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One of the first things you should do when arriving in Italy is learn the basic greetings: to say hello, use “buongiorno” until lunch time, “buonasera” after lunch time and “buonanotte” when you’re ready for bed. After mastering the greetings, move on to lesson number two: how to procure and consume the best gelato.
According to Terry Portwood, a tour director for Tauck and a Florence resident, even Italians sometimes skip eating a heavy summer dinner in favor of going out with friends for gelato. Terry also told me that on average, Italians eat 20 pounds of gelato per year. No matter the time of day, it’s easy to spot visitors and locals alike strolling along with gelato in hand.
But what if, for some terrible reason, you could only have one gelato during your time in Italy? When I posed this question to my Florentine driver, Alessandro, he grew very concerned.
“Why only one?” he asked, unable to answer my question.
Even if you do Italy right — leaving ample time in your schedule to meander around from gelato shop to gelato shop — there are certain truths that can help guide you to the best quality scoops in Italian cities, typically inundated with gelaterias.
While Terry and Alessandro couldn’t agree on a definitive place to get the best gelato in Florence, they did agree on how to spot shops worth stopping for.
Following are some tips from Terry and Alessandro for finding the best gelato in Italy. (Though gelato in Italy has regional differences, these tips will help you regardless of where in Italy you are.)
1. Understand that gelato is not ice cream.You can really only judge whether your gelato is good if you know what you’re looking for. A defining difference lies in how gelato is made: in slow-churning machines that allow little air into the mixture. As a result, gelato is more dense and thick than ice cream. Also, gelato usually has no egg yolks or cream in its base, so it will taste less like fat and more like its flavor.
2. Stay away from those ornate display cases!Gelato shops with tall, decorated towers of each offered gelato flavor provide tempting eye candy — but that should be it. These are tourist traps serving up inauthentic gelato. Unlike ice cream, gelato is kept at a relatively warm temperature, something that is best controlled when inside of a metal tin. Any gelato worth eating won’t have to flaunt itself: It’s too busy retaining its silky, creamy texture. A bit warmer, gelato won’t simply taste “cold” — it will taste like its intended flavor.
3. Check out the color of the pistachio gelato.If the pistachio gelato is Day-Glo green, leave! That is a sign that the shop uses additives and artificial ingredients instead of the real stuff. Think of what a pistachio actually looks like — the gelato should be an earthy-looking green. Since gelato doesn’t have as much fat as ice cream, it can be argued that the quality of the ingredients in gelato play a bigger role in determining its flavor.
Here are five Florence gelaterias that Terry and Alessandro discussed:
Vivoli“A lot of Americans who came to Florence in the 1960s and 1970s for a semester abroad like Vivoli. It’s by Santa Croce,” said Terry. “It’s a nostalgic favorite for a lot of people.”
“Now it’s more about publicity,” said Alessandro. “It’s not as good as it was 20 years ago.”
Perche No!“I really like Perche No! because they use organic ingredients, and they make their gelato fresh every day,” said Terry. “It’s common to make fresh gelato, but you can never be sure, and they are really genuine. They’ve been around since World War II. The story is that they stayed open during the war, and the allied soldiers gave them a lot of business when they were here.”
La Sorbettiera“When I’m home, I always go to this shop in Piazza Tasso, not far from Giardino Torrigiani,” said Terry. “They have interesting flavors like pecorino and honey.”
Gelateria della Passera“Oh! Another really good one,” said Terry. “It’s in a little piazza, very close to the Ponte Vecchio. They have a flavor that is so good — it’s fresh mint. They take mint leaves and crush them and add them into a basic flavor. So it tastes like organic mint leaves. It’s not oil of mint — it’s the actual mint leaves. It’s delicious.”
Grom“I don’t like Grom,” said Alessandro. “It’s too commercial. It’s a huge company.”
“It’s really in fashion now to go there, since they opened one in Rome; it started in Bologna and now they’re in every major city,” said Terry. “You go there and there’s a long line: 100 people long.
“They say it’s homemade, but it’s not,” said Alessandro.
“Right, how can it be?” said Terry.
My Favorite Florence GelatosDuring my time in Florence, I loved the texture and flavor of the gelato at Gelateria Trinita and its location along the other side of the Arno River is perfect for strolling. But then I found Gelateria della Passera, a tiny spot in a hard-to-find, almost hidden piazza that fills up with locals at night. Though they didn’t have the mint gelato that Terry recommended either time I was there — yes, I went there twice in two days — my friend and I fell in love with their classic as well as interesting flavors, such as crema ai 7 prefuma, a creamy combination of seven spices, and the Mona Lisa, a gelato of cognac and orange blossoms.