On a sunny April morning, my partner and I stand outside Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s most iconic cathedral, gaping at its green-pink-red marble facade, and the red terracotta-tiled dome stencilled against a crisp blue sky. Our guide, Luca, part-time art student, part-time tour guide, and full-time story-spinner, tells us that the dome of this 15th-century structure, famously called the Duomo, was built by a goldsmith after the roof fell to expose a gaping hole. The technique architect Filippo Brunelleschi used to build a dome so large, so delicate, without any scaffolding, remains a mystery—it all makes me go weak in the knees. Eyes trained on the red cupola, I walk around it to the rhythm of a busker’s violin, dodging giant, human-size soap bubbles blown by a street magician. My sickly-sweet lemon gelato melts, leaving trails on my fingers, seeping into my sleeve.
“Is that a gelato!?” squeals Luca, her eyes wide with animated horror. “You have been tricked! There is no such thing as a neon yellow lemon gelato.”
Florence, the birthplace of Renaissance, is packed with the most illustrious art, architecture, literature and innovation. It is also the birthplace and reigning capital of gelato—the richer, creamier, silkier Italian counterpart of ice cream. Italians will tell you it is best devoured as a dessert da passeggio—dessert eaten on a stroll. It is easy, too, given how traffic is restricted in Florence’s historical heart.
The story of gelato is entangled with Florence’s history. The dessert was apparently invented by a chicken vendor in the 16th century, at the peak of the Renaissance. The house of the Medicis, a prominent Italian family, organised a cooking competition where the chicken vendor, Ruggieri, served a fruity, frozen dessert that impressed the patrons. He bagged both the prize and the position of dessert chef at their castle. The recipe evolved as the Medici family carried it across European borders over time.
Today, gelatos are served everywhere in Florence, but if you aren’t careful, warns Luca, you might fall for the mass produced, pre-mixed, synthetic duplicates available at tourist-filled piazzas. “It is easy to spot a fake. Stay away from pop, neon colours—they have artificial flavouring,” she says.
Emboldened by Luca’s tips—look for family-run businesses where the best recipes are passed down over generations; search for the word ‘artigianale’ or artisanal; a good gelato is served with a spade not a scoop—my partner and I meticulously map gelato shops around Florence. Perhaps we’ll have the classic stracciatella—a traditional milk-white vanilla gelato flecked with dark chocolate—before we head to see Michelangelo’s David, made with milk-white marble. At noon, we plan to savour menta e basilico (mint and basil) gelato or the sour-sweet amalfi lemon: the perfect companion for a stroll at Piazza della Signoria, the city’s historic political centre with the Romanesque Pallazo Vecchio (old palace) on one end and Uffizi Gallery on the other. For a post-dinner, boozy treat, we have our hearts set on the zabaglione (Marsala wine-flavored gelato) or the decadent chocolate rum gelato. Soon, we are squeezing museum visits between gelateria-hopping.
Early next day, after seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi Gallery, we snoop around some modest, artisanal gelaterias, starkly different from kiosk-y gelato chains. We don’t know this yet, but these are the places that serve not only the freshest flavours but also the warmest stories of passed-on recipes, of love, of gelatos made from sparse ingredients during World War II, and happy recipe accidents now on their favourites list.
Our first stop is Vivoli il Gelato, Florence’s oldest gelateria, which has been in the same narrow, arterial alley at Via dell’isola delle Stinche since the day it opened in 1929 as a milk shop. Silvana Vivoli, its spirited owner, says, “We have experimented with new flavours like mustard, parmigiano and foie gras, but our most popular are still those based on old recipes passed on by my grandfather, Raffaello.” A most loved flavour here is Caramello e Pere (caramelised pear), which Raffaello developed after a heart attack. Silvana remembers how he ate so many pears at the hospital, that he turned his love for the fruit into a new flavour later. She also recommends the old-fashioned Crema, or cream custard, a simple concoction of whipped milk, eggs and sugar. The unassuming gelato has a rich custardy texture—Vivoli, like all artisanal gelaterias, makes them fresh every morning, unlike chains that use premixes. The result is delightfully comforting. “Our gelato is simple and genuine, and that’s why it’s the best,” she smiles. “Recently a patron showed me a picture of his grandfather with mine; it was taken in 1969. So he asked for a picture with me, to continue the tradition,” beams Silvana.
Cremas in hand, we walk towards the Basilica of Santa Croce, about half a kilometre down a cobbled lane from Vivoli il Gelato. The towering, green and white marble basilica is the burial place for Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, and packed with magnificent frescos, sculptures and stained glass. Italian poet Alighieri Dante’s marble statue stands grim and proud outside, above an empty tomb. We lick our gelatos in silence as he glares down at us.
On day two, craving bold flavours, we head to Via dei Tavolini, where a red cursive red neon sign and an even larger queue beckons us to Gelateria Perche No! In 1939, Ugo Ravaioli and his wife owned a chestnut flour store at this very location, when one day on a whim Ravaioli asked, “Why don’t we open a gelato shop?”
His wife responded, “Why not!” (Perche no!) and this family-run business was born.
Today, the store is run by Cecilia Cammili, her father, mother, sister and husband (they aren’t related to the Ravaiolis). As we wait, we bump into tourists queuing up for second helpings, meet a couple back for their last scoop before they leave Italy, and exchange notes with some on the best flavours around.
Cammilli’s classics include milk with chestnut, honey and sesame seeds, pistachio, salted caramel, strudel, and coffee crunch. Their seasonal flavours list watermelon, fig, persimmon, concord grape, and tangerine. But we have had our fill of the classics—we want adventure. My partner tries a curry and mango paired with blue buffalo cheese. I try watermelon, cantaloupe and dark chocolate. The decadent dark chocolate hits me like filter coffee on an empty stomach. My partner guffaws at his share of tastings. “I don’t know what this is!” he exclaims. “It’s spicy and sour and sweet and potent. I am too overwhelmed to explain.” He shakes his head, still talking about those flavours as we walk a kilometre towards Ponte Vecchio, the city’s oldest bridge across the river Arno. We take in old leather and jewellery shops and a view of the only bridge the Germans did not destroy during World War II. As the sun sets, couples gather around and street musicians begin to jam. We find a corner and watch the crowd walk around with cups and cones of towering ice cream. “That is definitely a fake, too bright,” I cringe like Luca. “Who puts gelato in a chocolate cone with multicoloured sprinkles?!” We are playing experts already.
Our feet are sore over our last few days in the city. Florence may seem small, but it is easy to lose track of time, meandering in its maze of cobbled alleys in the medieval centre. When we are overwhelmed by the ornate window carvings, delicate street lamps, beautiful balconies at Via Romana and Via Maggio, we walk towards road crossings to spot French urban artist Clet Abraham’s cheeky guerilla art on street signs. Using stickers, he has transformed street signs into street art: a man slowly chisels away a ‘No Entry’ sign, while another is being carried away by a Romanesque statue.
My feet are begging for rest, but we have one last gelato stop on our list—the newest, hippest kid on the block, My Sugar, a gelateria opened in 2015. This is a strikingly young one, run by Alberto Bati, his sister and wife, and serves vegan, Asian and gluten-free scoops among others. My Sugar shot to fame after winning the annual Gelato Festival in 2016. “We won it for our cinnamon and orange gelato, called ‘Araminta.’ My wife, Julia, loves cinnamon. I love oranges. We make all our gelatos together, so it made sense to blend our favourite flavours too,” smiles Bati. The gelateria’s contemporary interiors belie its ethos. “There is only one way to make gelato: the old, traditional way,” nods Bati. They serve over 16 seasonal gelato flavours made from fruits sourced from the adjacent San Lorenzo market. On the list is melacotta (ricotta, apple, cinnamon, and honey), menta e basilico (mint and basil), malaga (sweet Marsala wine and raisins in a cream base), and Asian flavours like black sesame. We have packed our cones with three flavours this time, savouring them all as we take our last stroll around the Duomo, this time with a gelato Luca would approve of.
Located in Via dei Neri, Gelateria dei Neri is loved for its fresh flavours made from traditional recipes. Stick to the classics here and you will return for second helpings—we had pistachio with mango and strawberry, stracciatella paired with caramel, and dark chocolate. Another recommended flavour is Pistachio Ricotta Cremino (pistachio with ricotta cream cheese).
It isn’t hard to spot Gelateria Santa Trinita from a distance. The shop lies at the edge of Ponte Santa Trinita, a glorious bridge across the Arno, and is one of the most accessible gelaterias around. It is also the busiest, with queues that extend far beyond its facade. It had the the best amalfi lemon, lemon cheesecake and black sesame gelatos we’d had in the city.
Home to spectacular giant ruins and monuments, Rome did not invent gelato but has always known how to put a new innovative spin on traditional recipes. Here’s a taster of its best gelaterias:
If you go on one of Rome’s walking tours, there is a good chance your guide will take you to the Pantheon, originally designed as a pagan temple in A.D. 125. It is one of Rome’s most iconic sights, and the design of the structure has been replicated several times over by architects across the world, including Brunelleschi, the genius behind Florence’s Duomo. Right across the Pantheon lies Punto Gelato, with a large candy store-like display of the best gelatos you’ll eat in the city. Its owner Günther Rohregger is known as something of a gelato guru in Rome. And with good reason; try their pink pepper, buffalo milk, dark chocolate fondant, amalfi lemon, caramel with Himalayan salt and the classic pistachio flavours. Their dark chocolate fondant with pistachio is a devilishly decadent combination.
We ate the most inventive and shocking flavours at Fatamorgana, a gelateria with multiple branches across Rome. On her website, Chef Maria Agnese claims that she started experimenting with gelato flavours as a child—one of her favourite inventions was the almond flowers gelato, still made at their personal lab and served fresh at their gelateria. Pick anything from its glorious buffet—strawberry and ginger, toasted almonds with green cardamom, blue cheese and pear, Kentucky chocolate with smoked tobacco, white wine, basil, walnuts and honey—all made from natural, locally sourced ingredients. Give yourself some time at Fatamorgana; taste as many flavours as you can, and then pick the best—it’s not going to be easy.
Claudio Torcè, one of Europe’s master gelataio, is known to have inspired many gelaterias and trained several chefs who now serve spunky, artisanal gelatos in Rome. However, many claim that his gelatos remain the most avant garde of them all. On the menu are the sweet pear and strudel, ginger and 20 different varieties of just chocolate. He also has a range of savoury flavours including schezuan pepper, celery and cream, the Italian cheese gorgonzola, mushroom, lobster and black sesame.
Prices at artisanal gelaterias in Italy start from €2.50/Rs200 per scoop and can go up to €15/Rs1,200 for unique flavours.