History of Gelato and Sorbetto

Eating gelato, like drinking espresso, is a favorite Italian pastime. It is a time for people to linger for conversation and people watching, and a way to cool down from summers’ unrelenting heat. In southern Italy gelato is even eaten for breakfast, served in a fresh brioche with a steaming cup of rich, black coffee!

The Bible tells us that Isaac offered Abraham goat milk mixed with snow. The Chinese recorded eating a refreshing iced mixture as early as 200 BC. From there, the process of making frozen sweets probably found its way to India and Persia, and was brought to Sicily by Arabs.

Caterina de’ Medici, who was born in Florence, brought sorbetto to France. The court of the Medici in Florence held a contest to discover a “singular plate that had never been seen.” Giuseppe Ruggeri, a vendor of chicken, showed up and prepared an exquisite sorbet, and became quite famous as a result. When Caterina married Henry II of France, she brought Ruggeri with her to challenge the French chefs. He created splendid concoctions for the many head families of Europe. All of the powerful noble families wanted to know his secrets, but Caterina refused every request. Ruggeri, hated by all the cooks of the capital, was often physically accosted. Eventually he left the recipe in an envelope for Caterina, having written on the back: “with your permission I return to my chicken, hoping they won’t remind me of the pleasures of my gelato.”

In the same era, Florentine court architect and artist Bernardo Bountalenti was credited with inventing the first gelato to be churned over salt and ice. He built an ice cave in the Boboli Palace and served his “marvels of gelati” at the Medici’s many sumptuous banquets.

Gelato was not only a food for the nobles. By the early 1600s, every public square hosted a small three-wheeled cart of carved and painted wood selling sorbetti. In the heat of summer, refreshing ices could be found at folk festivals, and became a popular treat following religious gatherings.

The word gelato is the past participle of the Italian verb gelare, “to freeze”. The term is often used in Italy for any frozen dessert, whether milk or water-based. In the most common definition, gelato are made from milk-based mixtures, and sorbetti and granite are fruit based.

Gelato, sorbetto and granita flavors run the gamut from seasonal fresh fruits to popular essences, including coffee, chocolate and liquors. Each bite packs a wallop of sensory stimulation, a celebration of the primary ingredient undisguised by additives or heavy ingredients that mask the original flavor. Though lower in fat, with no more than 6 to 7 percent butterfat, gelato has much more flavor than traditional ice cream. That is because fats tend to coat the mouth, blocking the experience of the fresh and natural flavor. In addition, the best gelaterie use full flavored seasonal products, maximizing the essence of the main ingredients. Another reason for the intense flavor is that gelato is kept at a warmer freezing temperature. The consistency is dense and velvety, with less air beaten into it. The softer texture glides through the mouth, and because it is not so cold, the taste buds do not become numb with freezing, but are open to accept more of the flavor.

As with most foods in Italy, each region has a local interpretation, whether in style or in use of local ingredients. We hope that your taste buds enjoy our own rendition of gelato at Caffé Firenze, and make gelato your own tradition.

Source: “Gelato!” by Pamela Sheldon Johns