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A delicious history - Gelato past to present
By Penny Mincho - Austin
(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #100, Winter 2011)
Romans love their gelato! Gelato literally means “frozen” in Italian, and the term applies to a wide range of sweet frozen treats. The term includes dairy-based gelato made with milk rather than the cream which is used in the American “ice cream,” as well as fruit-based “sorbetto” which contains no dairy. Gelato can be in “semifreddo” form (a piled-high semi-frozen, mousse-like confection), or as granita (a granular, loosely-textured, non-dairy treat), and even as frozen yoghurt. Often, all of these will be offered side by side in a Roman “gelateria.”
As early as 3000 BC, Asian peoples consumed crushed ice with flavorings. Centuries later we have documentation that Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors enjoyed cups of ice sweetened with fruit juice. Sicily and southern Italy have a long tradition of blending crushed fruit and freezing it using ice and snow stored in underground caverns, while the Dolomite regions of Italy used stored snow from the nearby Alps to make confections with combinations of milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and natural flavorings. The Florentine Medici Family served frozen desserts during banquets. They introduced a sorbet-like dessert to France when Caterina de Medici had it prepared for her wedding in 1533 to the future King of France. That same Medici family employed Bernardo Buontalenti in the late 1500s to prepare a specialdessert for the visiting King of Spain. He produced the creamy, frozen dessert very close to the dairy-based gelato we enjoy today. Buontalenti is considered the father of modern gelato.
At the turn of the 20th century, Romans chiefly enjoyed their gelato at cafés much like Café Procope, where coffee and pastries were sold as well and could be enjoyed at indoor or sidewalk tables. Several of those grand cafés are still in operation in Rome. You can have your gelato served to you by waiters in tailcoats at Café Greco which began operation in 1760. Giolittti, established in 1900, is another long-time Roman favorite. In the marble halls, staff in white shirts, bow ties, and brocade vests prepare intricate frozen masterpieces to patrons at tables or scoop gelato into a paper cup (“una coppa”) or cone (“un cono”) for those wishing to take it with them.
In the mid-1980s, as a response to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food organization. Inspired by the call for traditional regional foods made by small artisanal businesses by traditional methods, using local seasonal ingredients, a new group of very different and now very popular gelaterias opened in the 1990s in Rome. United in philosophy and calling their product “gelato artigianale naturale,” this new breed of “gelatai” are committed to daily making small batches of gelato using only the highest quality fresh seasonal ingredients and no artificial colors or stabilizers. Seasonal fruits are bought locally, but pistachios come from Bronte in Sicily, almonds from Bari, hazelnuts from Langhe, and are roasted and ground by their own hands. No nut pastes for these purists. Sorbetto is made only of water, fruit, and sugar; dairy-based gelatos use the freshest milk and eggs from small farms. These are not fancy shops with white tablecloths and formally dressed wait staff. These gelaterias are spartan with maybe two or three tables and chairs pushed into a corner. It is all about the gelato.
Alberto Manassei was a “liutaio” making lutes, guitars, and mandolins during winter months and making gelato in Sardinia in the summer, until in 2000 he decided to totally devote himself to gelato by opening Gelateria del Gracchi in the tony Rome neighborhood of Prati. Manassei is heralded for his pistachio gelato, often referred to as the best in Rome. He makes sure that gluten and lactosefree versions of his flavors are available.
No discussion of gelato in Rome would be complete without a discussion of the latest gelato vendor. Taking the tenets of the Slow Food movement to the next level are the founders of the gelateria chain GROM, Federico Grom and Guido Martinetti. Starting in 2002 they searched the world for the best ingredients for their gelateria, the first of which opened in Turin in 2003. Being featured on television during the Winter Olympics made them a worldwide sensation. Wishing to expand to other cities in Italy, they found that in far-flung locations they could not insure quality control, nor local sources for their fruit flavors and other organic ingredients such as milk and eggs. They came up with the idea of centralizing the first phase of production: the mixing of the raw materials. With the purchase of their own farm, Mura Mura, in Costigliole d’Asti to grow organic heirloom varieties of peaches, pears, figs, strawberries, and melons; and having one site for the importation of other ingredients, Grom and Martinetti could make liquid mixtures that are “distributed three times a week, like milk.” At each store these mixtures are “blended daily to reach their full flavor excellence.” GROM is now in 34 Italian cities, many having more than one of their gelaterias in each. There are several in Rome.