Culinary history is full of twists and turns, a place where myth can become fact. The story of Italian gelato is no different, offering a fine line between history and legend.
We know the earliest origins of gelato date back to the 11th century when Arab culture invented shrb, a sugar syrup used to make fruit sorbets. Often containing a mix of herbs, flowers, and spices, shrb became widespread in Sicily when the island was under Arab rule. At the time, more than 400 different kinds of flowers were incorporated into the local sorbets.
Contemporary gelato dates back to the 1600s. At that time a number of enterprising Italians started developing new ways of preparing and popularizing this delicacy, which was previously only available for the wealthy.
Buontalenti and Cutò: The architects of modern Sorbet
When it comes to the history of gelato, two names stand out — architect Bernardo Buontalenti and chef Procopio Cutò.
Buontalenti was an excellent mechanic and mathematician commissioned by the Duke of Medici to invent a new dish for an opulent banquet. Using skills honed as an architect, he was an expert in conserving ice, having designed cold rooms for a variety of architectural projects. These skills allowed him to create a new sorbet made of ice, salt (to lower the temperature), lemon, wine, milk, sugar, egg, and a touch of honey. This dessert would become the grandfather of today’s Florentine cream.
While Buontalenti provided the method, chef Procopio Cutò contributed to gelato Italiano in another critical way — he brought it to the masses. Cutò opened Cafe Procope in Paris, where gelato was a star of the menu. The dish was a sensation, earning Cutò an exclusive licence from Sun King Louis XIV to produce the dessert in France.
Word spread back to Italy, where the best gelato flourished. This led to an explosion of popularity in the early 1900s after the invention of the first motorized freezer. Demand surged again in the 1940s with the design of a more efficient gelato machine.
From then on, gelato became synonymous with Italy, making it a highly-sought treat for visitors and locals alike.
Where to find the best gelato in Rome and Florence
Let’s take a look into a few iconic spots to eat the finest gelato during your vacation in Italy.
Gelaterias in Florence
As the place where it all originated, Florence should be your first stop when it comes to sampling gelato. The renaissance city hosts a gelato festival every May, but also offers many excellent spots to sample this frozen treat year round.
With the history of gelato in mind, why not start your tasting with a bowl of Buontalenti, the egg cream / whipped cream flavor named after gelato’s inventor. If you’ve never experienced Buontalenti, its flavor is reminiscent of condensed milk. The best spot in Florence for this icy treat is the Gelateria Badiani, which incidentally also holds the trademark for Buontalenti.
For additional options, consider Il Procopio, a fun family establishment whose name contains a historical nod. Additional cream in the mix means the gelato here is extra creamy, featuring a mixture of traditional and unorthodox flavors. For a flavor outside the box, try their Black Forest Cake or lemon with basil gelato.
La Strega Nocciola is another excellent gelateria in Florence, offering late evening hours (open until 10:30 p.m.) and a laid-back atmosphere. Located near the Ponte Vecchio, consider tasting one of this gelateria’s specialties such as lavender or hazelnut. More daring palates may enjoy their Azteca gelato, made with cinnamon and white chocolate.
Gelato in Rome
The best gelato in Rome is a subject of continuous debate, but we recommend stopping at Neve Di Latte. While Romans may disagree about the city’s best gelateria, Neve Di Latte consistently ranks on every list of the top spots in the city. This prize-winning gelateria even has a gelato laboratory where you can see the dessert being made. Try something classic such as the pistachio and chocolate gelato, or go wild with the vinaigrette, which is flavored by a 25-year-old aged balsamic vinegar from Modena.
More than a dessert, gelato is happiness
Italy offers so much variety, from city to city and gelateria to gelateria, we recommend trying a new flavor every night during your visit. After all, if gelato brings happiness, exploring the many gelatos Italy has to offer can only increase your joy.