Too hot to eat, too hot to sleep, too hot to lug furniture and boxes to and fro. Though the sudden advent of fall now makes it seem a distant memory, the first days of September were unbearable. Not exactly the reprieve I was expecting after three months in Venice, where the summer heat was excruciating, just as everyone had warned me it would be.
The Venice heat was like those first few Providence days, minus the shady trees and sporadic air conditioning: a tree in Venice is an anomaly, and the heat stagnates in the canals and slanting crumbling buildings that line the narrow pedestrian streets. It’s the sort of oppressive humidity that robs you of all appetite—ideal for swimsuit season on the Lido beach, not so helpful for a foodie looking to indulge in the best that Italy’s cuisine has to offer, namely heavy pastas, wines, and cheeses. But the greatest indulgence is saved for last, to save me and Italians, in our time of need: gelato.
Gelato does not mean ice cream
Actually, it just means frozen. Gelato is to conventional American ice cream as fresh, milky mozzarella is to the chalky, grated white stuff in resealable bags in the dairy aisle. What elevates gelato is the technique and philosophy behind it. Of course you can find good ice cream in America (check out Mill’s Tavern here in Providence—101 N. Main St—for an exquisite basil flavored one) but the beauty of Italy is that, while some are certainly better than others, and while styles vary from North to South along with the dialects, every gelato place consistently provides a good scoop.
Gelato first joined the ranks of great desserts in the sixteenth century, when it was the winning dish in a Renaissance version of the Food Network Challenge. The court of Catherine di Medici in Florence held a contest to find the best innovative dessert to be served at one of her banquets, and this frozen sweet took the cake, so to speak. Since then the art has only been perfected further.
The gelato base can be made either by the traditional hot process of pasteurization, or the newer, more convenient cold process using a prepared mix. As with ice cream, air is beaten into this mixture as it freezes. Less air is incorporated in making gelato, creating a thicker, denser product than ice cream, which tends to be airier and grainier. Gelato is usually made in smaller batches, and quick-frozen at a slightly warmer temperature than conventional ice cream, allowing it to keep its silky texture without being so cold that it masks the true flavor. The high content of heavy cream in ice cream also covers up the flavoring, while gelato is made with more milk, letting natural flavors shine through.
The good news: gelato has a lower butterfat content than ice cream. The better news: it tastes better too. American ice creams typically contain fourteen to eighteen percent butterfat, while gelato contains only six to ten percent. Creamier, healthier, yummier…why don’t we all eat gelato?
Billowing clouds of gelato in every shade tease you from behind the glass in the display case. How could you possibly choose just one flavor from among the mouthwatering choices, each mound practically glowing with its silky sheen? Chocolate, vanilla…or vegetable. Yes, vegetable! My favorite gelateria in Venice served flavors like chioggia radicchio, artichoke, celery, and orange and arugula.
Don’t make a face just yet. Vegetables hold up surprisingly well in the creamy setting, combining the ultra freshness of a farmer’s market with a touch of subtle sweetness. Or spice it up with cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger, which proved a fiery tour of a not-so-typical spice cabinet. Then there is the favorite of Italian kids, or of adults still unwilling to relinquish the pleasures of childhood: fior di latte. Literally meaning milk flower, and made only of milk, cream, and sugar, it is simplicity and unpretentiousness, refreshing in its plainness. Though relatively unknown in America, fior di latte is a staple in Italian gelaterie and is a foolproof quality control method for a gelateria. If this flavor fails the test, don’t bother with the rest. You can eat your scoop in a coppa or cona, as is, or topped with whipped cream. I would recommend pairing your bacio, a chocolate hazelnut flavor as sweet as the kiss that its name signifies, with a bottle of Prosecco overlooking a canal (Italian lover optional).
Gelato as a way of life
Everyone eats gelato, from schoolchildren panting after a game of soccer in the campo (square) to suited businessmen on the vaporetto (boat version of public transport) home from work. It is an escape from the heat, a long stroll in the evening, a return to the slow pace of traditional Italian life. And when the Venetian heat comes to Providence, all I crave is a big, dripping cone of gelato. So began my quest around Providence to find somewhere to provide that fix. Fortunately, I’m not the only one screaming for gelato. There are a number of establishments willing to give you a taste of Italian summer, whether it is in ninety-degree heat, or in the middle of the dead Providence winter. After all, we have gondolas in our canal too.
Nick’s Ice Cream and Gelato
An overlooked strip mall next to a billboard-ridden highway seems an unlikely location to find Providence’s only homemade gelato. One spoonful, however, will dispel all doubts about Nick’s, a quintessential father-daughter business that has been a part of Providence since its start as a frozen lemonade truck in the seventies. Nick traveled to Italy in the seventies, and brought back the equipment and the lore of gelato-making to Providence. At this point, he catered to the Italian-American population—the only ones who knew about the frozen treat. His daughter Tina has now taken over. Well taught by her father, she continues to use the traditional hot process to make the gelato right in the store. The milk and cream are carefully pasteurized and allowed to sit for 24 hours before being made into actual gelato. They offer 26 flavors, plus seasonal rotations—the creative genius of Tina and her family member taste-testers. Classics such as hazelnut and zuppa inglese, a butterscotch-like flavor, cater to those nostalgic for Italy, while Peanut Butter Oreo and Cinnamon Roll satisfy American cravings. Unsung hero award goes to this delicious and friendly family joint, well worth the drive.
1401 Douglas Ave
I walked into this Italian market in Federal Hill and everywhere I looked, culinary memories tugged at my heartstrings: cheese, meats, bread, homemade pastas, prepared vegetables, and of course, gelato. Visually, the gelato bar was just what I was looking for. Though they had only a limited flavor selection, the pans of gelato shone in perfect fluffiness. The consistency was the most convincing of all the places I tried; the first spoonful was almost reluctant to leave the rest of the cup, so thick and dense was the mixture. Though I was slightly disappointed by the iciness of the center, breaking from gelato’s general creaminess, the cappuccino flavor was certainly intense. Their gelato is not made in-house, nor in Italy, but is made according Italian tradition by Berto’s Gelato based out of Phoenix, Arizona. A wonderful collection of Italian goods, though gelato does not seem to be their highest priority.
265 Atwells Avenue
Federal Hill Restaurants
Mediterraneo, Siena, and Pane e Vino restaurants all get their gelato delivered from Bindi, a gelato purveyor based out of Milan with outposts all over the US. This does not, as I originally suspected, signify a monopoly on gelato market in Southern New England, merely a very high quality food service. What began as a local, family-owned pasticceria has grown into a worldwide specialty food exporting company. Providence’s only gelato directly from the motherland, it showcases concentrated flavors and a smooth texture, and despite the long journey, keeps the creamy, fresh-made taste. Mango and bacio were particularly satisfying.