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The Fork Lift Mitchell Davis  
Gelato
The Gelato Crawl
By Mitchell Davis

In June of 2002, I was coordinating a course on Italian food and culture in Florence for NYU's department of nutrition and food studies Master's

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program. By the second week of the program, the students wanted to know definitively which gelateria in town was the best. We devised a tasting protocol that spelled out the rules: We would use two base flavors for comparison: fior di latte ("flower of milk," or sometimes fior di panna, "flower of cream," a common Italian flavor that's like vanilla without the vanilla) to ascertain the quality of the gelati, and fragola (strawberry) to make our sorbetti pronouncements. In addition, we would order whatever other flavors we wanted. We would be judging color (looking for naturalness), texture (hoping for creaminess and smoothness), body (some wanted to call it richness), and overall appeal. We compiled a list of what were supposed to be the best gelaterie in Florence, mapped out our path and set off.

Gelateria dei Neri
Via dei Neri, 20-22r
055-210-034
Closed Wednesdays

Of the style of gelateria that offers more flavors than you can probably count and certainly more than you can pronounce, this was to my taste the best. I counted 50 flavors in the display case and then gave up because I couldn't squeeze by a group of Canadians wearing flags to celebrate Canada Day. The base flavor, fior di latte, was fine, with a faint milky flavor. The fragola was exceptionally fresh tasting and creamy. Those who think white chocolate has no flavor, should try the white chocolate gelato here. It has the distinct flavor of white chocolate, and if you are a fan, you will love it. Other stand-outs included yogurt, croccante (with peanut brittle), passion fruit, and gelato verigato, flavored with coffee, zabaglione and meringue. A smart sign on the wall reads il fumo dammeggia il gelato, "Cigarette smoke ruins ice cream."
I took it to mean they are serious about what they are doing.

Vestri
Borgo degli Albizi, 11r
055-234-0374

Amazing. We all concurred. Signore Vestri is a master. And yet the place is not listed in any guides or articles about gelato that I could find. (In fact, I couldn't find the address in my notes when I got back to the US and I had to ask the owner of the pensione where I stayed to walk down the street and find the details. The pensione owner didn't even know the shop, and her place was only a block away!) Vestri is near the central post office and it has been selling handmade Belgian chocolates and eight to ten rotating flavors of gelato since 1960. Each gelato was superb, with the chocolate-based ones bordering on sublime. Chocolate mint, chocolate cinnamon, chocolate orange, and chocolate chili (which has a pleasant kick in the aftertaste), were like eating the frozen center of fine truffles. Pistachio was described by one of the tasters simply as "Wow!" The fior di latte was the best of the seven or so we tried, and the fragola was also excellent. One person on the tour thought the gelato was so good, maybe it didn't count. "It's so perfect, it seems French," was her observation.

Carabè
Via Ricasoli 60r
055-289-476

This is the only Sicilian style gelateria in town and you can tell the difference in the flavor selection, which includes fig, apricot, and kiwi, and the texture, which is slightly grainier. This style of gelato and sorbetto also tastes as though it has less sugar, which likely accounts for the texture. The flavors can only be described as "true"; the fig tasted like eating a fig. The fior di panna got low marks from the group, largely because of the icy texture. But pistachio and vanilla were a hit. Carabé also sells some other Sicilian specialties that shouldn't be missed, such as brioche filled with ice cream, canoli, and granita, slushy sorbet-like drinks you eat with a straw and a spoon. The combination of coffee, almond and whipped cream made a granita you'll never forget.


Perchè Nò!
Via dei Tavolini, 19r
055-239-8969
Closed Tuesday in Winter

The name means "why not" and we said, "why not, indeed." This is a gelateria with a medium-sized selection and some excellent flavors. The base two were comme il faut, but you simply must try the pistachio which has the uncanny, unique (and delicious) flavor of eating a handful of salted pistachios-very different from the superb pistachio at Vestri, but nevertheless yummy. It was excellent. Other impressive offerings were peach, mascarpone, and yogurt. Several of the students had been to this gelateria before and they raved about the sesame honey gelato; alas, it wasn't available on the day of our crawl.


Vivoli
Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r
055-292-334
Closed Mondays

We conducted our grand gelato tour on a Monday afternoon, and we were surprised to arrive at Vivoli to find the shop is closed Mondays. I went back with my sister the following day to have the famous riso (rice) gelato. It had the distinct flavor of rice, with pleasantly chewy grains of rice in the mix. It was incredibly sweet. In fact, all of the flavors we tried were too sweet to our taste. But that didn't seem to stop the throngs of people in line for what is arguably the most famous, if not the best gelato in town.

The only dud of our crawl was Festival del Gelato, a 50-plus variety place where the colors and flavors are as fake as the diamonds on the Home Shopping Channel. Although one student swore, based on her previous samplings, some of their flavors were admirable; it wasn't worth trying the others to find them.

Gelato Wisdom

I came to several realizations about gelato and gelaterias at the end of our gelato crawl. The first is that you are almost always guaranteed a superior gelato experience at a place that keeps their ice cream in the traditional circular stainless steel tubs built into the counter and covered with round stainless steel lids, totally out of view. The more common alternative is rectangular, hotel-pan like containers arranged in large, display glass freezers. These can be good, but experience shows that the round, out-of-sight containers hold better ice cream. This was true at Vestri, our favorite in Florence. It is how the gelato is held at Il Gelato di San Crispino (Via Acaia, 56, 06-7045-0412 and Via dei Panettieri, 42, 06-579-3924 ROME), my favorite in Rome. It is how the ice cream is held at Gatsby's, my favorite when I lived in Torino. It wasn't until Florence, where I found Vestri, that I noticed the pattern. I suppose this freezer system is more expensive. It is less marketing and more quality driven, since you don't get to see the pretty colors and all the flavors. But, it clearly means the place takes what they do seriously.

Second, three is the maximum number of gelato flavors you should put in any one cup at a time. This limits the risk of getting one flavor that doesn't blend well with all the others. Even though I love how in Italy (unlike in New York) a gelato place will stuff 10 flavors into a small cup if that's what you want, that isn't what you want. Plus, by only having three flavors, if there's one you really don't like, it is easier to extricate it from the mix, as my sister had to do with the licorice flavor in one of her many cups at San Crispino in Rome. The licorice was just too strong and it overpowered the other flavors, so she cut it out of the cup and enjoyed the two that remained.

Finally, I now have proven empirically that it is true that there is always room for gelato. Here we were, after lunch, eating and/or tasting some 30 gelati on a crawl that took no more than two hours. And by the end just about everyone felt like he or she could have tried a couple more. Unfortunately, we had to break for dinner.

Gelato in Manhattan

Florence is a long way to go for ice cream. If you find yourself hankering for gelato in New York City, here are the best places to go:

Il Laboratorio del Gelato
95 Orchard St.
212-343-9922

The same person who started Ciao Bella 19 years ago founded this brand new shop on the Lower East Side. Of the more than 50 flavors, about 12 are available at any given time. Every one I've tried is delicious. But don't think you can go late, i.e., after dinner on Clinton St. They close at 6 p.m.

Cones, Ice Cream Artisans
272 Bleecker St.
212-414-1795

Owned by Argentinian brothers, this gelaterie in the West Village has the selection, taste, and texture that's closest to an Italian gelateria. You can't mix a lot of flavors in one cup (by now you know you don't want to), but they are open late.

Ciao Bella Gelato
227 Sullivan St.
212-505-7100

The flavor selection is not traditionally Italian, and the gelato here eats more like ice cream, in part because it is kept colder. No matter, it is always excellent.

Payard Pâtisserie and Bistro
1032 Lexington Ave.
212-717-5252

Across the front room from the pastry case, you'll find a limited selection of superb French-style gelato. Caramel is particularly delicious.

 

Vanilla Gelato

Adapted by StarChefs

  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 1/4 cups half and half
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup granulated sugar

In a saucepan combine the milk and the half and half. Scrape the vanilla bean into this mixture, and add the pod. Over medium heat, scald to the point just before the milk boils.

Meanwhile, heat about an inch of water in a small saucepan to boiling. In a metal bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until pale yellow. Set the bowl over the boiling water and continue beating until the volume doubles and the egg yolk mixture is warm. Remove from the heat.

Remove the vanilla bean pod from the scalded milk and beat the hot milk slowly into the egg yolk mixture. Transfer this mixture back into the saucepan and set over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture attains the consistency of a thin custard. It should coat the back of the spoon.

Chill down the custard by setting the pot into a bowl of ice. Refrigerate the custard for several hours. Process the custard in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturers instruction. Right out of the machine, the ice cream will have the consistency of Italian gelato. If you freeze it firm, be sure to remove the ice cream from the freezer several minutes prior to serving.

Variazioni (Variations)

Coffee Gelato: To make coffee gelato, dissolve 2 Tablespoons of your favorite instant coffee or espresso in the hot milk mixture. You can always add more if you prefer a more intense coffee flavor. Follow the remainder of the directions above.

Chocolate Gelato: Rough chop 3 ounces of semisweet chocolate (or use semisweet chocolate chips if you have them handy). After you have scalded the milk mixture, remove it from the heat and whisk in the chopped chocolate until it dissolves. If you have less of a sweet-tooth, you may want to reduce the sugar in the recipe to ¾ cup.


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