Gelato is Italy’s suave version of ice cream. It is to American ice cream what Gucci is to Levi’s. Most Italian towns have at least a few gelaterie, tiny shops that sell nothing but gelato. Big cities will have dozens of them. They’ll usually have at least a dozen flavors prominently displayed, everything from sexed up standards like super dark chocolate to more exotic flavors like Marron Glacé (candied chestnut) or Torrone (nougat). When you pick a flavor, they’ll pile it into a cup or cone using a paddle that looks more like a spatula than a scoop. You eat it with a brightly colored, shovel-shaped spoon that’s as long as a toothpick and as wide as a cheap emery board. But before you pick a flavor and dig in, you have to pick which gelateria to visit.
There are a few factors to pay attention to when choosing a gelateria. Avoid gelato with DayGlo colors. Stay away from gelato mounded six inches above the tub, it probably has tons of stabilizers to help it keep that shape. Don’t go for the spot that has little jars of Nutella or tiny plastic fruits stuck in the gelato to show you which flavor is which. If the menu tells you where ingredients come from, like having IGP hazelnuts from Piedmont or DOP pistachios from Bronte, you might have found a good one. But the best indication of all is a long line—or, since this is Italy, a big, disorganized crowd.
The crowd knows. Those people waiting understand that a particular gelateria makes ice cream with luscious texture and big, bold flavors. And that’s the thing about gelato: when it’s really good the flavors are more direct and pure than American ice cream. The hazelnut tastes like freshly toasted hazelnuts. The strawberry sorbet tastes like fresh, ripe strawberries. I’m sure if Zingerman’s Creamery were tucked away on some narrow, cobbled, Italian alley, it would have a crowd stretching around the corner.
Gelato is made with only four major ingredients so you can’t skimp on any of them and get great flavor.
Zingerman’s gelato maker Josh starts with milk from Calder Dairy, located about an hour down the road from Zingerman’s Creamery in Carleton, Michigan. Calder has a herd of 113 cows that are known by names, not numbers. They’re never given any hormones or subtherapeutic antibiotics. The milk is gently pasteurized and not homogenized, a process that agitates the milk to distribute the cream more evenly rather than allowing it to rise and separate. The result is that Calder produces a richer, creamier, sweeter milk.
To the milk, Josh adds cream from Guernsey dairy in Northville, Michigan—the same source our Bakehouse uses for the sour cream they stir into every Sourcream Coffeecake. Then he mixes in demerara brown cane sugar. He adds pinch of stabilizer to help the gelato maintain its texture when frozen for a few weeks, and then all that’s left is to add the flavor. And oh, those flavors! His peanut butter gelato is made with Koeze’s atonishing Cream Nut Peanut Butter from Grand Rapids, Michigan. His dulce de leche gelato is made with a super thick and creamy dulce de leche caramel we get direct from Argentina, its home base.
In spite of great variety, Josh’s vanilla gelato is probably my favorite. “Before I started making gelato, I thought vanilla was just white and sweet,” Josh confessed to me the other day. I’d say that’s a pretty apt description of a lot of vanilla ice creams, but not so with Josh’s. He uses Madagascar Bourbon vanilla—and lots of it!—and the result is a rich, earthy, woodsy flavor that lasts and lasts.
What’s the gelato maker’s favorite flavor?
Burnt Sugar. That’s not because it’s the easiest to make—in fact, Josh calls it “a thorough pain in the ass.” He loves it because it takes sugar, one of the three base ingredients of gelato, and transforms it into an entirely different flavor. He starts with white cane sugar and cooks it with water in a big pot. Over the course of an hour, the water boils off, the sugar melts, and then just as it starts to burn he pulls it off the stove and adds additional water to make a syrup and keep it from hardening into a sticky hard caramel mess. “I put on gloves, and I should probably wear goggles too. Then I yell to get people out of the way. It’s so hot that when I add the water it boils upon impact. It’s like this insanely hot exercise of sweating and trying not to get it on your skin while it cools in the sink.” The burnt sugar syrup tastes like the top of a crème brûlée. The gelato flirts with the line between sweet and bitter. It’s sugar utterly transformed, and the end result is super smooth and creamy with an autumn orange-yellow color and a complex, intriguing flavor.