The Hot South, Home of Gelato: how to recognize great ice cream

The Hot South, Home of Gelato: how to recognize great ice cream

As the summer sun burns down on us, right now I’m under the shade of a palm tree enjoying an ice cream that slowly melts in my mouth. Welcome to Sicily, an island filled with passion and the birthplace of gelato. I’m in Messina, where ice was invented 1200 years ago.

The impetus came from the Arabs who introduced Sharbat to the island – a sweet drink chilled with ice from Etna. This inspired the Sicilians to produce granita: water, sugar, fruit juice or pulp, frozen, constantly churned. Here in the Messina area, ordering an almond granita with a brioche on the side is a must. In Sicily, gelato is usually served in a brioche (a sweet milk bun) that is almost a meal in itself. From classic flavours to a host of really zany combinations like lemon and basil sorbet, olive oil or radish ice cream, you’re in for a sweet surprise, not to be missed. You’ll find ice cream everywhere. Mine tastes good too… but is it really good? Here’s some advice on how to recognize excellent, handmade, top quality gelato. Rules guide the consumer when tasting wine or oil. We can use them in a gelateria too.

1. If we go into a gelateria and see the ice cream piled high over the brim of the containers, something isn’t right. The gelato is well above the chill level, yet it doesn’t melt. This may be a sign that stabilizers have been used to make it withstand higher temperatures. So no icebergs.

2. Colour: the colour of gelato, especially fruit flavoured gelato, should look natural. During the production process, the fruit oxidises and the colour fades with the lower temperatures. Bright yellow, shocking pink or light green should be regarded with suspicion, because colorants have been used to intensify it. Banana-flavoured gelato is white if it is natural, kiwi is pale green, and so on. 

3. Temperature: strangely, the ice shouldn’t be too cold, that is, it shouldn’t feel like ice in your mouth (too much water), nor however should it be too smooth or warm, a sign that it contains too much fat.

4. Flavour and aroma. It may seem banal, but hazelnut should taste like hazelnuts, walnut like walnuts, lemon like lemons and so on. Every flavour should be easily identifiable. Badly made ice cream tends to taste the same because prepared with the same base and simply with aromas added. The taste should stay in your mouth for a while afterwards. 

5. Seasonality: Fruit flavours depend on the season. Avoid summer-fruit flavours in the spring etc.: they’re not made with fresh fruit like they should be.

6. Quality: good ice cream doesn’t leave you feeling thirsty: it should be refreshing and thirst quenching. Industrial ice cream production often uses vegetable fats, which in some cases have a higher melting point than cream. The temperature of the human body in normal conditions can’t dissolve these fats in the mouth and so we end up feeling thirsty.   

So, following these little rules, when I go to one of my favourite gelaterias in Palermo I choose two zany flavours: Gorgonzola-walnut and Modica Chocolate with chilli pepper - in a brioche, obviously, and with cream on top!

If you’d like to explore the whole island and all its gelaterias, here are some accommodation options I can recommend: