It is in Sicily that a dessert made of ice, sugar and flavorings, known as Granita, was created. Popular in the whole country now, granita is probably the closest thing to the original sharbat as it has a more slush-like consistency than sorbetto. Today, commercial sorbetto can contain small amounts of milk, but many are still made only with fruit juice or syrups and ice: this is what in America is known as “Italian Ice”.
During the Renaissance, frozen desserts became very popular in Europe by way of France, although it is, once again, an Italian we must thank for it: Caterina de Medici, a lover of good food, brought along her troupe of chefs from Florence to Paris and it was them who began to offer sorbets at dinners. However, there was still one more step to take to make these –already delicious– sorbets into real ice-cream.
The differences between Italian gelato and ice cream are slight, yet make all the difference in flavor and texture. Gelato is made with milk, sometimes skim-milk as opposed to cream which gives gelato a much lower milk fat content. Less milk fat allows the flavors of gelato to really stand out compared to the more blended flavors of ice cream. Gelato’s flavor is helped by the fact that it has less air whipped into it than ice cream, making it much denser.
Ice cream in Italy is like nowhere else in the world, and once you’ve tried it, nothing else will compare. Like any ice cream, Italian gelato is just “composed essentially of milk, eggs, fruits, chocolate or other ingredients which are frozen” (according to the Dictionary of the Italian Language, Giacomo Devoto and Gian Carlo Oli) but it’s got a little je ne sais quoi (or ‘non so cosa’) that makes it truly unique.
You’ll want to look for signs proclaiming gelato fatto en casa (homemade), produzione propia (our own production), or artiginale (artisanal). These signal a higher quality of ingredients and finished product.
If you don’t speak italian, don’t worry. Often the placards naming the gelato include pictures of the main ingredients, so you should be able to figure out what they are. Point to what you want if you have to. If you can’t decide what flavor to try, try several; even on a small cone, you can usually choose two flavors. You’ll have to specify if you want a cone (cono) or a cup (coppa). Gelato is priced by the size of the cup or cone, or by how many flavors you select.

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