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In Search Of The Perfect Gelato

The Wall Street Journal – View Online

In pursuit of the ultimate in cold, creamy, silky, slushy goodness across the island of Sicily. La vita doesn’t get more dolce than this.

Shortly after I pull into Cerda, a small Sicilian town made semifamous by its yearly artichoke festival, Antonio Cappadonia hands me a brioche mounded with two flavors of gelato—enough to give it the size and heft of a softball.

It’s the last night of my Italian frozen-treats bender, and I have forgotten how many cups and cones I’ve consumed in the past 24 hours. I eye the sandwich and ponder bolting.

Instead, I devour it.

I follow the coffee flavor’s light, unexpectedly malleable vein of texture to the bottom of the bun. The gelato’s flavor is pulled shot by shot from Mr. Cappadonia’s decades-old Vibiemme espresso machine, and it’s like licking caffeine from a spoon. I turn to the bacio—a deep, dark chocolate/hazelnut “kiss” that could be called “Nutella for grown-ups” if trademark issues weren’t involved. It is dense to the point of straining—but not breaking—the spade-shaped plastic spoon.

Sicilians divide ice cream, or ices, into two main categories: the slushy, water-based granita, flavored with island classics like almond or lemon; and gelato, which has a silky, creamy texture thanks to the inclusion of eggs, milk or a starchy emulsifying base, and is preferably made with Sicily’s native carob bean.

Locals eat ices all day long, often making breakfast out of dessert. It’s not so surprising, then, that some claim ice cream was born on the island, a direct descendant of sarbat, a fruit-syrup-and-water mix brought here by Arab merchants and invaders in the eighth century, cooled with snow from Mount Etna. Explaining the history to me, one gelatiere simply pointed into the distance, at the snows atop the volcano and the vast citrus groves below, with a shrug that implied the irrefutable evidence lay before us.

Naysayers like to reference the first known written recipe for ices, which popped up in Paris in 1674. I prefer to consider this modern evidence: Nobody visits France on ice-cream holidays.

In Sicily, however, there is a depth of quality that easily justifies devoting an entire vacation to seeking the island’s best. The quality bar is so high—any shop with subpar offerings tends to go out of business posthaste—that the finest Sicilian ice creams can be transformative.

I’ve been on this happy hunt before. Truth be told, I’m on it every time I’m on the island. But on this trip, I learn that the best ice-cream makers are on their own quests for chilled perfection.

 The top gelaterias are scattered like wildflowers across Sicily, which is roughly equivalent in size to Vermont, and range from tony see-and-be-seen establishments to out-and-out dives. Crisscrossing the island in their pursuit is not only an excuse to see everything from mountaintop snows to sandy beaches, but also provides a lengthy look at a social cross-section of Sicily.

Gelatieres worth their salt follow the seasons, putting out just a few varieties at a time and concentrating on local specialties like mandarin orange, not-too-bitter lemon, hazelnut, pistachio and almond, flavors so well-crafted you can taste the skin of the nuts.

After years of informal field studies, my road to greater gelato understanding began in the seaside town of Cefalù, at last fall’s Sherbeth Festival, an ice-cream extravaganza that also serves as a meeting of the minds for gelato’s greats. I visited the acknowledged maestro, Luca Caviezel, a Sicilian born in 1923 to Swiss parents who ran the city of Catania’s renowned Pasticceria Svizzera pastry shop.

“We used to like gelato because it was cool and sweet,” he said. “But today, artisanal gelato is an extremely complex system.”

In short, you can’t replace chocolate with strawberries in a recipe, press the “snowflake” button on the ice-cream machine and expect mind-blowing results (brain-freezing, maybe). Mr. Caviezel and the chefs he consults with are striving to give the perfect texture and melting point to the corresponding flavor. The softer texture of Mr. Cappadonia’s coffee gelato was no accident—and it wasn’t easy to achieve.

When Mr. Caviezel works on a flavor, he imagines it in a perfect form—say, chocolate with the silky center of a slightly bitter fondant au chocolat—then tries to engineer it using the specific properties of every ingredient, including the “holy trinity” of eggs, milk and sugar. It’s a process he calls “working in the cold.”

I meet chef Santi Palazzolo at Cinisi, a pastry shop and gelateria west of Palermo whose wood-and-marble décor suggests the owner means business. Mr. Palazzolo’s strawberry and cantaloupe flavors mimic the textures of the fruits themselves: Strawberry gelato is coarse but gives way under a spoon, while cantaloupe has the smoothness of cut melon.

Mr. Palazzolo’s current goal doesn’t involve gelato, however. He wants to revive artisanal granita.

Rough-textured near Palermo, fine around the east coast city of Catania, granita is ice that is shaved and crushed, and flavored with anything from mulberries to coffee. Mr. Palazzolo’s idea is to blend modern and traditional methods to create granita that tastes like the products his grandfather made when he opened Pasticceria Palazzolo in 1920.

“In Sicily, nobody does it the traditional way anymore,” he says. “There’s only a guy on [the island of] Vulcano…and it’s not very hygienic.”

Mr. Palazzolo puts trays of juice, water and sugar into a blast freezer, then (as only a handful of traditional makers still do) scrapes the block down using a large stainless-steel spoon and stirs the sweet results every half-hour to prevent congealing.

“It’s not like those idiot bar-top dispensers that spin around like corkscrews,” he says, referring to Sicily’s most common storage and dispensing method, which creates such a fine and consistent grain, he calls it sherbet.

Back in Cerda, under the fluorescent lights of Antonio Cappadonia’s gelateria, I ask to try his gelato da meditazione—an artichoke-flavored gelato. Instead, he brings out bins of the savory gelatos he sells to restaurants.

Pachino tomato tastes like frozen summer; black olive is pâté-like, and the barbecue-roasted artichoke makes me twist my head like a dog hearing a high-pitched whistle. The real shocker is pane nero di Castelvetrano, a historic, stone-milled, hard-grain bread made with beer yeast in a wood-fired oven. The gelato retains the texture of the center of the grainy loaf and tricks the brain into seeking out bread’s inherent sweetness. This one’s going into the gelateria’s rotation.

Mr. Cappadonia is thinking of serving it next to creamy fior di latte gelato mixed with a bit of black-cherry jelly. Or alongside the bacio, making a frozen version of a Nutella-on-toast after-school snack. “I want to remind you of when you were young,” he said.

LOCAL SCOOPS

Authentic gelatos that can be had closer to home

Pasadena, Calif.: Bulgarini Gelato As authentic as it gets this far from Italy, down to the non-English labels and Old World flavors like pistachio and chocolate. 749 E. Altadena Dr. Altadena,bulgarinigelato.com