Information from Eating in Italy by Faith Willinger

Anyone who has ever dug a short plastic spoon into a squat paper cup of Italian gelato knows that ice cream and gelato are not the same thing. Ice cream -- iced rich cream -- turns most flavors into pastels. Gelato, a combination of whole milk, eggs, sugar, and natural flavoring -- or fresh fruit and sugar in the fruit flavors -- is a less firmly frozen, softer, more intensely flavored and colored creation, essential to the Italian summer. Arabs brought what came to be known as sorbetto to Sicily; but gelato is said to have been first created by Bernardo Buontalenti for the court of Francesco de' Medici in 1565. In a recent region-wide competition, Tuscan gelato artisans came up with a delicately perfumed, egg-yolk-rich, almost orange-colored velvety flavor called Buontalenti, homage to a Renaissance artist.

Although gelato is available all year, the sunny spring and summer months are the season when it becomes a driving force in the Italian culture, an excuse for an expedition into the cooler night air, a chance to hang out, something to meet over, a preface or postscript to the evening's activities, Italian air-conditioning. Many gelato shops (gelaterie) stay open until 1 a.m. or even later in the summer.

The best gelaterie will display a sign, Produzione Propria, Nostra Produzione, or Produzione Artigianale -- all indicating that their gelato is homemade. The best fruit gelato is made from crushed fresh ripe seasonal fruit. Although freezing should diminish flavors, somehow gelato winds up tasting more intense than the fruit from which it has been made. The best milk-based gelato is flavored with all-natural ingredients and has a silky consistency. They will all melt faster than ice cream does. Colors should seem natural, not too intense. If the pistachio is bright green, it's been artificially colored and probably artificially flavored. Fruit flavors should reflect seasonal fruits. Gelato sitting in plastic bins is industrially produced; homemade gelato is always stored in stainless-steel bins, which can be sterilized and reused.

Semifreddo, literally "half cold," is made from the same base as gelato but has whipped cream folded in. It vaguely resembles a mousse, which is what the chocolate flavor is called.

Sorbetto (fruit sorbet) has become popular in many Italian restaurants and is often served half- way through the meal to separate the fish and meat courses and act as a palate cleanser, but instead it anesthetizes the mouth in time for the arrival of the red wine. I feel that the sorbetto belongs at the end of the meal, not in the middle.

Granite, slushy grainy water ices, usually come in lemon or coffee flavors, are normally found in bars, and are more common in southern Italy.

Gelato is purchased with the same receipt system as caffč in a bar. If you want a paper cup (coppa), check out the sizes, usually displayed prominently with prices printed on the sides. If you want a cone (cono), there will probably be a choice of sizes as well. March up to the cashier and ask for either a coppa or a cono, state the price (size) that you want, and pay. Take your receipt to the counter after having worked out your selections (more than four per serving is considered poor form) and restate your order with your choice of flavors. If you have ordered chocolate, you may be asked if you'd like some panna, unsweetened whipped cream.

Veneto Region, Town of Venezia
San Marco 2962/A, Campo Santo Stefano 041.522-5576
Closed Monday, always open in summer
Paolin makes what many locals feel is Venezia's finest gelato. There are only twelve flavors, all creamy and naturally flavored. Outdoor tables in the campo Santo Stefano provide a ringside seat for some of Venezia's best people-watching, all for the price of a gelato. It's open till midnight in the summer.

Toscana Region, Town of Firenze
Via Ricasoli 60/r % 055.289-476
Closed Mondays, always open May to September, completely closed mid-November to mid-February
When I saw a bowl of lumpy lemons, a Sicilian cart, and a ceramic plate depicting the trinacria -- Medusa with three bent legs angling from her head to represent the three corners of the triangular island -- at Gelateria Carabč in Florence, I knew I was going to be happy. Owners Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro are from Patti, on the north coast of Sicily in the province of Messina. They make Firenze's best gelato and sorbetto, but best of all is their sublime granita, prepared Messina style, smooth and silky, not in the Palermo or Catania styles which are granular.
Antonio taught me how to eat the Sicilian "Breakfast of Champions," coffee granita in a drinking cup topped with barely sweetened whipped cream, served with a warm brioche roll on the side. Dig the spoon into the corner of the whipped cream, exposing the granita, taste the whipped cream, reinsert the spoon deeply, and gently mix, creating a kind of frozen cappuccino. Break off a piece of the brioche and dip it into the cup, scooping up as much of the granita mixture as possible. Eat this over the cup!
I'm wild about Carabč's gelato, sorbetto, and granita made with Sicilian products like pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds, and bumpy lemons which Antonio has shipped from Sicily weekly. Gelato mavens should plan daily visits to Carabč while staying in Firenze, but bear in mind that it closes from November to the middle of February.

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