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I love gelato, and, judging from the reaction of Epicurious readers when I wrote about it from Rome,Verona, and Venice, I'm not alone. Less fluffy than ice cream, gelato has a softer, sexier consistency, and its flavors are bolder.
Many fancy restaurants in Italy serve gelato after meals, but it is traditionally made in a gelateria and sold as a between-meal snack. Decent gelato can be had easily in Italy, but it's difficult to find the really great stuff. What are the tip-offs that you're headed for a treat?
There will be a sign saying "Produzione propria," which means that the gelato is made on the premises, but that alone doesn't guarantee quality ingredients. Most sellers mix their gelati from prepared bases. Gelato masters make each flavor separately, calculating differences in sweetness or fat and avoiding artificial stabilizers. This artisanally made gelato is always stored in stainless-steel tubs - never in plastic. Brightly colored gelato is a poor sign, usually denoting prepared mixes. I always check the color of the pistachio gelato: a bright green color is attained from artificial food coloring; real pistachio gelato is a pale, greyish green. Fruit flavors should, ideally, reflect the season.
Then taste carefully. Gelato mavens consider crema (custard) the benchmark flavor by which to judge the quality of a gelateria. But with an ice-cream machine you can make this luxurious treat at home and set your own standard.
Remember: Gelato always tastes best when freshly made. The freezer is not an archive.
GELATO DI CREMA
2 1/4 cups milk
1/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup minus 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
5 egg yolks
Scald the milk and cream with half the sugar. Beat the yolks with remaining sugar until thick and pale. Slowly beat the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks and transfer the mixture to the top half of a double boiler. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, to a temperature of 160. Place top of double boiler in a cold water bath to cool quickly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour, then freeze in an ice cream machine.