After living in Italy for 2 months, I've learnt a lesson or two on gelato from their friendly locals. Now, everybody loves gelato, but before travelling to Italy I had no idea there was really a difference between the good and bad ones. They all just tasted fine to me, probably because of the amount of sugar present. I hope this post will help you spot the difference between a good gelato shop and a bad one, as that's an essential skills we should all have.
Look at the colours of their flavours Good gelato isn't meant to be bright, as it'll be a dead giveaway that there's a lot of artificial colours and flavours added into it. Although it may seem like mint chocolate should be bright green, a good gelato should actually resemble more of a white colour. Same goes with banana, it shouldn't be bright yellow as that's what the skin's colour is, not the flesh part that we eat. Just remember, the colour of the flavour should resemble the colour of what it is in its original form.
What we'd think a mint chocolate gelato flavour would look like (Source: Michael S/ Bonaventura Gelato Lounge)
What a mint gelato SHOULD look like (Source: Robyn Lee/ Serious Eats)
Look at the height of their flavours
Seeing a huge pile of a particular gelato flavour may make it seem more tempting, but au contraire, it just means the flavours have been mixed with milk and whipped excessively to prevent them from melting fast. Real gelato actually melts quite quickly, so if anything, you'd much rather have a fresh gelato flavour that's melting inside the tub than have those unreasonably churned ones that could've been at the gelato shop for days.
Look at those mountainous gelati (Source: christyxcore / Wikimedia Commons)
Look for where they store the gelati It's a good omen when you see a bunch of round metal tubs with their lids closed. Those gelato artisans trust that customers know what to expect in their flavours, so the lids are closed to keep the gelati cold and fresh. In retrospect, I wonder why I never doubted the freshness of all those gelati I've had in the past, where they were placed inside a fridge resembling body temperature when I accidentally touched it while pointing at my wanted flavour.
Good gelati may be hidden under metal lids to keep them cool
Are the ingredients listed? It's under Italian law that gelato stores have to list the ingredients of every gelato flavour somewhere visible to the customers. While this law might not apply to gelato stores everywhere else in the world, you should still be able to ask any gelateria for a list of ingredients. As aforementioned, a genuine gelato artisan should not have anything to hide, as they know the customers know what to expect. Look especially for ingredients labelled with a colour and a number (e.g. E419). Those usually mean there's an unknown added flavour, which shouts the words: "Artificial!" straight at you.
Are the fruit flavours in season? Good gelato artisans should only use the freshest ingredients available, and this of course applies to fruits in season. Needless to say, there are gelati flavours like lemons and strawberries that are available all year round. However, seeing watermelon flavour in the middle of winter is a sign for you to steer away.
Fruit flavours should be in season AND resemble the colour of the fruit itself (Source: Ragesoss/ Wikimedia Commons)
Look for flavours like fior di latte, or fior di panna Although this tip might not apply to gelato stores outside of Italy, I still think it's important to know it. These two flavours are made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, and are the most basic forms of gelato. Therefore, a lot of gelato aficionados would ask to try this flavour before making their decision, as it would reveal the quality of the milk. As for the fior di panna (cream flavour), it shows that the gelato owners care greatly about the overall quality of the milk they're using, as cream is more expensive than milk.
Look for other ostentatiously decorated things in and out of the gelateria Again, this tip might not apply to gelato stores outside Italy, but it will to places that have a high density of gelato stores. A genuine gelato maker will not need a cardboard cut-out of an Italian man with a huge moustache holding a massive 3-scoop gelato. Instead, they know and trust that the quality of their gelato is the true drawcard for their customers.
Hands down the BEST gelato I had in Italy (In Milan)
Totally agree, especially abt the 'piled high' issue. Stands to reason it would be stale from air exposure! AND the difference bwtn real Lemons used vs 'fake' lemon juice is amazing! Fresh is definitely best.