How to Find Good Gelato in Italy

How To: No trip to Italy is complete without savoring a little gelato, but all gelato is not created equal. Valerie Ng reveals how to find the best and avoid the mediocre. (Hint: don't let bright colors fool you.)

07.21.06 | 6:41 AM ET

imageThe situation: You’ve just arrived in Italy and have already checked out a couple of piazzas, but thanks to the summer heat, you’re in dire need of a cool down. Wisely, you decide to head for a gelateria. But with so many shops around, which one should you pick? And what to order? Chill. You need a gelato primer.

Gelato basics: In Italy, gelato is enjoyed by everyone, from pure-blooded Italians and Italophiles to wide-eyed tourists. “Eating gelato in Italy, holding your two scoops while strolling along, is one way to have an authentic Italian moment,” says Michael McGarry, author of several ice cream guides, including Gelato: Finding Italy’s Best Gelaterias. “It’s something that everyone can afford.”

Although the direct Italian-to-English translation for gelato is ice cream, there are enough differences between the two to set gelato apart. Ice cream is made from fresh cream, resulting in a butterfat content of between 10 and 30 percent. Gelato, on the other hand, is typically made with milk, water or soy as a base, and it has a fat content of between 1 and 10 percent. Gelato is not only healthier, but its flavor is easier to taste. The cream in ice cream saturates one’s taste buds; thus, its richness and sweetness prevail. Gelato’s less fatty base provides a more subtle background that allows its flavors to shine.

Where to go: Long lines are often a good sign of a high-quality gelateria. Don’t let them turn you off. Also, make sure that you line up with Italians, and not with too many tourists. “(Italians) usually don’t like to deal with crowds of tourists,” says McGarry. “But they will put up with them for good gelato.” Look around for a “fatta in casa” sign. That means that the gelato was made in-house. Only shops that produce their gelato onsite can hang these signs legally. Shops without these signs most likely purchased their gelato from elsewhere and are best avoided. If you think you’ve found a good place, make sure its gelato is stored in metal containers, rather than plastic ones—another sign of mass production.

Gelato aesthetics: Check out the color of the gelato. Good gelato is usually of muted, natural and often uglier coloring. If it is too bright, it was probably made from a mix with artificial flavoring and/or coloring. The easiest trick is to check the banana gelato: if it is bright yellow, move on to another gelateria. If it is a grayish hue, it was likely made with real bananas—a good sign.

How to order: Typically, you must first pay the cashier, who will hand you a receipt. When you are ready to place your order, give the receipt to the server. This is the rule at the larger gelaterias, where at peak times the server will ignore you if you do not have a receipt in hand. At small gelaterias, you may be able to order first before paying. Even if you get pushed aside by a few rude customers, don’t be discouraged. Take the extra time to look over the flavors.

Advanced technique: Usually, you can order two to three flavors per cone or cup. Don’t be afraid to branch out from strawberry or chocolate and try something new. Many gelaterias change their selections often to accommodate seasonal ingredients. Such flavors will only be available a few weeks per year and will probably be the freshest and best-tasting choices. Ask the server about the house specialty (specialità).

Gelato lingo: Although servers at popular (and tourist-frequented) gelaterias usually speak and understand some English, it is more polite and fun to order in Italian. When ordering a strawberry cone, say in your best Italian accent: “Voglio un cono di fragola.” (“I want a strawberry cone.”)

Photo by David Turner.

Tags: Food, Gelato, Europe, Italy

Valerie Ng is a freelance writer from Berkeley, California. When she's not devouring ha gow, she's savoring delicious gray-hued gelato.

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22 Comments for How to Find Good Gelato in Italy

Kelly 07.21.06 | 2:33 PM ET

I had three scoops at Giolitti’s just a few days ago…my mouth is still watering. It was my last gelato before leaving Italy, and hands down the best of my entire trip.

Jerry Haines 07.21.06 | 6:08 PM ET

Okay, this is why I come to this site.  Look for the subdued (rather than neon) colors?  Hadn’t thought of that, but it makes good sense.  Gelato is actually healthier than ice cream?  Wow, hadn’t even considered that, given the rich mouth feel of gelato.  Always assumed it was super fatty.

Excellent report.  Brava!

(Voglio un cono di pistacchio)

Jim Benning 07.24.06 | 1:47 AM ET

I’m envious, Kelly. It’s about 100 degrees here in Southern California. I would kill for some of that gelato.

And Jerry, grazie.

I had the same reaction when I read that about gelato being healthier. Next time I eat gelato, I’ll have to eat twice as much.

marilyn terrell 08.01.06 | 2:47 PM ET

more gelato goodness here:  a gelato bike tour in Italy, a gelato-making class in Portland, and a link to Katie Broyles’ gelato tour of Florence.  Yum!

Susan Strauss 08.11.06 | 7:35 PM ET

Last night I asked my Florentine sone-in-law, to get some chocolate and passion-fruit in honor of me, back here in America.
They called this morning to say that there was no passion fruit, but there was fresh plum.
Gelato in Florence is amazing. I do like the tip about non-vibrant color.
After spending so much wonderful time in Italy, I have begun to recognize the range of quality of different gelaterias. Chocolate is my test.
But I’ve never had terrible gelato. Salute!

j 08.17.06 | 10:38 PM ET

I highly recommend San Crispino’s in Rome, near the Trevi Fountain.  Their grapefruit flavor is amazing.

parisbreakfast 08.29.06 | 6:46 PM ET

Excellent information! I wish I’d read this before my last trip. It’s frustrating all the US places pretending to have real gelato and they don’t. Probably issues of altitude, aptitude and lack of Italian cows etc. The dream of finding Italian gelato here becomes ever more illusive. Now if you should happen to be in Bologna, Gelateria Cremeria Gianni on via Montegrappa is the one to hit…

Yo Yo 08.30.06 | 9:40 AM ET

For Valerie Ng: I think on your next gelato trip to Italy, you should definitely head up to Milan to RivaReno Gelato, 8 Viale Col di Lana, They have the most unsual and creamiest and tastiest gelato I have ever tasted. Unlike other gelato places in Italy, their gelato is not displayed but stored in the traditional- but- rare- nowadays pozzi(italian for well). Like you said Valerie, RivaReno gelato doesn’t have the brightest colors but the best tasts and textures. They have a flavor of mascorpone with gianduja(chocolat plus hazelnut sauce)  dribbled over it and have a most heavenly pinenuts flavor. Their zabojone is made of rum insead of the usual marsala. You definitely should include RiveReno in your reviews, Valerie!

Grace 09.03.06 | 6:39 AM ET

Not only do I totally share the acclaimations of the previous reviewer, Yo Yo, I wanted add some of mine own. We were told by our hotel concierge(which is always a reliable local source) that the best gelato in Milan is RivaReno and off we went. Boy, we were amazed: the gelato tastes like nothing we had tasted ever before. It has an incredible texture that gives a sensational smoothness in the mouth. The flavours are rich, multi-layered and incredibly authentic. In other words, the hazel nut tastes like the real hazel nut and the pistachio has none of the artificial flavors you find in other so-called pistachios. RivaReno gelato does not have the bright colors one sees in other places in Italy, in fact, their gelato is not displayed but stored in “well” like containers. We were told(they speak good English there) that this is THE tradional Italian way of keeping gelato and it contributes to the creaminess because the gelato is not exposed to air. They have a flavor made of pinenuts which one doesn’t usually associate with gelato. But this is a “piece de resistance” in this cream heaven: there is pinenuts cream which gives the foundation of the flavor, then there is toasted pinenuts which really bring out the intrisic flavors of the fruit, and plus there is a hint of mascarpone. We were so giddy with this experience that we went back the next day! Milan is not the most popular destination for American tourists, but anyone who likes gelato should make trip to RivaReno and they will be richly rewarded! And Valerie, you would be too!

Andrew Rasanen 09.05.06 | 9:51 PM ET

Wonderfully helpful, concise article—thank you, Valerie Ng. Just one thought: “Vorrei un cono” etc. I would like a cone. More polite than want. Or am I overly sensitive to the reputation of the demanding American abroad…?

Florist 09.14.06 | 12:30 PM ET

Only thinking at gelato and my glands are on. In Italy is the best gelato in the world. Do not stay to think twice. Believe me it worth trying it. You will never regret.

jdfromto 11.08.06 | 5:56 AM ET

Best gelato in whole of Italy if not the world is at Bar Vivoli Florence,not far from Piazza Santa Croce.

Eddie 11.08.06 | 8:57 AM ET

The domain of gelato deliciousness is called, RivaReno, in Milan.  They make all their gelato in house, and make some of the most absurdly delicious flavors; my current favorite combo is fresh strawberry and San Luca (white chocolate with mixed in rice krispies.)  They have only been open for one year and have already been interviewed by every Italian newspaper, several French magazines, obtained a sponsorship deal with an F1 racing car, and were listed in the famous Louis Vuitton dining guide.  Just imagine any ice cream you’ve ever had and multiply that by a million and two.  Oh ya, they also have free internet access for anyone who is savvy enough to eat their gelato!

Delicious Italy 12.07.06 | 2:01 PM ET

We live just round the corner from Giolitti’s and it is regarded as being very good.

But if you want to know a little place offering new and upcoming flavours such as gorgonzola and pear, then head to north west Rome.

Its all here:

cookie 01.01.07 | 7:57 PM ET

the last time i was in italy i managed to have at least 1 scoop of galato every day for dessert after dinner.(i didnt even gain weight doing that) it is true the shops with the lines are the best also you can get ripped off if you dont know about the extra cost for taking the gelato out of the shop. (they get ya)but is still the best much better than ice cream

italia connoisseur 02.10.07 | 7:43 AM ET

The best gelato in Italy is assolutamente RivaReno Gelato in Milano! Everyone who has ever tasted their gelato gets addicted—you keep going back there for more!

premarin 03.13.07 | 7:59 AM ET

I wasn’t used to paying before, but how that gelato looked and how everybody were pushing and rushing to get some I went in and had 3 cups. It was great! You are right about the not-so-nice colors of the gelato. Those are the best.

Delicious Italy 03.13.07 | 8:43 AM ET

Just a note about prices in bars and ice cream shops.

When your are taking away it should cost less, only if you are sitting in do they normally charge more for table service.

If you hear ‘fuori?’ they probably are asking if you want to sit outside in the private garden or tables which is sometimes charged.

Don’t pay more to take away!


gelatoholic 05.26.07 | 7:39 AM ET

I am a gelato junky and I travel all over the world. I have been to Italy, the gelato heaven many times to eat, especially gelato. The best is a new place in Milan called RivaReno gelato. If you haven’t tasted their gelato you have not tasted the real thing. Absolutely to die for!

kathy sarpy 08.20.07 | 9:36 PM ET

I would like to thank everyone for my introduction to Gelato.  I will be traveling to Rome in October for the first time and can’t wait to sample some delicious gelato.

Suzanne Morrison 04.03.08 | 6:44 AM ET

A wonderful post!. I like it.

KevinS 05.26.08 | 4:18 PM ET

Along with some pasta and chianti in a nice restaurant, Gelato is one of those things that you definitely have to experience when you are in Italy!
Great guide.

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