As beer is to the Czech Republic, gelato is to Italy. A staple, something you’ll find on every street in every Italian city in the world. It’s smooth, it’s delicious and whilst gelato is the Italian word for ice cream, there are some key differences in the two.
As part of my trip to Rome (check the full city break guide out) I took upon myself to find out more about gelato – how it’s made, how to spot good stuff from bad and most importantly, where to find the best gelato in Rome.
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!
What is gelato?
Whilst gelato and more traditional American ice cream has its similarities, gelato is made with more milk and less cream than its counterparts, making it a healthier and less rich alternative. As an example I definitely have no off switch when it comes to gelato, but struggle to eat nearly as much ice cream as it’s so much more dense. Because there is less fat, the flavours are stronger in gelato which is why those fruity varieties might leave you squinting with their tart nature!
Finally, the way they are churned is different too. Gelato is churned much more slowly, which essentially means less air gets in. So when you are eating gelato you are getting more gelato and less air in every mouthful!
How to tell good from bad
I’ll be the bearer if good news – even bad gelato tastes good. It’s sugary, flavoursome, creamy goodness and depending on your palate, it’s all going to taste various shades of “yes please”. But if you are in Italy, it’s worth finding and seeking out the good stuff because then you’ll know what true joy is. And your tastebuds will thank you.
1. If you see gelateria with all their lovely gelato piled up into enticing mounds, calling you in and begging you to try, that’s a sure sign that you won’t find good gelato there. Gelato doesn’t naturally pile up like that, and so in order to do that they either have to freeze the hell out of it, or add a chemical. Neither of which is good for your gelato experience.
Great gelateria are pretty confident in their greatness, and so don’t feel the need to pile up high – you’ll find their gelato straight into the metal containers or sometimes even under cover – they don’t need to show it off!
2. Colour matters, especially where natural flavours come in. If you’ve been to a gelateria where the pistachio was bright green or the lemon bright yellow, they have most likely not made this from real fruit and nuts, but from powdered flavouring. Lemon sorbetti should be almost a white, translucent colour, and any fruit should be the colour you’d get when you’d crush them up.
Often that means the colours are quite dull (or in the case of some berries very dark), which is why mediocre gelateria will make from powder to make their sorbetti stand out to lure the tourists in. Even if fruit flavours aren’t your thing it’s important – making these from real fruit is far more laborious than powder mixed, so you know you are buying from a gelateria that takes their art seriously.
3. Simple flavours are extremely hard to accomplish, so if a gelateria has fior de latte (essentially just milk) or fior de creme (just cream, and more expensive to produce), you are on to a good thing. If they’ve covered either with syrups or other things it’s likely they are covering up inferior production and flavours.
4. If a gelateria has hazelnut you are on to a total winner – it’s the most expensive to produce so many places will mix in chocolate or other flavours with it. That doesn’t make them bad (see checklist above) but if they are selling you pure hazelnut, you know they mean business.
Where to find amazing gelato in Rome
I ate A LOT of gelato in Rome, purely for experimental purposes you’ll understand. Here’s my pick of the best gelato in the city, including a mediocre pick if you are in a pinch in the historic central district.
Il Gelato di San Crispino
You’ll find this gourmet gelato if you hunt for it, but it is a little off the beaten track. About a 3 minute walk from the Trevi Fountain is a gelateria of the gourmet kind – modern flavours combine with new textures (try their merengue flavours, they’ll blow you away!). The orange sorbet and caramel merengue were spectacular and despite its super modern vibe and location, not too expensive either. Two medium cups were 7EUR.
We knew we’d done well with our hotel booking when we discovered Gelato right next door! Although not quite as good as others we’d tasted, and definitely not the purest form of Gelato out there, even mediocre Gelato is good Gelato.
I grabbed a small cup of the biscotti flavour and it was really delicious – with pieces of biscotti + chocolate wrapped inside. If your palate requires more novelty flavours such as snickers, this is where you should head. At just 3.50EUR, it was a welcome after dinner treat.
Gelateria del Teatro
Tucked away down a little street (via dei Coronari) not far from the Pantheon and the Piazza Navarro is this gorgeous gelateria which gave me my best experience of Gelato whilst there. Not only were the basic flavours exquisite, the more trend led flavours were out of this world – quite literally.
For just 3EUR a cone I treated myself to a spiced pumpkin with almond and chocolate chips and it honestly felt like autumn had exploded up in my mouth. Andrew went for mint choc chip, and I’m not sure how either of us will now do without the subtlety of fresh mint in an ice cream. 10/10.
Bar Giolitti, Testaccio
Little sister to the much bigger Giolitti in central Rome, the quieter, altogether more local experience was just the ticket for us after a hard evening touring the best food spots in Testaccio. They still have Rome’s famous Zabaglione flavour, and it was here I learnt two key things about Gelato in Rome. Firstly it’s absolutely wrong to only have one flavour and secondly it’s illegal in Rome to charge more for panna, the whipped cream that you may get offered on top.
The wonderful man behind the counter is super serious about his Gelato, and he will (very nicely!) try and talk you out of a combination if he doesn’t think it works!
Gelateria dei Gracchi
Tucked away from the main tourist areas of Rome, about 20 minutes walk from The Vatican you’ll be treated to some very good, no frills Gelato. Absolute proof that good Gelato doesn’t need to be sold in a fancy shop, I had an amazing combo of Pear + Caramel sorbet with Gjanduja and Mr S went for Vanilla Bourbon + Caffe Latte. The sorbets are the right sort of colour (the pistachio is not bright green!) so you know you’ve come to the right place. This was only 5EUR for a small cone and small cup!
Fatamorgana is a small chain located across Rome well known for firstly being 100% gluten free and secondly for some stellar flavour combos. Their waffle cones are to die for – I wish I’d had time to have more than one!
Where have you tasted the best gelato?