Like many enduring works of art, gelato first came about in Florence during the Renaissance. I suspect many of our readers will think I’m so taken with Florence that I just assume its citizens invented all the best things in the world. But this time I mean it. They really did invent the world’s most outstanding dessert.
The story goes that in the early 1500s, the Medici family sponsored a contest to find the greatest sweet. A Florentine chicken farmer named Ruggeri wowed the judges with a frozen dessert of fruit juice and ice (similar to modern day sorbet). Caterina de Medici, who married into the French court, brought Ruggeri with her to France for her wedding, as she was convinced only he could rival the French pastry chefs.
By the late 1500s, the recipe had been tinkered to perfection by an artist named Bernardo Buontalenti, again under the patronage of the Medici family. Adding cream and smoothing the texture, Buontalenti is credited with inventing the dessert we now call gelato.
Gelato in Italian literally means “frozen.” But pretty much everyone in the world knows that the word is used to indicate the Italian style of ice cream. When I looked up the differences between gelato and ice cream, I learned that one major difference is that gelato contains less air. This makes sense when you think about how much creamier and more intensely flavorful is gelato. Another distinction is that often gelato is “healthier.” I use that word loosely because gelato has no shortage of sugar and fat. But, as is the case with most authentic Italian food, gelato is made from fresh, natural, seasonal ingredients.
The concept of seasonal ingredients might seem somewhat foreign to many American ice cream connoisseurs. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mint chip, oreo and even good old fashioned vanilla. I’ve hardly met an ice cream I didn’t like. But in Italy it’s all about what’s in season. Over the course of the 3-month period that I lived in Florence (August – November), I watched the gelato display at my local coffee shop change, dwindle and eventually cease.
This was disappointing for a number of reasons, including the fact that the kids no longer had a strong daily incentive to speak Italian to a shop owner once the gelato was gone. (They speak fluent gelato). But the shop owner simply would not make gelato from frozen or artificial ingredients. The purity of this approach is appreciated with every bite.
I’ll never forget my first mid-summer peach gelato from Vivoli in the Santa Croce neighborhood. Buonissimo! Fresh peach gelato might be the perfect food. Go try it and let me know what you think.