5 ways to make sure you’re getting the best gelato in Italy

Eye-catching gelato JM Travel Photography/Shutterstock

This week, Out of Office is celebrating all things ice cream. Follow along as we explore the sweet history and unexpected influences of America’s favorite dessert.

In Italy, there’s a gelato shop — gelaterie, for the uninitiated — on every corner. During the high season of May through August, it seems as though every street and piazza corner has a storefront bursting with colorful piles of fruit.

If, like me, you have a difficult time passing up anything resembling gelato, then visiting Italy, particularly the popular cities, can be very daunting. A 2009 study from Confartigianato, an organization that represents small businesses in Italy, showed there were more than 36,000 artisanal gelato shops in the country.

With so many shops, how do you choose the right gelaterie every time? The conundrum can be paralyzing. When I arrived in Siena’s Piazza Gramsci in August, I was tired, dazed and hungry and ordered several fruity flavors in a cone — falling prey to a combination of artificial-tasting tropical flavors.

During my 10-day trip, I was schooled by people who knew the art of Italian gelato. When I returned to Florence in May, I was prepared. I refused to be lured by fluorescent-colored lava flows. What I wanted was hidden from the crowds and heat; invisible in small, cool containers — churned slowly, the perfect balance of rich, creamy flavor and substantial texture. These ground rules are by no means exhaustive, but should serve as a guide to delicious gelato every single time.

1. While eye-catching, heaping piles of gelato usually don’t indicate freshness.

Steer clear of high mounds of gelato overflowing the edges of their containers. (These are often in plastic cases.) The tragic combination of the gelato’s height and plastic covering often signifies a deadly temperature gradient. The bottom is cool, while the daylight-exposed top is often hotter, stickier and a bit melted.

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In addition, it’s difficult for even the most successful gelaterie to go through a 2-foot mound of a single flavor in a few days; thus, the possibility the bottom gelato is stale, while the top has been replaced, is quite high.

Instead, look for gelaterie where the flavors are stowed in small metal compartments; you won’t even be able to glimpse the white of the fior di latte (flower of milk) or pale orange of the pesca (peach) before they emerge. They will be cool and tucked out of sight below.

2. Look for natural colors.

While gaudy colors should have been a clear warning to me in Piazza Gramsci, my eagerness for gelato trumped all logic. Dazzling colors frequently announce unnatural ingredients.

One or two bright spots — perhaps a strawberry sorbetto — among a calmer array are still acceptable.

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3. Rotating and seasonal flavors signal high quality.

Make a beeline for those places that rotate flavors on a regular basis. Beloved international chain Grom, with at least 35 shops in Italy, does this. The shop’s summer addition of mirtillo and cioccolato bianco (blueberry and white chocolate), alongside their more consistent pistachio and stracciatella (chocolate chip) is a sign of care and attention to what’s in season.

In my experience, fewer flavors in a case can also signal higher quality — but there are always exceptions. Number of flavors is, in my opinion, less of an indication of quality than the frequency with which they are rotated.

4. Scope out carefully sculpted cones.

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An expertly scooped gelato requires a dexterity and care similar to a well-made cappuccino. I found places that took a bit of extra time to sculpt your cone into a manageable mountain were equally as deliberate with the quality of their ingredients.

Appreciate the scoop art. Be on the lookout for towering — but not toppling — cups and cones, not much larger than an American small.

5. Order multiple flavors at once.

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Finally, I will make a strong plug for ordering multiple flavors. It doesn’t just mean your cone or cup will be two or three times as large; it just packs double or triple the excitement. I have seen the best “gelatistas” pack three flavors plus a dollop of whipped cream onto a small cone — for the same price as one flavor.