Ever heard of gelato?

If not, it's a good bet you will soon.

Gelato, which literally means "ice cream" in Italian, is ice cream's kissing cousin. It is denser in texture and lower in fat than ice cream. It's also more intensely flavored and vividly colored: as rich on the tongue as it is on the eyes.

Gelato makers and suppliers of frozen dairy equipment — their wares will be exhibited at the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, Feb. 27-28, in Columbus, Ohio — say the sweet treat is well on its way to becoming one of the country's most popular frozen desserts.

"For the past two years at the NRA (National Restaurant Association) show, our gelato production equipment has generated the most leads of any of the equipment we have," said John Kappus, regional sales manager for the Kappus Company, a frozen foods equipment distributor in Cleveland. "As people learn more about it, you'll see it really take off."

Gelato and ice cream maker Jeni Britton agreed, adding that gelato's taste appeal is only part of the story.

"It really is like a mini-vacation to go to a gelato shop," said Britton, owner of Jeni's Fresh Ice Creams

Italian gelato makers are known for their beautiful freezer-case presentations.
     Photo courtesy of John Kappus.

in Columbus. Britton went to Italy in January, where she visited dozens of "gelaterias." "People there go all out and build stores that are beautiful, places that are a bit different than in America, where we're used to fluorescent-lit ice cream shops. At a gelato shop, you sit, you try a couple different scoops and you share with friends."

Kappus predicts gelato's growth will closely mirror the growth of the premium coffee segment. Treated for decades in America as a humble breakfast staple, restaurants began experimenting with custom coffee blends and heartier roasts in the 1980s. When customers learned the difference, coffee was thrust into the popular beverage mainstream and eventually carved out its own retail niche.

"If you look at the whole idea of the Starbucks experience, you see that people are willing to go in and buy a premium product," Kappus said. "(Customers) also expect an authentic and unique experience to go along with that. It's a cultural component that goes with gelato, too."

Beautiful and flavorful

Like their ice cream counterparts, gelatos come in standard flavors such as chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, etc., and like sorbets, they're made in fruit flavors such as lemon and boysenberry.

But in the hands of a serious gelato maker, the similarities begin to disappear. Flavors like tiramisu, sour cherry, pistachio, zabaglione (custard) and fondant (double chocolate made from pricey cocoas) are on the menu. In many cases those flavors are richer, deeper and more complex due to the ingredients used and because of gelato's inherently lower fat content eases penetration to the palate.

"When I compare the flavor differences between gelato and ice cream, it's like comparing regular gas station coffee to Starbucks. It's that intense," said Dan Young, "chief ice cream dipper" at Young's Dairy in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Currently the world's finest gelato flavorings are imported from Italy, he said. "To my knowledge, no one here is making them to that quality level. If they are, I haven't found them."

Texture is an issue as well. Gelato's density gives it a pleasurable weight on the tongue, and though much smoother than frozen yogurt, the mouthfeel isn't as silky as high-butter-fat ice cream. Britton said her personal texture preference lies somewhere between gelato and ice cream; she likes the higher butter fat.

Like many gelatos, the butter fat in Jeni's ranges from 3 percent to 8 percent, while her ice cream has 8 percent to 12 percent. "Still, (the lower fat) is a lot of why I like gelato, because it's a finer product and not as heavy as ice cream."

Seizing on the marketing advantages of a lower-fat product, Young tells his employees to let customers know about it. "We used to joke that it has half the calories so you can eat twice as much. But it's like anything; you should enjoy it in moderation."

Creative and complex

Though he's been in the ice cream business for decades, Young is amazed at the imaginative possibilities of gelato, saying "you can be creative with it until your brain hurts."

Britton agreed. She's seen gelato made from figs and even goat's cheese. The top taste at Jeni's is a unique one as well: salty caramel.

According to Kappus, the vast majority of gelato operations make their products from a mix hydrated with fresh milk. (Britton said that even the majority of Italian gelaterias do the same.) The process is simple, machine assisted and relatively quick (typically less than 30 minutes). Each batch yields about 10 pounds of gelato (roughly 1.25 gallons), which encourages freshness through product rotation.

Artisan gelatos, like Britton makes, require additional labor and more expensive ingredients, but the end-product is worth it, she said. "All of our gelatos and ice creams are made from fresh ingredients, and that pushes our profit margins a lot lower. But there are people who appreciate that difference."

Necessary tools

Were a pizza operator to make fresh gelato in his shop, the investment would range from about $6,000 (for a countertop gelato maker and a six-pan display case) to $30,000 and up (for a larger mixer and a 12-pan display case), said Kappus.

And don't think ice cream makers and freezers will work for gelato, Kappus added. To achieve its dense texture, the gelato dasher (the paddle inside the machine) turns much slower than in an ice cream maker. That measured movement also requires a mixer with more torque, meaning a more powerful motor than found in ice cream makers.

Skeptical he couldn't make gelato with the multiple ice cream makers in his shop, Young gave it a try. Much to his chagrin, the experiment failed.

"No, that wasn't one of my better ideas," Young said, laughing. "You can't cheat on this."

Ice cream freezer cases won't work either, because they chill only from the walls. Gelato cases use forced air to keep all sides of the product chilled to 5 F, about 15 degrees warmer than ice cream. "If I tried to do that with an ice cream freezer, the gelato would be too warm on the top," Young said.

Forced-air circulation also allows gelato to be positioned higher inside the case, which improves customer viewing and boosts its marketability, Kappus said.

"Italians believe you eat with your eyes first," he said. "Their cabinets are designed for high visibility. Every pan is decorated and presented so that the customer walks in and is drawn to this amazing display."

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