Arab or Italian? The history of ice cream is wrapped in the mist of times - even the Bible makes reference to a drink made of milk and snow - but two countries can lay claim to having ‘invented’ it: Arabia and Italy.
An early ‘iced cream’ made of ice, fruit juice and honey was popular in Italy at Roman times, but the dish did not survive the difficult days of the Early Middle Ages.
In the Middle East, however, the Arabs hit upon a similar recipe when they started freezing fruit juice by placing it in a container full of ice. Later, they enriched it with sugar, and sorbet was born.
The iced delicacy found its way back into Europe with the returning crusaders, with travelling merchants and, most of all, with the many Sicilian cooks who learned the sorbet-making trade from Arab invaders.
Sicily was perfect sorbet land—it had snow (on Mount Etna), salt (required to keep temperature low), and plenty of fresh fruit, and it proved fertile grounds to produce sugar cane. With all this at hand, the Sicilians were able to improve sorbet, branch out into granita, and export both to the rest of Italy.
But it is in Renaissance Florence that the recipe was taken to the next level. Story has it that Ruggeri, a Florentine cook, took part in a cookery competition with his ‘ice flavoured with sweet scented water’ and had such an overwhelming success that Catherine de Medici brought him with her to Paris when she married Henry de Valois.
However, Ruggeri’s flavoured ice was still a sorbet of sorts. Another Florentine, architect and artist Bernardo Buontalenti had the bright idea to make a new iced dessert blending milk, egg and fruit. Modern ice cream was born.
From Italy, ice cream travelled across Europe, thanks to Italian cooks such as Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, the inventor of the ice cream parlour. Born in Sicily, Procopio dei Coltelli emigrated to Paris in the 17th century and opened a café, the Café Procope, where he served Sicilian granita, lemon ice cream, strawberry sorbet, frangipane ice cream and cinnamon ice cream among others. A few years later, another Italian, Giovanni Bosio, crossed the Atlantic to open an ice cream parlour in New York.
Countless others soon followed their steps, turning ice cream into a global food. Nonetheless, Italy has preserved a reputation for making the best ice creams in the world, and nowhere better than at these three parlours—gelateria Bianco in Ravenna, Il Gelato di San Crispino in Rome and Bar Kenia in Oria—which have earned many accolades and glowing reviews for their products.
That said, Italy has many more parlours worth discovering, so please share your favourites in the comments!
Gelato Bianco, Ravenna, Emilia Romagna
White is the décor and the colour of many of the ice cream flavours on sale at the aptly-named Gelateria Bianco (which means white in Italian). This minimalist parlour in Ravenna was named Italy’s best at the Golosaria food show last November, both for the quality of its ice cream and for sourcing the very best local ingredients.
Bianco’s 35 or so flavours are true gustatory miracles. Traditionalists can choose cream, hazelnut, dark chocolate, pistachio, strawberry and lemon, whereas innovators can try candied ricotta, zabaione and sour cherries and even robiola cheese with cookies—an iced interpretation of a local dessert recipe. If you can’t make up your mind, Gelaterie d’Italia, a guide to ice cream parlour published by Italian food magazine Gambero Rosso, highly recommends dark chocolate, cream, dolce mou (a sort of caramel) and candied ricotta.
Bianco’s only drawback is the long queue you’ll have to endure before you can revel in its icy delights, but if you live locally, you can get around it by ordering a home delivery online.
Gelateria Bianco, in Via Maggiore 205/A, Ravenna, (tel. 0544 501575), is open Monday to Friday from 3pm to 10pm, Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 12pm to 10pm.
Il Gelato di San Crispino, Rome, Lazio
Anyone who is interested in the history of ice cream should make a gastronomic pilgrimage to San Crispino, an ice cream parlour in Rome’s Appio Latino neighbourhood. Here you can try the Gelato San Crispino, a bitter-honey cream made with the best Sardinian strawberry-tree honey according to the recipe developed in Renaissance Florence by Bernardo Buontalenti.
And this is really the essence of the San Crispino parlour’s approach to ice cream making—experimenting with innovative and historic recipes while using only the freshest ingredients sourced personally by the owners, brothers Pasquale and Giuseppe Alongi, and Giuseppe’s wife, Paola. So their Zabaione is made with a Marsala wine (the Vecchio Samperi) aged for twenty years; their Malpighi is made with genuine traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena; and their Nocciola uses only hand selected Tonda gentile hazelnuts from Piedmont.
Anything artificial is banned from the parlour, and that includes cones, which contain colourings—anathema to the Alongis.
But this break with the cone tradition doesn’t seem to put off anyone. Well managed queues are a regular feature at San Crispino, even though there are now three other branches in Rome and one at Fiumicino international airport.
Il Gelato di San Crispino is in Via Acaia 56, Rome (tel. +39 06 7045 0412), and is open from 11am to 12am every day except Tuesday. Other branches are in Via della Panetteria 42 and Piazza della Maddalena 3 (Rome city centre) in Via Collatina in Lunghezza (a Roman suburb) and in Fiumicino airport’s Terminal A.
Bar Kenia, Oria, Puglia
Nutella doesn’t get any better than at Bar Kenia, a stylish ice cream parlour in the Baroque town of Oria, near Brindisi.
Yes, Nutella—Kenia’s owner, Mario Ferretti found a way to turn the chocolate and hazelnut spread into a delicious ice cream that is even better than the velvety original. His recipe is a jealously guarded family secret, and with reason: the parlour’s Nutella draws the crowds from all over Puglia.
That said, other flavours are also well worth trying. Anything fruity is excellent, as are sundaes such as the Coppa Kenia (which has fresh fruit and nutella ice cream), and most of all the spumone, an iced dessert typical of the Oria area, made by layering several ice cream flavours around a heart of pan di spagna sponge and almond or hazelnut brittle.
Bar Kenia is in piazza Manfredi 2, Oria, (tel: +39 0831 845160) and is open every day except Thursday afternoon from 5.30 am to 2am.
Italy’s best loved ice cream flavours
You can get Italian ice cream in a staggering variety of flavours—600 according to Italian research institute Eurisko. But the seven most popular ones, which account for the majority of cones and tubs sold in the Bel Paese, are:
Stracciatella (cream and chocolate)