Although gelato originally emigrated from Italy in the 1800s, the Italian dessert has begun to gain widespread popularity in the United States only recently.
The dish, commonly (but not quite correctly) described as Italian ice cream, has been popping up in pizzerias as operators realize its potential as the perfect finish to a pizza meal. Gelato's all-natural ingredients serve as an additional selling point.
"It's definitely catching on in bigger cities on the East and West coasts and gaining in popularity in the Midwest," Anna Pata, East Coast-area manager at Pre-Gel USA, a gelato ingredients supplier, recently told Pizza Marketplace. "People living in these areas look for it after they come back from traveling through Europe."
Gelato is a close cousin to ice cream, but there are differences. Gelato is lower in fat, is more dense and more intensely flavored than ice cream.
The main ingredients in gelato are milk and sugar, combined with other flavorings. The ingredients are frozen while they are slowly stirred to break up ice crystals, resulting in a product that has less than 35 percent air, unlike ice cream.
Gelato typically contains 10 percent butterfat or less, while American ice cream contains up to 18 percent butterfat, with premium ice cream containing 22 percent butterfat or more. Gelato is stored at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, which means it melts faster in the mouth.
And unlike ice cream, gelato can be easily produced on-site.
"It's really not that difficult," said John Kappus, national account sales manager for the Cleveland-based Kappus Company, a distributor of equipment manufacturer Taylor, which produces gelato and ice cream batch freezers.
The Kappus Company periodically offers free classes for operators interested in making their own gelato.
"With the mixes that are available today, you can make it with a blender, a bucket and an ice cream machine," Kappus said. "An operator could get into an entry-level machine and case for $10,000-$12,000."
Product can be made on or off-site
The fast-growing RedBrick Pizza chain, based in Palmdale, Calif., is one operation finding success in gelato.
The company's 60-plus restaurants serve a rotating assortment of 50 gelato flavors, 12 at a time. RedBrick also offers pints and quarts of gelato for carryout.
The company imports its gelato ingredients from Italy and makes their product on-site.
"We don't compromise on any of our ingredients, and we use no artificial flavors," RedBrick founder Jim Minidis said. "The product has a really full-flavored gourmet taste. When they taste it, people know it isn't ice cream."
Other operators can choose to buy pre-made product from a gelato maker.
Gelato also is making its way into the grocery store. Miami-based importer Cross Atlantic Commodities Inc., says the Durigon brand gelato it imports is offered in more than 800 grocery stores in the United States.
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Charlotte, N.C.-based GTS 1 LLC is banking on the rising popularity of gelato to build its business. The company is partnering with the Italian firm Color Service SrL to distribute a gelato-making technology that can produce gelato in about 10 minutes at the push of a button.
The process, known as Ecodos, includes automatic weighing of the products, mixing, cooking and transferring to a batch freezer.
"What Ecodos does is take away the manual operation," said GTS1 spokesman Tony Gowan. "The operator keys in the flavor he wants, the amount he wants to make up, pushes a button and it automatically weighs the products, mixes them, cooks them if he needs to, then automatically transfers it to the batch freezer where the gelato is frozen."
Ecodos also employs an automatic-cleaning sequence that includes the batch freezer.
"You are able to produce a high-quality gelato very quickly and do it automatically," Gowan said. "From an operator's standpoint, you don't have to have a lot of skill. Basically, it makes it for you."
The system holds roughly 20 gallons of milk, and includes 10 hoppers inside for powdered products, as well as a larger container for sugar, Gowan said.
Other flavors can be added to Ecodos to create an unlimited assortment.
The total investment for an Ecodos system, including delivery and training, is approximately $120,000.
"What we are envisioning, is that an operator could have one unit service as many as 10 outlets," Gowan said. "All they would need to have is a refrigeration unit in the truck, and dilute the investment over a wider range."