The Cult of Italian Gelato

Considering the fact that I’ve lived outside of the US continually since 1998, I missed moment of great cultural importance when Americans started calling the guy who pours your coffee a “barista” and the sweet creamy stuff that you eat out of a cone “gelato.”  Where I come from (the 1970s), that ain’t what we called them.

But it seems that everyone now knows of the greatness of Italian gelato, and whether or not the stuff they wolf down out of the frozen foods section bears any resemblance to its Italian cousin, everyone’s gotta get their gelato.

I just polished off the last third of your standard 1-kilo carton of gelato, and it got me thinking about the cult of ice cream here in Italy.  I mean, the stuff is absolutely wonderful, but does that go far enough to explain the intensity with which Italians approach their creamy desserts?

There’s something of the political in Italians and their ice cream.  Your choice of gelateria and your choice of flavors is tantamount to waving the red flag of Communism or the black flag of the Fascists.  When I lived in Parma, this rivalry was particularly heated.  There were those who maintained that the greatest ice cream in Parma was at Harnold’s (the self-declared true Parmesans, myself included despite the blatant falsity of my origins), those who said it was at K2 (the snobby downtown types), those who would lay down their lives for Caraibi (a more working-class, immigrant movement), and those who swore that the only ice cream really worth getting meant driving 10 miles out of your way to a little place called Green’s in Collechio which used only organic products and unbruised fruit that had fallen naturally from its trees (the pseudo-intellectual pinky leftist parlor).

Once you have drawn your line in the sand about where you get the best goods, you then have to declare your own personal quirks by choosing the flavors to bring home.  There are those who favor all “creamy” flavors, those who swear by the fruity tastes, those who like to mix and match, those who will eat nothing but pistachio (strange ones, these) and so on.

What you probably don’t know is that when you are invited to someone’s house for dinner in Italy, especially in the summer, it is more common than not for you to bring along ice cream for dessert, which is why all of these choices are so important.  After shelling out as much as 18 euros for a kilo of ice cream (which serves six people, no more), you know that while the ice cream will be much appreciate and devoured by your friends, you will nevertheless be grilled as to its origins and your reasons behind the choices you made.  Example:

“So you got this at Harnold’s, eh?”


“K2 is better.”

“You think so?”


“But Harnold makes better hazelnut.”

“That’s true, though not as good as Il Pinguino.”

“Yeah, but don’t forget what they say about his ‘special’ ingredient!”

And so on and so forth.

In the end, though, the dirty little secret is that the best gelato is always the one closest to your home (in my case, Harnold’s was just behind my house), because for the rest of it, it is all made fresh, from real ingrediants, almost always in the room just behind the shop.  It can’t help but be good.

And so if I now maintain that Il Porticciolo in Levanto makes the absolute best fruit-flavored ice cream in all of Italy, take it with a grain of salt … but try it out too.

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