It's summer--time to get the scoop on gelato

July 25, 1993|By Faith Heller Willinger | Faith Heller Willinger,Contributing Writer

"Gelato" is the past participle of the Italian verb "gelare," to freeze. It is yet another example of Italians at their culinary best, taking a good idea and improving, embroidering, enhancing a product until it's barely recognizable, turning it into a whole new ball game. Like the way they turned rice into risotto, flour and water into pasta, tomatoes into a condiment.

Say hello to fat-free gelato, more properly known as sorbetto, though most people use the French term sorbet. Ah, the French.

The concept of frozen refreshment is as old as ice. The Romans enjoyed snow cones flavored with honey. There was even a Sicilian-Arab concoction called sharbet.

Florentine court architect Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with inventing the first gelato churned over salt and ice. At the wedding festivities of his patron, Grand Duke Ferdinand de' Medici, on May 7, 1589, "marvels of gelati" were served at the conclusion of the banquet, followed by after-dinner entertainment (a flooded courtyard with an 18-vessel naval battle).

Sorbetto was churned exclusively in Italy until a Sicilian, Francesco Procopio de' Coltelli, opened Cafe Procope in 1660 and introduced Parisians to the confection that many think of as sorbet.

Terminology is confusing, as usual. Gelato is technically made from a milk or custard-based mixture; sorbetto is water-based. Fruit flavors are usually -- but not always -- water-based and therefore should be called sorbetti (plural), but they're not.

The term sorbetto is limited to ancient cookbooks, where the letter "s" looks like an "f," and a small number of obsessive restaurants that make their own.

Today, almost everyone uses the word gelato for both fruit- and milk- or custard-based flavors. It is at its very best sold where it's made from fresh ingredients, according to one of three main Italian regional schools of philosophy.

Veneto, in the north, is well-supplied with milk and cream and includes one or both of these dairy products in almost all gelato.

Sicilians are big on sugar, short on dairy other than ricotta, masters of flavor and texture. They perform a last-minute softening-up with a spatulate server before gelato is swiped onto a cone or a soft, sweet brioche roll.

Tuscany combines the best of both schools and comes up with less-sweet water-based fruit flavors and silky milk-based custards.

Gelato, prepared by small-scale artisans and consumed outside the shop, is the perfect between-meals refreshment and the core of an important warm-weather ritual. Most Italians live within walking distance of homemade gelato and frequently head for a local gelateria to cool off, take a break, possibly bump into friends. They may also order granita -- icy granules -- and semifreddo, made from gelato base with whipped cream folded in.

I decided to try making my own. First, I spoke to my favorite professional gelato makers in three regions. How much sugar? They all supplied the standard answer, right out of the manual ("Il Gelato Artigianale Italiano" or "Italian Artisan Gelato" by G. Preti) of one-third, which I tried and rejected (too sweet, although it remained scoopable). G. Preti's formulas also use stabilizers and powdered milk that I thought about and rejected. Why bother to make it at home using uncontrollable ingredients for a longer freezer life when gelato is at its best within a few hours of preparation?

Continuing the search, I read Harold McGee's "The Curious Cook," got hooked on the idea of a formula, and made pages of calculations involving lists of fruit, natural sugar and final sugar percentage, which I preferred at around 27 percent, far below the ideal scoopable freezing percentage, but above the minimum to produce a creamy, non-granular gelato.

I refused to buy a hydrometer to measure sugar content. I read Jeff Steingarten in Vogue on the ripeness of fruit and noticed in my heaviest Italian nutrition text that fruit sugar wasn't expressed as a figure but a range (2 percent for peach, apricot and lemon; 4 percent for strawberry, melon; and up to 11 percent for banana) of unripe to ripe, which probably varies even more.

This makes the idea of a formula impossible. The best advice about sugar came from Renson Grant, who makes gelato and sorbetto at Jumby Bay, a resort off the coast of Antigua: "Sweeten to taste."

His basic fruit formula was very similar to mine. Realmo Cavalleri, favorite Tuscan maker of gelato from San Giorgio a Colonica, concurred with Mr. Grant, citing variable fruit sweetness and personal taste as important factors when adding sugar.

Homemade gelato freak Cesare Bardini (owner of Agrimontana preserves, super chestnuts and candied violets) told me not to bother with sugar syrup but to boil the water for gelato to avoid fruit discoloration. Chemistry, folklore or both? I boil the water, and my fruit no longer oxidizes.

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