A few months ago an attractive container lured me to the frozen case at my local Whole Foods. This is a place I tend to avoid. You see, I'm a gelato fan. And when you are a gelato fan, most ice cream won't suffice. Sure, I love a good scoop of Chubby Hubby or Häagen Dazs Coffee. Even the local Ciao Bella Gelato has a few passable flavors. But real gelato.......ah real gelato.......there simply is nothing (and I mean no other frozen treat on this planet) that compares for me.
As with many of my epiphanies in life, this one started when I was living in Italy. We used to frequent the famed Giolitti, located around the corner from the Pantheon. With my fresh-off-the-boat eyes, the realm of the exotic was off the charts at this place. As you made your way through the throngs of well-dressed onlookers, the freezer cases appeared as works of abstract art. Mounds of colors and textures were piled impossibly high as busy uniformed workers drew slabs of the gelato (not scoops), mixing and matching flavor combinations. Then they would slap a dollop of whipped cream (panna) on top for good measure.
Adding to the exotic was the ordering procedure. I learned on my first visit that you paid at the cash counter before approaching the goods. Your receipt was the ticket to paradise and the impatient staff added a 'soup-nazi' vibe to the experience while you decided. It took many visits to master the flavor translations. When my cono gelato (con panna of course) was handed to me I was transported back to my childhood where I used to dwell over a tower of banana split on hot summer nights at Two Cents Plain on Ventnor Avenue in Margate, NJ. Now, I was similarly lost in the indulgence of Straciatella, Nocciola, Baccio and Pistacchio.
The first thing you notice about proper gelato is the temperature. The consistency is never too hard and never too soft. It seems to hold its form at the perfect temperature for the duration of its consumption. The panna is rich and sweet, but not too sweet and provides a lovely contrast to the frozen. It's important like icing on a cupcake but never outshines the main event. The fat content is gelato is actually lower than ice cream, which is surprising, because to me it tastes significantly richer than most watery varieties I've tried elsewhere (latin countries really seem to blow it).
Then there is the flavor. Last year in Greece I demonstrated to Julie the difference between a Greek-run Gelateria and a true Italian artisanal product. Our son was clamoring for ice cream so we relented at the nearest place we could find. I was holding out for the real Italian place on the other side of town. The difference between his bright green pistacchio and my pale variety were night and day. His tasted like extract, bright and sugary - way too much of a bad thing. Mine was subtle, yet dense with real pistachio flavor and the cream flavor always played along with the nuts (I told you I was gelato fan). No contest.
A great way to introduce yourself to gelato is with Straciatella (vanilla with chocolate flakes) and Baccio (chocolate and hazelnut combined). You really cannot go wrong. If the place offers panna (here in the states that's a rarity), you know you're doing ok. Also, gelato is best consumed in a gelateria.
Except.....back to Whole Foods, frozen case, cool container. I stumbled upon Talenti because I loved their clear plastic containers (don't put them in the dishwasher - I learned the hard way). I gave it a try. First vanilla. Then pistachio. Both were really good. Probably the best I've had outside of a gelateria. But then I tried the Double Dark Chocolate. For fuck's sake! Little tiny nibs of spectacular chocolate float in a perfect chocolate gelato. Leave it to sit for 10-15 minutes and you'll hit the desired temperature. The sides should be soft yet still stick to your spoon. While the flavors aren't traditional, I still dare you to eat only one or two bites.
I stopped going to Giolitti when I discovered smaller, less touristy places. But I won't discourage you from the experience. For that alone, it is one of a kind. But, if you can't make the trip across the pond, and you haven't found the perfect gelateria in your town (I'm still looking), give Talenti a shot.