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Gelato: It’s not Italian for Jell-O

By Felisa Billet, Special for USA TODAY – VIEW ONLINE
Traditional ice cream may be in for a licking. Or at least a little healthy competition.

With summer upon us, more Americans are turning to gelato as the newest form of cool — not only in culinary-hip Los Angeles and New York but also in less likely locales such as Baltimore, Phoenix, and even Waukesha, Wis.

Blame it on more adventurous palates and, yes, wanderlust.

“When people see the word gelato, it brings them back to the romantic notions of fine ice cream and of Italy,” says Jon Snyder of Il Laboratorio del Gelato in New York.

Kara Neilson, trend analysis manager at the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco, thinks gelato’s rising popularity also has to do with a growing appreciation for bolder flavors on this side of the Atlantic.

In Italian, gelato refers to frozen desserts, while the English term signifies traditional Italian ice cream that is churned at a lower speed than its American counterpart. This allows for less air to be whipped, resulting in a denser and softer product. Gelato typically contains 4%-10% butterfat, while American ice cream contains 10%-18% butterfat, with premium versions sometimes reaching 22% or more.

Gelato’s hallmark is its bold, intense flavors that are not obscured by high fat content that coats the tongue and distracts the palate, explains Neilson. And since gelato is stored at a warmer freezer temperature, its soft texture does not numb taste buds, leaving them open to accept more flavor.

“Artisanal gelato parlors are popping up as an alternative to American ice cream,” says Neilson. “Instead of using pre-made bases or pastes, they’re making gelato from scratch.”

But the trend transcends artisanal parlors. It’s also showing up in supermarket aisles and home kitchens.

Gelato maker Villa Dolce, which supplies top-name restaurateurs such as Wolfgang Puck, sells gelato-making machines ($109 and up) through its website, villadolcegelato.com.

“We were getting calls from people in places like Oklahoma and Kansas who had been to Italy and wanted to replicate what they had there,” says Villa Dolce founder Monte Marcaccini. “So, at Christmastime, we started our at-home line and, even with no marketing, we completely sold out.”

Similarly, gelato maker Ciao Bella, which distributes to supermarkets nationwide, says sales have jumped 66% over the past year. “Our growth in supermarkets is growing faster than our food service and gelaterie growth,” says Deborah Holt of Ciao Bella. “Buyers are more educated and know gelato is all about the ingredients.”

Showcasing fine ingredients is the essence of a great gelato, say both aficionados and makers.

“Gelato should be healthy, simple and natural,” says Noah Dan, who recently opened Pitango Gelato in Baltimore. “It shouldn’t have chemicals, artificial flavorings and heavy stuff that are part of industrial ice cream.”

Dan uses organic products including eggs, cream and milk from a grass-fed herd on an organic farm. At the dairy, Dan pasteurizes the milk and cream with the main gelato ingredients to avoid a double-pasteurization process that would affect the final flavor.

When local ingredients don’t meet his exacting standards, Dan searches the globe. His pickings include Haitian mangoes, Costa Rican chocolate, Sicilian pistachios and hazelnuts from Italy.

Lori Roeske, owner of Divino Gelato in Waukesha, Wis., says she hears almost daily from customers who say her gelatos are as good as anything they’ve experienced abroad — including Italy. “For (people here), trying our traditional gelato in Italian-size portions is a new experience. They are floored at how good it tastes.”

For David Lebovitz, author of The Perfect Scoop, gelato is all about the concentrated flavor from high-quality ingredients. “This style of ice cream is gutsy and rich with bold, knock-your-socks-off flavor,” he says.

This is apparent at Il Laboratorio, where Snyder customizes such versions as chocolate-hazelnut, toasted almond or whipped cheddar cheese.

“Artisanal gelato is part of a larger trend of appreciating fine food,” says Snyder. “It’s an understanding that there’s more to ice cream than just vanilla and chocolate.”

Bulgarini’s pistachio gelato and peach-moscato sorbetto
In New York: Patrons form a line to get gelato outside Grom, located on Manhattan?s Upper West Side. It’s the first U.S. outpost of the Italian ice cream chain.