri’s frozen dessert was a forerunner of gelato and was called fior di latte, which translates as milk cream. He won the coveted award and Caterina de Medici took Ruggeri with her to the French royal court to show how Italian chefs were superior to those in France. He made his specialty for her wedding to the future King of France and his creation became a success. Unfortunately, the chefs at the court, jealous of his connection to the Queen, despised Ruggeri. He soon tired of the palace intrigue and bid France goodbye, leaving Caterina with his recipe for fior di latte.
A generation later, the Medici family commissioned the famous artist and architect Bernardo Buontalenti with the task of organizing celebrations for the visiting King of Spain. He staged theatrical performances and fireworks, but most importantly, he prepared a cream flavored with bergamot, lemons and oranges that was chilled with a mixture of his own invention. Buontalenti presented the King of Spain with the creamy frozen dessert, what we now call gelato.
It was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a famous restaurateur, who is credited with making gelato famous throughout Europe. Born in Palermo, Sicily, Procopio moved to Paris and opened a café in 1686 that soon became the hub for every culinary novelty of the day. Exotic coffee to chocolates, to a refined gelato served in small glasses that resembled egg cups were served there. The Procope, as the café was known, became hugely successful. Although Procopio was instrumental in introducing gelato to France, it was up to dessert makers from the Dolomites in Italy to expand the availability of the dessert to other parts of Europe. It was really in Sicily that the dessert originated and was popular for many generations before Ruggeri put his twist on the dessert.
The history of the frozen dessert is really a history of two different types of dessert, with each closely tied to two regions, one in the north of Italy and one in the extreme south. Florentine gelato was made with milk, cream, sugar, eggs and natural flavors. Snow was stored in the cantina (basement) during the winter. When the summer brought tourists into the mountains of the Dolomites, the sale of gelato was one of the major sources of income for the region’s people, but gelato was an expensive enterprise. This constrained the market place, so there began a seasonal migration of the gelato artisans to Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France, to bring their desserts to wealthy communities. This tradition made Italians dominant in the milk-based gelato business, both in the northern parts of Italy and in neighboring countries. True gelato contains much less air than typical American ice cream and is therefore more intense in flavor. Gelato is also healthier than American-style ice cream, since it contains all natural ingredients, fewer calories and less butter fat.
In the far south, gelato was predominantly water-based. It was lower in fat and slightly higher in sugar content. Southern gelato producers used techniques similar to those of the Dolomite region, especially in Sicily, where underground storage areas, some more than 90 feet below ground, were used to store compacted snow. Like their northern counterparts, local Sicilian artisans would travel to the neighboring countries to sell their desserts to wealthy clients.
Gelato made its way to the Americas for the first time in 1770, when Giovanni Basiolo brought both types to New York City. From southern Italy came the ice made with fruits such as lemon and strawberries, also known as Sorbetto and the version from northern Italy, made by mixing milk with cinnamon, pistachio, coffee or chocolate. By 1846, the hand-crank freezer was refined and it changed the way Americans made this frozen dessert. The freezer kept the liquid mixture constantly in motion maintaining a cold temperature throughout and introducing air into the product. This is where the history of industrial ice cream began, as the product contained more air and was less dense. Gelato did not make a name for itself in the United States until the late 1900s.
Today, gelato stores have opened all over this country, as Americans have begun to understand and appreciate what Italians have realized for centuries – that the superior quality of gelato, with its intense flavor and natural ingredients makes industrial-produced ice cream appear a poor substitute. And it is Italy that has done more for the creation and mastery of frozen desserts than any other country, bar none.