What is Gelato?

by sockii

All about gelato: the Italian frozen dessert delight that's like ice cream: but with a twist!

"Gelato" is the Italian word for "ice cream". However, anyone who has visited Italy and tasted true Italian gelato, served at one of many gelaterie around the country, know that there is something special and unique about this creamy, cold dessert that makes it different from your traditional "ice creams" elsewhere in the world.

Italian gelato is typically lower in fat than American-style ice cream, and is made using only the freshest ingredients - indeed, the finest gelaterie sell only gelato made fresh that day!

If you've never had the chance to try Italian gelato before, or want to learn how to make it yourself at home, read on to learn more about this delicious ice cream treat. I'll be sharing with you some of the "secrets" of making gelato, a recommendation for the best home gelato machine you can buy, and also tips on finding the best gelato in your travels around Italy...and elsewhere around the world!

Image above: Gelato flavors on display in a shop in Florence, Italy. Photo by the author, sockii.

Colorful fruit gelato in a shop in Florence, Italy
Colorful fruit gelato in a shop in Florence, Italy

Gelato vs. Ice Cream

What's the difference?

Gelato comes from the Italian verb gelare, meaning "to freeze", so in Italy the term is typically used to describe all kinds of frozen desserts. Primarily the terms gelati (plural) or gelato (singular) refer to milk-based frozen "ice creams"; sorbetti (sorbet) contains no milk but pureed fruit and juice; granite is a coarse ice-and-fruit based offering typically enjoyed in a glass. Gelato can be mixed with whipped cream for a "partly cold" dessert known as semifreddo, or layered in cakes with fruit, nuts and cookies for specialty holiday desserts.

Why is gelato different from American ice cream? Gelato is typically prepared in small batches to be consumed the day of production, without the use of stabilizers, emulsifying agents or chemical preservatives (gelato texture degrades rapidly if hard-frozen too long). It is lighter in texture and flavor than American ice cream, generally made with no more than 6-7% butterfat (American ice cream is generally around 14%). Gelato does tend to have a higher sugar content, in the 16-24% range versus 12 to 16% for U.S. ice cream.

Gelato recipes vary quite a bit throughout the different regions of Italy as well. In the south of Italy and Sicily, vegetable starch may be added instead of eggs, along with cheese, to thicken the mixture. Central Italy specializes in a custard-style gelato made with a milk and egg base. In Northern Italy, heavy cream is preferred to make an even richer base for the custard. No matter which proportion of milk, eggs, cream and sugar is used, the gelato mixture is churned during freezing to result in a light, smooth and airy texture. Served at a higher temperature than hard-frozen ice cream, the flavors of fresh gelato burst onto your taste buds, not so numbed by the cold as in our American version.

One can easily learn to make gelato at home with just basic, simple ingredients - and a quality gelato machine. Gelato should be made with seasonally appropriate ingredients and can include savory spice notes (like sage or rosemary) as well as sweet fruit, sugar and chocolates. Spirits can be added to gelato as well for an adult treat, although they must be used sparingly as the alcohol content makes it difficult for the gelato to even partially freeze.

Gelato in Milan, Italy. How to choose a flavor?
Gelato in Milan, Italy. How to choose a flavor?

Have you had authentic Italian gelato before?

Gelato in Italy

How and where to order

GelateriaIf you are fortunate enough to be traveling to Italy, then you absolutely must visit an authentic gelateria and sample the many wonderful flavors available. Indeed, do not be surprised to become so addicted to the taste of fresh gelato in Italy that you crave it at all hours of the day: morning, noon and night! On a hot summer day, nothing is better for breakfast than a cool cup of gelato and an espresso to beat the heat. And in the evening, sit by a fountain with your gelato and enjoy the sights and sounds around you.When you enter an authentic gelateria, typically there will be a large case with all of the day's gelato on colorful display.

If you don't know Italian, don't worry - each gelato will usually sport samples of its ingredients decoratively displayed on top of it, such as whole vanilla beans on Fior de latte, wild strawberries on Fragoline, or hazelnuts on the Nocciola. You may request an "assaggio" or taste of any you may wish to sample before ordering. A display of cup sizes will be shown with the price of each; choose the size you wish, pay first, and then show your receipt to the gelataio (gelato maker) to order your flavors. Generally you may select 2, 3, or even 4 flavors at once depending on the size of your cup to create your own wonderful combinations (Chocolate and Banana, or Coconut and Coffee, or Egg-Custard and Caramel...the possibilities are endless!)

It's worth noting, however, that in very touristy areas of Italy and big cities like Rome, Venice and Florence, you may see lots of vendors and shops selling "gelato" that is far from the freshest available. One quick tip to tell the true artisan shops from the tourist traps: look at the Pistachio gelato: is it a fake chemical green color, or instead a light tan with pieces of visible pistachio nuts in it? Stay away from any that looks artificially colored, and look for the shops with the widest variety of unique and authentic Italian flavors.For your reference, here is a list of some of the Italian names for common gelato flavors:

Italian name

English translation


Wild cherry











Cioccolate bianco

White chocolate










Vanilla with shaved chocolate




Blood orange




Chocolate truffle



















Image above: Gelateria Artigianale photo by Michiel Jelijs on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Italian nobility loved gelato!

In the 16th century, Florentine architect Bernardo Buontalenti built an ice cave at the Boboli Palace where he served gelati at Medici family banquets. The egg-rich gelato flavor Buontalenti is named after him today in tribute to his inventing the first gelato churned over salt and ice.

My Gelato Machine

Do you want to make gelateria-quality gelato at home? Then the Lello 4080 Musso Lussino is the model you want. Yes, it is expensive. But yes, it is absolutely worth it. This is the gelato machine I have in my own kitchen. It is heavy duty and so easy to operate - just start the "chill" cycle about 30 minutes before you add your ingredients, then add them and start churning. No need to chill a bowl in advance or worry about the ice cream being over-churned - it will automatically shut off if the mixture becomes too thick. Operation only requires two buttons - chill and churn - with a timer so you can "set it and forget it". The capacity is enough for a small family or couple and cleaning is super-simple, simply wiping clean the top bowl and removable blade and cover. Read the reviews on Amazon and you'll see that for the serious gelato enthusiast, this machine means business.

The Lello 4080 Musso Lussino has a 1-1/2-quart capacity and generally takes about a half-hour to freeze a gelato mixture to ideal consistency (may vary based on ingredients used.) The housing, bowl and paddle are all made of stainless steel which makes it easy to clean; the solid construction means it will last for many years. Comes with an instruction manual and recipe guide for basic gelatos you can make at home but can also be used for many other frozen desserts.

Sample Gelato Recipe: Blueberry Gelato

vlueberry gelatoSince I live in New Jersey, we have an abundance of fresh Jersey fruit every summer. This recipe showcases one of our state's finest fruit crops, the blueberry. It is adapted from a Raspberry Gelato recipe found in the "Italian Ice Cream" cookbook listed below, and is just a sample of the many wonderful things you can do with gelato, fruit and whatever other ingredients you desire!

With my gelato machine I can turn these fresh New Jersey blueberries...
With my gelato machine I can turn the...
...into this delicious gelato!
...into this delicious gelato!
My Lello 4080 Musso Lussino at work
My Lello 4080 Musso Lussino at work
  • 1 pound blueberries
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  1. Wash blueberries and puree in a blender or food processor, along with 1/4 cup of the sugar and the water. You may press through a fine strainer to remove the seeds if you wish.
  2. Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.
  3. Combine milk, heavy cream, and remaining sugar in a heavy saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, until sugar is dissolved and the mixture just comes to a boil. Place saucepan in ice bath and cool. Meanwhile, start chilling your ice cream maker - approximately 20 minutes should make sure both are at the proper temperature.
  4. Combine blueberry puree and milk mixture. Pour into ice cream maker and freeze as per manufacturer directions. This may take between 30 minutes - 45 minutes depending on your equipment and temperature conditions.
  5. Serve once thoroughly frozen, topped with the remaining fresh blueberries.

Books on Gelato...and other Italian Ice Cream Treats

The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto: Bold, Fresh Flavors to Make at Home

TO TRY ONE SPOONFUL OF CIAO BELLA’S GELATO OR SORBETTO IS TO BE INSTANTLY TRANSPORTED. When you think of the most delicious and fresh gelato and sorbetto in America, you are cra...

$20.31  $14.79

View on Amazon

The Art of Making Gelato: 50 Flavors to Make at Home

Forget ice cream. Impress your dinner guests with unique flavors and indulge in fabulous recipes that you can make at home with The Art of Making Gelato. Discover the techniques...

$79.81  $350.0

View on Amazon

Making Artisan Gelato: 45 Recipes and Techniques for Crafting Flavor-Infused Gelato and Sorbet at...

The word gelato, in Italian, simply means “ice cream,” but its meaning has shifted to define a type of high-end frozen dessert, made with milk, not cream. Gelato also has 35% le...

$16.49  $2.13

View on Amazon

Gelato!: Italian Ice Creams, Sorbetti, and Granite

The perfect treat for a hot summer day, homemade gelato and its fruit-based cousins, sorbetti and granite, are easy to make and richer than ordinary ice creams and sherbets, yet...

$15.12  $15.0

View on Amazon

Updated: 01/31/2017, sockii
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AngelaJohnson on 04/21/2015

I'd love to try real gelato - maybe I'll try to make some.

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