Some people say "gelato" is the Italian word for "ice cream." Don't believe them, cautions Gabriele Poli, founder of the Gelato Festival, a yummy competition that named its 2017 European champion last weekend in Florence, Italy — and is about to come to the United States for the first time.
There are technical differences between the two treats: Gelato typically has about half the fat of ice cream and is made with less air, a process that intensifies the flavor, Poli explains. But more important than such details is gelato's historical significance: It brought together ice, dairy and sugar for a treat that would become world famous.
It dates back to the Renaissance, an important period in European history when there were many advances in art, architecture, science . . . and dessert.
As legend has it, says historian Zeffiro Ciuffoletti (pronounced choo-fo-LET-ti), the inventor was a smart guy named Bernardo Buontalenti (bwohn-tah-LEN-ti, a name that means "good talents"). He worked for the powerful Medici family, and in 1559, he
was put in charge of throwing a big party for important visitors from Spain. To wow them, he unveiled a recipe unlike anything they had tasted. Rich people couldn't get enough of the stuff, Ciuffoletti says. When sugar and ice become widely affordable a few hundred years later, gelato became a food everybody could enjoy.
That includes Poli, a self-described "gelato addict," whose mission since launching the festival in 2010 has been to help people get to know gelato. In addition to tasting different flavors and talking to chefs, attendees are invited to stare through the windows of the Buontalenti Lab, a truck equipped with blast freezers, turbomixers and other machines that help create something lickable.
"The coolest thing is this: All of the gelato you can taste at the festival is made in the truck," Poli says.
And all of it is something you've never tried before.
"The flavor needs to make people dream," adds Poli, who believes each cone at the festival should contain a story.
These tasty tales were on display a few days ago as 16 competing chefs — each a winner from a series of preliminary competitions held across Europe — served up their creations on a hilltop overlooking central Florence.
"This is a fusion of two cultures, the best of Italy and the Middle East. Tell me what you think," was Akash Vaghela's (va-GEH-lah) pitch for Creme dela Baklava, topped with pieces of flaky pastry and a dash of crushed pistachios.
Before handing over a cone, Carmelo Pannocchietti (pahn-o-KEE-eh-ti) gave his ricotta cheese concoction a citrusy spritz from a perfume bottle. Why? It's his expression of gelato as a woman, he explained.
Leaning over the counter, David Equi shared that he had handpicked the raspberries for his sorbet in Scotland. (Sorbet counts because it's made like gelato, only with water instead of dairy.)
Massimiliano Scotti of Vigevano, Italy, who won first place, locked eyes with each person who approached him, and promised his simple blend of milk, honey and rice was how gelato is meant to be.
Washington, D.C., resident Jacqueline Policastro, one of some 50,000 people attending the festival, was gobbling it all up.
"Having the world's best in the place where it started is bucket list for me," she said between licks of a lemon-curd flavor. She and her husband, Mike McCarthy, planned their entire Italian vacation around the festival.
"There is a big need for this," he adds, noting that Americans consume more frozen desserts than anyone else in the world and insisting that more of it should be gelato.
Policastro's tip for first-time festivalgoers: Pace yourself.
"It's harder than I thought to finish all of these," she said. And then she lined up for another cone.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Jacqueline Policastro. The story has been updated.
Victoria Jordan Rodriguez of the James Beard Foundation, who served on the expert panel in Florence, suggests swirling your spoon around the cup to check consistency. "It shouldn't be too hard, or too stretchy," she says. And chunks of ice are a no-no. As for flavor, her advice is to consider the balance and freshness of the ingredients.
Gelato Festival America's first stop is in Boulder, Colorado, September 29 to October 1. Ticket pricing and other details are available at gelatofestivalamerica.com.
Washingtonians can root for Gianluigi Dellaccio (jon-lu-EE-gee dell-AH-cho) — an experienced gelato competitor — whose Dolci Gelati has cafes in Shaw, Takoma Park and Old Town Alexandria.
Another local is Thomas Marinucci, of Fairfax, Virginia, who recently completed his studies at Carpigiani Gelato University. (He attended in Bologna, Italy, but the school also has a new American campus near Chicago, Illinois.) He hasn't established a location yet, so the festival is the only place to try his Strawberry Cheesecake Crunch.
Just as in Europe, judging for the festival will be divided 50/50 between a panel of experts and the public. What's new in Boulder is the introduction of an all-kids jury, which will award a prize to its favorite.
After Colorado, the Gelato Festival will head to Santa Barbara, California, October 20-22. The final two competitions will be in Arizona: in Scottsdale, October 27-29, and Tucson, November 3-5.