Saturday, 28 September 2013

Sweet Treats from Italy: In Search of the Best Gelato

Confession: I don't really like ice cream. It's not the sweet indulgence that I would run to when I'm sad or in need of a pick-me-upper. Those images of sad, down-on-her-luck Bridget Jones wallowing in front of the TV with a pint of her favorite ice cream, that's just not me. When I'm sad, I turn to salty foods-- pretzels, chips and burgers. When I'm desolate, I allow myself to indulge in expensive, prime cut steaks to give me sustenance and make me feel better.

So it is with surprise that I shall confess another thing: My one true regret about my brief trip to Italy is that I should have foregone eating meals and fueled my daily calorie needs by eating gelato five times a day. Well, I think I came close to that, haha! eating gelatos twice a day, usually before lunch or dinner.

You see, the hype is true. Ice cream as I know it, even the expensive Haagen Dazs/Ben & Jerry's brands, are nothing compared to the dense, intense flavored Italian gelatos. I was so used to airy, sometimes grainy, super sweet ice cream that partaking of Italian gelato was a revelation.

Here are snippets of my food experiences in Italy. That's 3 cities, 6 gelatos and a few other food experiences thrown in. :)


Deemed as Italy's culinary center. Bologna is known for its good food. This is where Pasta Bolognese was adapted from. But in Bologna, you will not find Spaghetti Bolognese in the menu. Because you see, at least in its original form, Pasta Bolognese (Tagliatelli al Ragu) is served using tagliatelli pasta which are thicker than Spaghetti, allowing the meat sauce to adhere better.
Authentic Tagliatelli al Ragu from Osteria La Traviata, Bologna

But before venturing out to eat lunch, we went on an important gelato treasure hunt, searching for what is reputed as the best gelateria in Bologna and all of Italy.

Cremeria Funivia (Piazza Cavour, Bologna)

The display of gelato cakes at Cremeria Funivia

This gelateria is not that easy to find. But is well worth it. The place is small yet brightly lit. And oh, the gelatos! The flavors range from the classics (Straciatelli, Cioccolato, Pistachio, Crema) to flavors such as Leonardo (vanilla with caramelized pine nuts) and the mysterious Pompelmo Rossa.

The gelatos are hidden in metal vats to maintain their optimum temperature, so we had to order based on what we think is good on the menu board. There are no tables and chairs in Cremeria Funivia, but it's in front of a neighborhood park so we went out, savoured our gelato on a bench while people watching.

My gelato: Pompelmo Rosa, Leonardo and Pistachio on a cone

The pink gelato, the Pompelmo Rosa, is actually a fruit sorbet. It tasted slightly sour, tangy, with a very subtle sweetness. While I was savoring the Pompelmo Rosa, I was thinking, this tastes so familiar! What is this? And then it hit us. Pompelmo Rosa is pink grapefruit! If we base it on how faithful the flavor is to the taste of pink grapefruits, I say, it was spot on. Very refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser for the next flavor.

Leonardo is vanilla ice cream with caramelized pine nuts. One taste and we knew that this gelato was special. My friend, who ordered the crema flavor gelato (which is the same as the Leonardo except without the caramelized nuts) and who have had her share of gelatos from Rome's supposedly best gelaterias, said it best when she said tasting Funivia's Crema Gelato is so awe-inspiring that we turned silent, not wanting to break the transcedental experience of savouring the densest, creamiest, gelato ever. And it's not really sweet, so it is not the sugar that's doing the magic here. It's the milky, complex flavor of the ice cream with the silkiest texture and a suprisingly dense mouthfeel. The pistachio flavor, while delicious and full of nutty flavor, was a bit sweet compared to the Crema and San Leonardo flavors. So it's true, there is something special with Cremeria Funivia.

For us, having tasted Cremeria Funivia's gelato so early in our Italy journey, it became the standard to which we compared all our gelato experiences. Did any other gelateria measure up to Cremeria Funivia? Read on :-)

Gelateria Gianni (Bologna)

Another famous artisanal gelato maker in Bologna. When we dropped by Gelateria Gianni at about 8 PM for some gelato before dinner, there was no line at all, and ordering was a breeze. But come 10 PM, as we passed by from our dinner, the queue was long. Good decision to have gelato first before dinner!

My gelato from Gelateria Gianni (on the left): Crema, Nocciola (Hazelnut), Straciatella (Choco Shavings on milk ice cream similar to Cookies & Cream)

I ordered Crema so I can compare with Funivia's Crema gelato. Well, Gianni's gelatos were smooth, dense, and very good. It's just that, they were not as good as Funivia's gelatos. These gelatos were also a bit sweeter. Sigh, these were good, but there's that bittersweet feeling that, now that we've tasted the best at Funivia's it seems that nothing will ever be up to par.

Ah, Verona. Made famous by the story of Romeo and Juliet. It was also my favorite city among the three I visited. Verona is picturesque, laidback and has that air of a wealthy vacation town.

The arch signalling the entrance to Verona's city center

Street artists in Verona

Juliet's balcony, Verona

Venchi (Verona)
After meandering through the city we needed some gelato to fuel us so off we went to Venchi, an upmarket chocolate and gelato chain in Italy. The shop in Verona's city center was sort of posh, with pretty black and metal steel accoutrements.

My gelato from Venchi: limone, vanilla, ananas (pineapple)
I liked the ananas and limone flavors best, they're sour with only a slight hint of sweetness. The vanilla gelato was too sweet and really pales in comparison to the Crema gelato from Cremeria Funivia. The texture of the gelatos are consistently good, even the sorbets are smooth and creamy.

Patagonia Gelateria (Verona)
This gelateria is right smack across Venchi gelateria at Verona's city center. It is known for the shop's kitschy design.

My gelato from Patagonia: Amarena and Cioccolato
The amarena's cherry flavor is forgettable but the Cioccolato was A-mazing! Truly deep, dark chocolate with a very smooth texture. It is the chocolate flavor that hits you and not the sweetness. For this alone, Patagonia was my second most favorite gelato experience.

The fashion capital of Italy. Milan's train station is beautiful. And the city has some pretty impressive edifices.

Milan's Central Station

The Duomo

Milan's upscale fashion center, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II

To be honest, outside of the shopping streets, Milan feels too similar to Madrid. So I was not really awed by the city. Still, as tourists go, we walked and walked around until our gelato radar went off.

Vanilla Gelateria Milano

Located very close to the Duomo, this gelateria's prices were a bit more expensive than the rest, at close to 4€ for a medium cone.

To be honest, I've forgotten the exact flavors of the gelatos I had. I think it was Strawberry, Nocciola and something with vanilla. There wasn't anything particularly memorable about the gelatos from this shop.

GROM Gelateria Milano
GROM is the most famous Italian gelato chain in Italy. I have read somewhere that there's even a Grom Gelato shop in New York.

My gelato flavors: Pistachio, Vanilla, Nocciola

The Pistachio is delicious! Even better than Cremeria Funivia's Pistachio. And over all, despite being a gelateria chain, Grom's stuff are at par with the more artisanal gelaterias.

So what's the best gelateria for me? It's still Cremeria Funivia for its dense, truly decadent Crema gelato. If we base it from our experience, it might well be the best gelateria in Italy. Patagonia and Grom are also very good, not the best, but still exceptional. The rest, well, they're still delicious but not as remarkable.

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