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Grana Padano

The Italian passion that took the world by storm


Few things can be considered as quintessentially Italian as gelato. It’s among the dolci most beloved by the Italians (with their 34.500 plus gelato makers), and is an unmistakable pennant of Italy and its lifestyle everywhere in the world.

The fact that there are no firm historical confirmations of its Italian origin doesn’t matter much; everybody knows that gelato is Italian ice cream made from a number of elements: liquids, (milk or water), solids (sugar, fats or sweeteners) and flavourings (including pastes and fruit powders). “Since the 1930s, new components have become part of the Italian ‘gelatiera’ tradition,such as the stabilizers, guar gum, locust beans, etc, used widely in artisanal gelateria as well”, says Francesco Elmi, Executive Pastry Chef, from Bologna. Self-proclaimed purists, instead, see the use of these last ingredients, called basis, as a loss of authenticity and quality, which is not the case, since they are, in general terms, natural. Air, finally, plays an important role in Italian gelato, being generally less than 55%, which produces a denser texture, and consequently more powerful flavour. According to Gail Damerow, author of Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop (1991), “the inclusion of more solids and less air” makes the Italian gelato different from the French ice cream.


The history of gelato and ice cream is very long and many books have been written on the topic. Iced drinks and preparations have attracted human beings since the beginning of civilization. Egyptian Pharaohs used to offer their guests silver cups, split inside, with ice in one side and fruit in the other. Apparently since the 5th century B.C., also the Greeks used to prepare ice- or snow-based “drinks” flavoured with fruits, lemon and honey. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), when fighting against Nabateans during the siege of Petra, sent slaves to the mountains to bring ice down, then they dug trenches to store it, so it would be at hand when Alexander wanted a cool refreshment. It has been said that the ancient Romans learned the way to preserve food and prepare drinks with snow and ice from the Greeks. Pliny the Elder left a recipe of something very similar to our sorbet: finely crushed ice with honey and fruit juice. Apparently Emperor Nero as well used to send slaves to the Apennines Mountains to collect snow and ice to prepare a kind of sorbet.

Chinese born?

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

It’s likely, though, that the ancestor of gelato was born in China, perhaps some 3,000 years before Christ: cooked rice, spices and milk, put in snow to freeze. From a slightly less remote period, we find a poem dated circa 1100 B.C., the Shih Ching, which belongs to the famous collection of Food Canons, that talks about the harvest and storage of ice. It also mentions a festival held when the icehouses were opened for summer. Furthermore, it has been said that, in the 13th century, it was the Venetian, Marco Polo, who brought recipes for water ices to Europe from China.

However, the first revolution in the history of iced preparations was made by the Arabs; they discovered and treated sugar cane, which became fundamental for the preparation of sorbets. They also invented a system to freeze fruit juice: a container with the fruit juice and sugarcane syrup mixture in it, placed inside another barrel filled with ice or snow. Apparently it was a disciple of Muhammad who invented the system that was used for centuries, up until the invention of mechanical refrigeration in 1876. Recipes for sorts of sorbets can still be read in the Kitab al-Tabikh, a book published in 1226 under Caliph Mohammad Al Baghdadi. Among the Italians, Sicilians where the first to learn the secrets of ice preparations from the Arabs, and kept a primacy in the field for centuries.

Between legends and history

Tools and equipment used in the Italian gelateria of the past
Tools and equipment used
in the Italian gelateria of the past

It’s very difficult to trace the border between legends, myths and history. In any case, according to Alan Davidson in his Oxford Companion to Food, (1999) “the first ice creams, in the sense of an iced and flavoured confection made from full milk or cream, are thought to have been made in Italy and then in France in the 17th century, and to have been diffused from the French court to other European countries.” It is believed that it was Catherine de Medici who introduced gelato to the French. When she went to Marseille to become the wife of the future King of France, Henry the Duke of Orleans, she supposedly took with her a certain Ruggeri, a former chicken vendor, who in Florence was famed as the inventor of “ghiaccio all’acqua inzuccherata e profumata”, that is, the sorbet. It’s quite certain, however, that this is only a legend. Catherine was only fourteen (and an orphan) when she travelled to France; she was an “unassuming, undemanding young girl, described by the Venetian ambassador as molto obediente,” writes Esther B. Aresty in The Exquisite Table - A History of French Cuisine (1980). Certainly she travelled with a number of servants, including cooks, “but as for installing cooks at the court of Francis I... Unthinkable in any case with a monarch like Francis I. At that time his court was far more elegant than any court in Italy.”

Elizabeth David
Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David, in her book Harvest of the Cold Months - The Social History of Ice and Ices, sheds even more doubts: “apart from the little matter of nobody yet knowing how to freeze 'creams and ices' in the sixteen century France, the term sorbets, if used at all (it does not appear in the dictionaries until much later), would have implied simply syrups, pastes, powders, lemonades, and other fruit juices, sweetened and diluted with water in the Turkish fashion…” 'Sorbetto' perhaps comes precisely from the Turkish verb ‘sharber,’ to sip, even if many think it comes from the Arabic sherbet that means sweet snow.

“We have found no conclusive proof that the art of sorbet making was already practiced in Italy in the middle of the sixteenth century”, conclude Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari in their book Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History.

Ice loving Florence

Still life with gelato by Fernando Botero
Still life with gelato by Fernando Botero

Indeed in the Florence of the sixteenth century, ices knew some kind of popularity. In those years, the multifaceted Bernardo Buontalenti (1531-1608), an architect, sculptor, painter and even a weapon maker, was known for having invented, in approximately 1565, a frozen dessert, a ‘crema fredda,’ with a base of milk, honey, egg yolks and a touch of wine. It was a kind of zabaglione, aromatised with citric fruits, known as ‘crema fiorentina’ or ‘gelato Buontalenti.’ Actually, many agree that Buontalenti was the inventor of ice creams. The architect, who organised feasts and banquets for Cosimo de’ Medici, is believed to be, among other things, the author of the project for the special cellars of via delle Giacciaie, built to store ice. “The roots of this belief, it now appears an entirely erroneous one…” writes Elizabeth David, who adds that Buontalenti was involved in the construction of icehouses, but only in the Gardens of Pratolino and Boboli. “His name, already associated by his contemporaries with the much-increased popular use of ice and snow in Florence, subsequently became attached equally to the invention of ices, it being a curious truth that food historians, of whatever nationality, rarely trouble to distinguish between ice and ices.”

The roving sorbet maker (18th century) a popular figure in Naples
The roving sorbet maker (18th century)
a popular figure in Naples

There is a tale, though, of Buontalenti constructing, for a dinner dated October 5th, 1600, a “machine” that mixed the ingredients of the sorbet, including snow and salt. This is quite possible, because in 1560, Blasius Villafranca, a Spanish doctor living in Rome, found out that it is possible to reach the freezing point by adding alum or salt to ice. In reality, he was the first to invent a scientific method to make frozen cream mixtures. It’s quite possible that the machine used by Procopio dei Coltelli, from Palermo (or Catania), more than one century later, worked on this principle. The same dei Coltelli opened a coffee shop in Paris called Le Procope in 1686. Apparently the cafe became famous for its large variety of ice cream – more than 80 types – and it served a wide variety of “iced water” or granita as well as sorbets. Critics doubt that the beverages manufactured and dispensed at Le Procope were ice creams or sorbets and they may be right. This, however, was already scarcelly relevant: François Procope de Couteaux – he changed his Italian name – was the first to have the intuition for the commercialization of his ices, the King of France (Soleil) awarded him, and his shop became the most famous café literaire of Europe, with customers such as Rousseau, Voltaire (who once said: “Gelato is exquisite. What a pity it isn't illegal”), Balzac, Victor Hugo, Diderot, D'Alembert, Gorge Sand, the young Bonaparte and even Oscar Wilde, when he was in the French Capital.

Enjoying ice cream in Paris (18th century)
Enjoying ice cream in Paris (18th century)

It’s unquestionable though that the “Italians were the undisputed masters of developing methods of chilling and freezing drinks...” write Alberto Capatti & Massimo Montanari in their Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. From Bartolomeo Scappi, who published a sorbet recipe in his fundamental Opera (1570), through Vincenzo Agnoletti (chef of Maria Luisa, duchess of Parma, in the 19th century), up to Pellegrino Artusi, all the most important Italian food writers in history had a special devotion to sorbets and gelato.

The first recipe

The sorbet vendor (Naples 18th century)
The sorbet vendor (Naples 18th century)

According to Capatti and Montanari, “the first written recipes on how to mix sugar, salt, snow, and lemon juice, strawberries, sour cherries, and other fruit, as well as chocolate, cinnamon water, and different flavourings” is found in the Treatise on Various Kinds of Sorbets, or Water Ices, composed between 1692 and 1694 by the Neapolitan chef Antonio Latini, born in the Region of Marche. He used to say that the Neapolitans had an innate vocation to make sorbets. And in fact, together with the Sicilians, Neapolitan sorbet and gelato makers where the most sought after.

In the book Latini includes also a description of a “milk sorbet that is first cooked,” which Capatti and Montanari regard as the birth certificate of ice cream. De' sorbetti, the first book entirely dedicated to the art of making frozen confections, written by Filippo Baldini was published in Naples in 1775. An entire chapter is dedicated to ‘milky sorbets,’ meaning ice creams, whose medical properties were strongly proclaimed.

By the last part of the 18th century gelato had spread across most of Europe. According to Alan Davidson, “the first recorded English use of the term ice cream (also given as iced cream) was by Ashmore (1672), recording among dishes served at the Feast of St. George at Windsor in May 1671 ‘One Plate of Ice Cream.’” (Oxford Companion to Food). It’s said that, approximately at the same time, a Venetian, a certain Sartelly, opened a shop in London in which he sold the ancestor of modern gelato. In any case, “the first published English recipe was by Mrs. Mary Eales (1718)... Mrs. Eales was a pioneer with few followers; ice cream recipes remained something of a rarity in English-language cookery books...”

The role of Italian Migrants


In the United States, the first gelateria was open in 1770 by the Italian Giovanni Bosio, in New York. Italian migrants were instrumental to the spread of gelato and its fame in the world. Later, from the end of 19th century, Italian street vendors who, pushing hand-carts, sold a cheap sort of gelato in England were called “hokey-pokey”, an English interpretation of the Italian phrase “Oh che poco” meaning “oh how little.” It was a migrant as well, Alessandro Tortoni who, in 1803, became the owner of the Café Neapolitain in Paris. Within a few years, it was the most famous coffee shop in town and, more over, apparently introduced unprecedented novelties in terms of gelato. The Tranche Neapolitain (in Italian Bomba Gelato) was born there as well as the gelato sandwich (biscotto gelato or Biscuit Tortoni), appreciated by customers such Gioacchino Rossini, Alexander Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Talleyrand, Alfred de Musset and Édouard Manet.


Ice cream was already known in the United States well before Bosio’s shop, since it “is recorded to have been served as early as 1744 (by the lady of Governor Blandon of Maryland, nee Barbara Jannsen, daughter of Lord Baltimore), but it does not appear to have been generally adopted until much later in the century.” In 1774, the first public advertisement of ice cream was made by the Italian migrant Filippo Lenzi, a caterer and confectioner: he promised to have gelato every day – a revolutionary achievement. Americans increasingly liked ice cream, which was still made manually, at a time that mechanical refrigeration was still to come. Nancy Johnson in 1843 patented a hand-cranked freezer and ice cream maker that reduced the physical effort needed and produced a smooth product, smoother than a grainy sorbet. More and more, Johnson’s invention increased the popularity of ice cream, which in the US, and other countries, as we have said, is slightly different from Italian gelato. A few other inventions contributed to the worldwide exploit of gelato.

Nancy Johnson´s Ice Cream Maker Patent
Nancy Johnson´s
Ice Cream Maker Patent
Cattabriga´s first automatic gelato maker machine
Cattabriga´s first automatic
gelato maker machine

The first one, besides the appearance of mechanical refrigeration in 1876, was the horizontal batch freezer invented by H. H. Miller of Canton, Ohio. In the US, ice cream has been produced industrially since 1851. But it was the invention of the edible cone that made gelato and ice cream a worldwide hit. Once again it was an Italian migrant, Italo Marchiony (or Marchionni) that produced the first ice cream waffle cone in 1896 in New York City and he was granted a patent for his special mould in December 1903. Roughly at the same time, in Italy began the great tradition of “gelato da passeggio”, to be eaten in a cone or, later, on a wooden stick, while lazily strolling along city streets. The other crucial invention came in 1927, when the Italian Otello Cattabriga, based in the province of Bologna, invented a mechanical system recreating the technique of traditional ice cream making, the so-called ‘mantecatrice,’ imitating by automatic means the same system typically used in the manual preparation of gelato.

The future

Increasing popularity: Daniel Craig ice cream version
Increasing popularity:
Daniel Craig ice cream version

Italians have not stopped to be at the forefront of gelato’s novelties, as they did in the last centuries. Davide Cassi, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Parma, the father of Italian molecular cuisine, launched a few years ago the “gelato estemporaneo”. It’s a kind of technological gelato obtained by using liquid nitrogen to snap freezing its ingredients at a temperature of – 196°. Cassi, together with chef Massimo Bocchia published a book, The extemporary gelato and other gastronomic invents (in Italian), and is the director of the Liquid nitrogen gelato competition, held in Fontanellato (Parma). Gelato of the future, perhaps, is still Italian.

Rosario Scarpato