Beginning with Bernardo Buontalenti, Mannerist architect, military engineer, theatrical set designer and supposed inventor of churned-over-ice milk-based gelato for the court of Francesco de' Medici in 1565, Florentines have always taken gelato seriously. But there are many inferior shops, with signs declaring "produzione propria" or "produzione artigianale", where gelato is made with mixes, artificial flavorings, and thickeners, on-site, as the law requires. Just say no.
Gelateria Badiani created (and copyrighted!) a flavor in Buontalenti's honor, reflecting the original recipe, custard and cream with a secret ingredient.
Vivoli is a Florentine classic, and has been making gelato since 1930. It's always crowded, known for their orange custard, rice (think rice pudding meets gelato, without raisins) and seasonal fruit flavors. But neither of these historic gelaterie passes the most extreme test of a gelato maven like me--they've got glass display cases, gelato lined up in tubs, while the most serious artisans use the "pozzetto" well system, stainless steel containers (called "carapine") sunken in a refrigerated counter, covered with a stainless lid, which maintain gelato at the ideal temperature. Those who make this extra effort are obviously trying very hard to do everything right. Three new entries in Florence, Vestri, Carapina and Le Parigine all use the well system and finest quality ingredients.
Leonardo Vestri is a chocolatier (his family has a plantation in the Domenican Republic, cultivates and processes cacao), and most of the space in the shop is devoted to chocolate. But he makes 16 flavors of superb gelato that change with the seasons. His shop is therefore well worth a visit for both chocolate and gelato lovers. He refines his own hazelnuts from Piemonte, pistachios from Bronte, insuring maximum quality for those flavors.
Simone Bonini's gelateria, Carapina, is for true gelato lovers. Standout flavors include Vin Santo custard, Arabica coffee, "neroassoluto" milk-less chocolate made with 70% chocolate, cocktail inspired daiquiri, cuba libra, or orange campari sorbetti, and yoghurt flavors without milk. Pair the Vin Santo with Mattei's biscotti or ask them to slather practically any flavor on Mattei's biscotti della saluti instead of a cone. Gelato to go is packed into an attractive black Styrofoam cube.
At Le Parigine Davide Bellegotti's gelato is made with organic milk from the Maremma area of Tuscany and the difference is evident, sweeter in an unsugary way. Fresh fruit, whole eggs, select chocolate and expensive Greek yogurt flavor his gelato. Granita is chunkier than most, un-Sicilian (Davide is from Veneto) but tasty and refreshing. The eponymous specialty, "le parigine" are made to order with any flavor of your choice, sandwiched between 2 square wafers in a little press, in 1, 2 or 3 euro sizes.
At Il Procopio Giancarlo Palmerio veers from classics with chocolate sorbet, chocolate-coffee semifreddo called Jamaica dream, cinnamon chocolate, and "La Follia" with dried figs, almonds and pine nuts, all in a glass display case. His granita, stored with the well system, takes my mouth back to Sicily. I'm also wild about his "ghiaccioli" ice pops--fresh seasonal fruit or mint.
Carabè, owned by Sicilians Antonio and Loredana Lisciandro, is another favorite for granita, although they don't use the well system, rarely found in Sicily. Almond, lemon, coffee, seasonal fruit, even mulberry on occasion are among the choices. Gelato flavors with Sicilian hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios and lemon are worth note. And Antonio has plans for an heirloom orchard to provide fruit for his gelateria--I'm planning to check it out as soon as I can.
Antonio Cafarelli is the new Sicilian on the block at Il Re Gelato. His gelato and granita are different, not as refined (clearly not made with pastes and mixes), and textures and flavors are simply delicious, all in glass display cases. Almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts are from Sicily. Fruit is pureed with skin, flavors are strictly seasonal. I had a granita tasting--spectacular almond, lemon, coffee served with whipped cream. Gelato is also worth saving room for--Sicilian citrus custard, Greek yogurt with walnuts and figs, chocolate with rum, cinnamon and chili pepper. Antonio also serves Sicilian pastry, including small or large cannoli filled to order. Both pistachio gelato and granita are worth a voyage, the best in the city.
Grom, a chain that processes its gelato bases in a central factory, to be frozen in their shops all over Italy, and even in New York, Paris and Tokyo, uses the well storage system and quality ingredients, and their gelato is tasty but no longer qualifies as an artisanal product for me. After all, I am obsessed. And you? What's your favorite gelateria in Florence?
-July 2009 link to article published in The Atlantic Magazine