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Ice Cream vs. Gelato: The Ultimate Taste Off


Think gelato is just the Italian word for “ice cream?” Think again. While the two creamy, chilly treats have a lot in common (starting with extraordinary deliciousness), they actually differ in some noteworthy ways.

Read on for the scoop — see what we just did there? — on everything you’ve always wanted to know about ice cream and gelato, along with how to get your hands on some of the best frozen treats the world has to offer during July’s National Ice Cream Month.

Ice cream

The world’s most mouthwatering photo.

Gelato’s Journey

Did you know that the origins of gelato aren’t actually in Italy? Says “gelato-inspired resource” WhyGelato.com, “Gelato is an age-old delicacy that dates back thousands of years. The earliest beginnings of frozen desserts are recorded in 3000 B.C. when Asian cultures discovered they could consume crushed ice and flavorings. Five hundred years later, it became a custom for Egyptian pharaohs to offer their guests a cup of ice sweetened with fruit juices. Italians joined in as the Romans began the ritual of eating the ice of the volcanoes Etna and Vesuvius, and covering it with honey.”

However, it wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance that the words “Italy” and “gelato” become synonymous. Continues WhyGelato.com, “The famed Medici family in Florence sponsored a contest, searching for the greatest frozen dessert. A man named Ruggeri, a chicken farmer and cook in his spare time, took part in the competition. Ruggeri’s tasty frozen dessert of sweet fruit juice and ice (similar to today’s sorbet) won the coveted award, which immediately put Ruggeri in the spotlight.”

From there, the Italian exportation of gelato truly took off. Certain that Ruggeri was as accomplished a dessert-maker as the famed French pastry chefs, Caterina de Medici enlisted Rugger to make his chilly treat at her wedding to soon-to-be King of France. Meanwhile, the Medici family also had a hand in introducing ice cream to Spain after commissioning artist and architect Bernardo Buontalenti to prepare and present and elaborate and exquisite meal for the visiting King of Spain. Gelato was a frosty feature on the menu, and the ice cream amor continued to spread.

While Buontalenti may have earned the title of “inventor” of gelato, another man left his mark in bringing gelato to the European mainstream. When famous restaurateur Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli relocated from Palermo to Paris to open Cafe Procope, he began serving gelato in small, egg cup-shaped cups. The French, along with visiting Europeans, fell in love, and gelato’s destiny for dessert dominance was secured.

All of which begs the question? When did gelato finally make it to America? It arrived in New York with immigrant Giovanni Basiolo in New York City in 1770 in two different forms: the first, a mixture of water and fruit (AKA sorbetto) and the second a blend of milk and flavors such a chocolate, cinnamon, pistachio or chocolate. And while the invention of the hand-crank freezer momentarily shifted attention from gelato to industrial ice cream, gelato reclaimed its popularity in the late 1900s.

Today, gelato is so esteemed that there’s even a Gelato Museum in Anzola dell’Emilia, just outside of Bologna. Not only has it made Zagat’s list of the world’s seen coolest museums, but it’s also played host to thousands of visitors. Museum curator Luciana Polliotti told Italy Magazine, “ “It took centuries to get to the sublime perfection of this product. The museum is important because it gives a cultural identity to gelatieri and to everybody who loves gelato. It allows both experts of the trade and the general public to discover how such a fine food could be conceived, cultivated and developed.”

Ice cream

Pistachio: Popular then, popular now.

We All Scream for Ice Cream

As with the world’s first gelato, the earliest incarnations of ice cream are known to trace back at least as far as the days of Alexander the Great, King Solomon, and Nero Claudius Caesar. In fact, many historical accounts use the terms “gelato” and “ice cream” to detail the frozen treat’s progression through European history.

It wasn’t until ice cream arrived in the New World that it truly began making a name for itself. Reveals the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), “The first advertisement for ice cream in this country appeared in the New York Gazette on May 12, 1777, when confectioner Philip Lenzi announced that ice cream was available ‘almost every day.’ Records kept by a Chatham Street, New York, merchant show that President George Washington spent approximately $200 for ice cream during the summer of 1790. Inventory records of Mount Vernon taken after Washington’s death revealed ‘two pewter ice cream pots.’ President Thomas Jefferson was said to have a favorite 18-step recipe for an ice cream delicacy that resembled a modern-day Baked Alaska….In 1813, Dolley Madison served a magnificent strawberry ice cream creation at President Madison’s second inaugural banquet at the White House.”

Still, ice cream manufacturing didn’t go mainstream for the masses until after 1800 thanks to industrialization and technological advancements, including innovations across everything from steam power to mechanical refrigeration.

During World War II, however, ice cream evolved to become much more than a sweet treat. Reveals IDFA, “Ice cream became an edible morale symbol during World War II. Each branch of the military tried to outdo the others in serving ice cream to its troops. In 1945, the first ‘floating ice cream parlor’ was built for sailors in the western Pacific. When the war ended, and dairy product rationing was lifted, America celebrated its victory with ice cream. Americans consumed over 20 quarts of ice cream per person in 1946.” Today, a whopping nine percent of American cow’s milk is used for the production of ice cream.

Not to be outshone by its Italian counterpart, ice cream also has its own museum: The National Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) in Los Angeles, home to its signature swimmable sprinkle pool, immersive chocolate room, edible balloons, and collaborative ice cream sundae. (If you’re saying to yourself, “Only in LA, “you’re not alone.)

Ice Cream Vs. Gelato: Divining the Difference

We’ll take our frozen treats any way we can get them, but there are a few key differences between ice cream and gelato. Says Serious Eats, “It comes down to three factors: fat, air, and serving temperature. The more complicated answer? Things aren’t always clear cut: this is food, not phylogeny, so individual recipes can blur the lines between the two.”

Still, these three things basically hold true:

  • For starters, gelato has a lower butterfat content than American ice cream — just four to nine percent compared to 14 to 25 percent. This is because it’s made with a lower proportion of whole milk to cream.
  • Gelato is also churned at a lower speed than American ice cream, resulting in a denser texture of 20 to 30 percent air compared to ice cream, which can contain as much as 50 percent air, as frozen-treat connoisseur Alon Balshan told The Spruce
  • Lastly, gelato and ice cream are served at different temperatures. While ice cream is usually served frozen, gelato may be stored and served around 15 degrees F. As gelato expert Morgan Morano told Reader’s Digest, “The warmer temperature reinforces the creamy texture of the gelato and the bold flavors, as they more quickly melt in your mouth.”

Reiterates Huffington Post, “Of course, the guidelines that differentiates one from the other is often blurred. As gelato simply means ice cream in Italian, we’re happy to just enjoy the two indiscriminately.”

Ice cream

Did someone say “ice cream sundae party”?

Top Tasty Tips for Indulging

According to the California Milk Advisory Board, 90 percent of American regularly eat ice cream. But are you eating it the right way?  These four tips can help:

  1. Super-frozen ice cream can be softened in the fridge for up to 20 minutes prior to serving. Microwaving ice cream is trickier, and should be avoiding in plastic containers.
  2. Avoid the formation of ice crystals and maintain its smooth texture by immediately returning the carton to the freezer after serving.
  3. If you prefer to eat ice cream or gelato in a cone, dropping a mini marshmallow into the bottom before adding the ice cream can prevent sogginess.
  4. If you prefer to eat ice cream or gelato in a bowl, experts swear by the superiority of old-fashioned parfait cups as serving vessels.

The Creamy Conclusion: Ice Cream in the 21st Century

While gelato and ice cream go back thousands of years, modern-day ice cream makers have added their own tasty twist to the tradition, experimenting with everything from flavor to form. In fact, house-made/artisan ice cream (including its exotic Italian cousin) made the National Restaurant Association’s list of “What’s Hot” in 2017. Said Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of Research for the National Restaurant Association, “Chefs are on an endless quest to redefine how consumers eat. By masterfully transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, culinary professionals are at the forefront of changing the culinary landscape.”

Not only are new flavors emerging by the day, but so are new ways to enjoy them, including everything from hand-crafted gourmet ice cream sandwiches in flavors like  Key Lime Pie, Strawberry Shortcake, Meyer Lemon Cardamom and Raspberry Cheesecake to couldn’t-be-easier sundae party packages.

Ice cream

Not your grandma’s ice cream sandwiches.

Want to capture that spirit of season all year long, meanwhile? There’s no better way than with Ice Cream Jubilee’s Ice Cream of the Month Club. Featuring creative flavors like Banana Bourbon Caramel, Thai Iced Tea, Honey Lemon Lavender, and Cookies with Cookie Dough, it’s hardly a surprise that Ice Cream Jubilee has gotten nods of approval from Thrillist, Time Out, and Food & Wine!

Ice cream

So many flavors, so little time.

At the end of the day, the differences between ice cream and gelato may not only be a matter of personal taste, but something else entirely: negligible. Because when it comes to noshing on either, one similarity rises above all the rest: both are irresistible. From comfort food classics to palate-pushing new flavors, FoodyDirect offers a carefully curated collection of the country’s best ice cream, gelato, sorbet and custard. Click (and lick) your way to a sublime summer by shopping FoodyDirect today.