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May 05, 2006

Caffè Gelato

Dominic Armato
Like balsamic, kobe and, with increasing frequency, toro, gelato is one of those culinary words that has been debased by food purveyors who inappropriately use a more exotic name to market their product. The fact is that most frozen confections sold as gelato in the States bear little resemblance to the gelato found throughout Italy. This isn't to make a quality judgement, of course... the distinction between the two isn't necessarily that one is "better"... but ice cream and gelato aren't synonymous.

For some reason, a common misconception seems to be that what gives gelato its richness is a heavier egg content, when in fact the opposite is usually the case. Generally speaking, gelato is lighter on the "rich" ingredients. Though the southern Italian gelati frequently contain eggs, many (if not most) in the north don't contain any eggs at all. And gelato is usually made with whole milk, and rarely, if ever, contains any cream. Of course, the misconceptions persist simply because it doesn't seem possible to achieve gelato's incredible intensity of flavor without the richer ingredients. But there's one factor that makes the difference.

It's all about air.

Ice cream makers incorporate a lot of air into the mixture during the freezing process, increasing the volume and lightening the texture of the final product. The goal of a good gelato, on the other hand, is to incorporate as little air as possible. The end result is that one spoonful of gelato could contain 2-3 times as much of the base flavoring as one spoonful of ice cream. This is the same reason that extremely low-quality ice creams frequently have so little flavor. It isn't necessarily that the ingredients aren't any good, it's that the manufacturers incorporate even more air than with typical ice cream, so that they get more volume out of the same ingredients and can charge less. Also, since the richness of gelato is achieved by means of its density rather than its butterfat content, the base flavors predominate. Of course, this also means that the base flavors are more exposed. If you aren't using good quality chocolate, for example, it can't hide behind the cream. This is another reason you don't see true gelato very often... it's harder to get away with lower-quality ingredients.

Dominic Armato
All of which is why it's nice to discover a place that takes the gelato challenge, and does so admirably. Caffè Gelato won't be mistaken for Giolitti, but they do a fine job. It's a small establishment on the trendy stretch of Division, just west of Damen, and right off the bat, they don't make the mistake of doing too much. They serve coffee and gelato and that's basically it. There's a small case of about 16 flavors that are made daily with Italian machinery that's designed for the purpose. There are traditional Italian favorites, such as nocciola, stracciatella and tiramisù, as well as your basic chocolate and vanilla and an assortment of fruit gelati, many of them seasonal. I tried a few benchmarks -- chocolate, pistachio and banana -- and was generally very happy with them. I thought the banana was a little too sweet, and the pistachio not sweet enough, but even if they weren't masterworks of frozen Italian confection, they were clearly made the way gelato should be. Suffice it to say that while I've had gelato in Italy that was much better, I've also had gelato in Italy that wasn't nearly as good. If you've ever wondered what the real stuff tastes like, give these guys a try, because they're the genuine article.

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