The Sweet Side of Things: Ice cream or gelato – it’s all sweet and good

Meg Ast

Remember the saying, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for _____________”, fill in the blank, gelato or ice cream.  At one point in time, at least in the U.S., we all screamed for ice cream but not anymore.  In today’s environment, you have a choice of ice cream or gelato, all good, it just boils down to personal preference.

The history of Gelato dates back to the 16th century, even though there is some confusion about its origins.  Most accounts claim it was Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, who first introduced his creation to the court of Caterina dei Medici.  Others claim that Sicilian-born Francesco Procopio dei Doltelli introduced a recipe blending milk, cream, butter and eggs at Café Procope, the first café in Paris since 1686. He was one of the most influential individuals in the history of Gelato to first sell it to the general public, spreading its popularity throughout Europe.  

Gelato in Italian literally means “frozen” but it is commonly used to indicate the Italian type of ice cream.  Gelato contains much less air than American ice cream and because of this, the flavors in Gelato are more intense.  And, much to my pleasure as I do enjoy a good Gelato, it is healthier than its American counterpart due to the fact that it contains all natural ingredients, fewer calories and less butter fat since it is made mostly with milk and some cream and not the other way around.  

Ice cream on the other hand has origins reaching back as far as the second century B.C., although the actual date is unknown.  Famous men such as Alexander the Great enjoyed snow and ice flavored with honey and nectar.  During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar frequently sent his runners into the mountains for snow and then flavored that snow with fruits and juices.  Sounds to me like the beginning of sherbet.  According to history, it was Marco Polo on a return trip to Italy from the Far East who brought with him a recipe that closely resembles today’s recipes for sherbet.  It is believed that this recipe for “sherbet” evolved into ice cream sometime around the 16th century.  It wasn’t until 1660 that ice cream was made available to the general public.  

The first account of ice cream in America comes from a letter written in 1744 by a guest of Maryland Governor William Bladen.  The first advertisement for ice cream appeared in the New York Gazette on May 12, 1777, when confectioner Philip Lenzi announced that ice cream was available “almost every day.” Until 1800, ice cream remained the dessert of the elite.  Just around this time, insulated ice houses were invented and the manufacturing of ice cream soon became an industry in America.

As I mentioned, Gelato is creamier, silkier, denser and has a richer more flavorful taste and has a softer more fluid appearance which is usually served with a flat scoop because of its softness.  Ice cream is firmer and can be shaped into an orb using an ice cream scoop because it is firmer, less creamy.  Ice cream is made more with cream than milk and egg yolks to help pack it together.  Even with the fact that more cream is used to make ice cream, the fact that it is made with more air, which firms up the ice cream.