Photo: Kaushik Ray/Shutterstock

10 Easy Ways to Find Authentic Gelato in Italy

Italy Food + Drink
by Nathaniel Mellor Aug 28, 2023

Millions of tourists land in Italy every year to see sites like the Colosseum in Rome or the Duomo in Florence. However, there’s so much more to Italy than its tourist sites; in fact, many visitors would argue that it’s the food that really helps them connect to the country.

While there are several foods Italy is known for, one most visitors won’t want to miss out on is authentic Italian gelato. While it might not seem as important as finding a good pizza or plate of cacio e pepe, enjoying a local Italian gelato on a summer day in a historic piazza can create an unforgettable experience – whereas a mediocre (or even bad) gelato can make you feel like you missed out on an authentic Italian experience. After all, you don’t want your gelato to feel like a tourist rip-off.

What is gelato?

close up of gelato flavors in italian shop

Photo: Evgeniya L/Shutterstock

Cream, milk, and sugar: these are the only ingredients required to make gelato. And for many artisanal gelaterie (gelato shops), they are the only ones used in the gelato base. Gelato will typically have anywhere between 5-20 percent cream and 60-80 percent milk.

In addition to milk and cream, the other important component is air. Gelato is slow-churned and should be anywhere between 20 and 45 percent air. The sugar ratio will vary from gelateria to gelateria and flavor to flavor. Ice cream, by comparison, has a higher fat content, less milk, and is fast-churned, creating a creamier and lighter mixture.

Sorbet, or sorbetto in Italian, is offered next to gelato, but it’s not the same thing. Sorbetto is water, sugar, and usually one fruit such as lemon, strawberry, blackberry, or whatever else is in season (or available year-round).

Like ice cream, Italian gelato is served in either a cone or a cup. You’ll usually also be offered panna, or whipped cream, to go on top.

What’s the history of Italian gelato?

The truth is, gelato is one of those foods that has uncertain origins. However, most people think that Cosimo Ruggei, advisor to the powerful Medici Family, may have created it at some point in the 16th century in the city of Florence. It was probably fior di latte, which is a popular flavor even today in Italy. It’s simple and relies only on the base ingredients, rather than having additional flavoring added.

Classic Italian gelato flavors

stracciatella italian gelato cone

Stracciatella: a staple of the Italian gelato scene. Photo: Tony Skerl/Shutterstock

Gelato flavors are heavily based on what’s in season, and because Italy has a certain rigidity when it comes to gelato flavors, many of them have been unchanged for centuries (like fior di latte, created 500 years ago and still going strong). Many classic Italian gelato flavors have just a single ingredient beyond the base, such as pistachio, coffee, hazelnut, chocolate, and stracciatella (meaning “little shreds;” in this case, shreds of chocolate in fior di latte). Common “combination” flavors are classics like tiramisu, zabaglione (egg and marsala wine), and chocolate and orange.

10 ways to find good Italian gelato in Italy

When it comes to authentic, high-quality Italian gelato, you want one made without artificial colors and flavors, with a homemade cone and fresh panna. The best gelato shops will rely mostly on seasonal flavors, and a small cone should cost less than four euros.

The 10 quick tips below aren’t necessarily hard and fast rules, but they’re useful general guidelines for finding quality Italian gelato. While there are some gelaterie that buck these trends, most fit into the rules. If you follow the tips below, chances are, you’re going to stumble into some amazing gelaterie – and taste some of the best Italian gelato you’ve ever had.

Look for: location, location, location

italian gelato cone at trevi fountain

Be extra suspicious of any gelato shops close to popular tourist attractions. Photo: Igor Link/Shutterstock

Many gelato aficionados know before stepping into the gelateria if the gelato is going to be good based entirely on location. In Rome, if you’re near the Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain, there’s a good chance you’re not going to find great gelato. Gelaterie in places with high rent (like those around tourist sites) will often use inferior ingredients, such as hydrogenated oils instead of cream, and may also quick-churn the gelato. This forces air into the mixture, saving the shop money by selling smaller amounts (by weight) of poor-quality gelato.

Generally good: metal gelato cylinders

Gelato is traditionally kept in small, steel canisters called pozzetti, though many shops will instead use stainless steel trays so you can see the gelato. While the cylinders can be divisive in the gelato-reviewing world – critics think the gelateria is hiding its gelato so customers can’t see if it looks off – many knowledgeable buyers prefer the old-school display. For many, using the cylinders is a sign that the gelateria can rely on quality and flavor, not attractive colors, to bring in customers.

Generally bad: gimmicks

italian gelato - chocolate wall

Photo: sancastro/Shutterstock

It’s not uncommon to find a gelateria that has gimmick. Often, it’s the only way to stand out against the competition in a big city like Rome.

Sometimes, the gimmick is as simple as adding a little chocolate sauce into the bottom of the cone or flavoring the panna with cinnamon, as seen at Come il Latte ( Or it could be more over-the-top, like having a full-on chocolate fountain wall (the Venchi). While a gimmick isn’t always a bad thing (who doesn’t like a cone filled with chocolate sauce?) it can mean the gelateria spends more time on Instagram-worthy presentations than it does on the quality of the product.

Some gelaterie, like La Gormandise in Rome, eschew gimmicks of all kinds, including any identifying signs on the door, which can also be considered a gimmick going in the more subtle direction. So think of gimmicks as a sign to proceed with caution, but not necessarily a dealbreaker.

Avoid: cake cones

Of course, this only applies to those of you who prefer a cone over a cup. Many artisanal gelaterie will make their own cones, and the smell of fresh, sugary cones is a great sign that the same care went into the gelato. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Since there are so many cone makers in Italy, it’s not uncommon for a good gelateria to purchase cones.

The ones to avoid are the places that use the classic “cake cone” that melts as soon as gelato touches it.

Look for: pistachio gelato

italian gelato - pistachio close up

If the pistachio gelato looks any greener than this, keep moving. Photo: Digihelion/Shutterstock

When walking past a gelateria, you’ll normally see gelato on display. And one warning sign for poor-quality gelato is artificial colors.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a gelateria is using artificial colors. Fortunately, you can use pistachio, a flavor that almost every store will have, as the “canary in the coal mine.” While pistachios are green, pistachio Italian gelato leans heavily into the realm of light brown/tan. If you find pistachio gelato that’s a rich green in color, it’s made with artificial colors, even if it looks decadent. That could also be a sign that they’re cutting corners elsewhere.

The one place where this rule fails is with the “smurf” flavored gelato: the violently blue gelato available in almost every gelateria. This flavor is mainly intended for children, and while some artisanal and upscale gelateria don’t offer it, most good-to-pretty-good gelaterie do in order to appeal to families.

True Italian gelato shouldn’t be artificially flavored. You aren’t saving for months and flying across an ocean just to have the exact same flavor you could have found back home. While telling the artificial flavors from the natural ones can be difficult (especially if you aren’t eating multiple gelatos a day), using the color rule from above will make it easier. If they’re faking a color, they’re probably faking flavors as well.

Avoid: panna machines

The whipped cream on top is the pièce de résistance of the gelato. It’s the make-or-break. Ideally, panna should be whipped heavy cream and nothing else; no flavoring, no sugar – nothing.

Some gelaterie will have a “panna machine” (not dissimilar to a shaving cream machine at a barber shop). While that isn’t a telltale sign of bad gelato, panna from a machine can often contain thickeners, fillers, and gums to make the cream more appealing. So try to find a gelato shop that makes its panna in-house. If you’re not sure, you can always point to it and ask “made in house?” (“fatto in casa,” pronounced “fah-toe een cah-zuh”) before ordering.

Look for: seasonal flavors

watermelon italian gelato

Watermelon gelato in mid-July is a good sign. Photo: Tracy Beattie/Shutterstock

Italians are all about seasonal flavors, whether it’s lemon season or almond season. With this in mind, Italians are often looking for seasonal flavors at their local gelateria. Fruits like watermelon, apricot, and cantaloupe are common seasonal sorbet flavors in the summer, whereas hazelnut, fig, apple, and pear (or variations thereof, such as the ever-famous pera e ricotta, or ricotta and pear), start popping up late in the summer. If you see seasonal flavors like this on the menu, it’s a good sign.

Look for: costs

Like everything, gelato prices are rising. In 2022, spending two euros (about $2.20) on a cono piccolo (small cone with a maximum of two flavors) would be normal. Maybe you’d find a place that wanted two euros and 50 cents (about $2.80) for a small cone. Now, in 2023, it’s not uncommon to pay three euros (about $3.30) for a small cone. However, if you’re being charged more than four euros (about $4.40) for a small cone, chances are you’re at a touristy gelateria.

Avoid: too many flavors

rome italy gelato shop

Photo: Khorzhevska/Shutterstock

Just as with any restaurant, if you find a gelateria offering a large menu (more than about a dozen flavors), it can mean the quality isn’t as high as it could be. Too many flavors means a low turnover, and a low turnover means you’re eating week-old (or older) gelato.

The only place that seems to be consistently good while maintaining a large variety of flavors is Fatamorgana in Rome. It’s rated highly by food publications and locals alike.

Avoid: giant piles of gelato

A common sight in Italian gelato shops in Florence is mounds of gelato, piled well over the edge of the stainless steel trays. This is a great warning sign. Typically, the only way to achieve that kind of height, especially in the summer, is over-freezing, using stabilizers, over-churning, or a combination of all three. All impact the taste, and should be avoided

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