By Michael Hall
November 10, 2019
BOLOGNA, Italy — A slim forearm disappears into a space-age silver canister, its repeated circling drawing the eyes of those hoping to see what hides behind the counter’s shadows. The foreplay to eating gelato climaxes with the jaw-dropping arrival of a flex spatula’s destined companion: a lush, velvety dollop of roasted chestnut, salted pistachio, or whatever flavor the heart desires, contorted and sculpted atop the tapered khaki bottoms of a cone. No city poses greater potential for gastronomic hedonism than Bologna, where this dance of the cremeria, an inviting ebb and flow between gelato and its uniformed caregiver, is performed wherever one gazes, forbidding the time of day — be it noon or eleven p.m. — from interrupting its sensual rendition. Although enchanting is undoubtedly an understatement, the tantalizing procurement of gelato has failed to cajole certain traditionalists who lament the sweet treat’s late transformation.
Through the sea of Bologna’s gelato shops, Il Gelatauro has garnered the fame and recognition of both local and global aficionados. A charming backstory ripe with symbolism — the shop reopened a historic gelato shop that closed down in the early 1900s — immediately attracting Bologna natives. Factor in a gelato selection that beautifully strikes the balance between traditional Italian flavors and the explored curiosities of two Calabrian brothers — like our writer’s favorite, buffalo milk with bergamot and candied olive — and there is no confusion as to why Il Gelatauro is on everyone’s must-try list. Nonetheless, there is something more unique to the shop than the earth-toned interior and aggressive display case lighting. A self-proclaimed gelato expert sat down with Il Gelatauro’s owner, Giovanni Figliomeni, to discuss what exactly sets their gelato apart from the rest.
Giovanni — or Gianni, as he preferred — founded the store in 1998 and has been the owner ever since. Originally from Calabria, Gianni comes from southern Italy where gelato, or granita — the dairy-free stepsibling — can be taken in the morning to combat the heat without the blink of an eye (paradise found). Since it’s generally eaten beneath the beating Mediterranean sun, gelato in southern Italy is cold, fresh and relatively light. Once a trend of only northern Italy, a new adaptation is gaining grown throughout the entire country: a heavier, sweeter and less refreshing gelato.
Il Gelatauro’s gelato typically contains 7-8% cream, apart from nut flavors such as hazelnut and pistachio, which contain around 10% due to natural fats. By comparison, “new wave” gelatos are typically closer to 14 or 15% cream, regardless of flavor, rendering the dessert closer to its forever-ruined — for those who have lived in Italy — American cousin, ice cream (butterfat content mandated by The Food and Drug Administration of at least 10%). More fat—even including, atrociously, vegetable oils at some locales—means a dampened pronouncement of flavors, and subsequently the addition of more sugar and/or artificial flavoring. This type of gelato is much heavier, typically leaving a residual coating around the lips and inside the mouth and often results in a parched consumer (Bolognese should try La Sorbetteria Castiglione for a well-executed example of this richer gelato). Il Gelatauro’s gelato, instead, leaves the mouth feeling clean and the belly satiated without the immediate need of a digestif. Adding to the freshness conveyed through a lower cream content, Il Gelatauro serves gelato at a colder temperature than most. Although still malleable, Gianni’s gelato doesn’t match the erotic elasticity found at other gelaterias, where warmer temperatures allow for more extravagant peaks and quicker melt times.
What flavors best symbolize Il Gelatauro’s unique style? The aforementioned buffalo milk, bergamot, and candied olive is not to be passed-up; buffalo milk’s higher fat content (relative to cow’s milk) creates a velvety base which tempers the arrival of bergamot’s bracing bitterness while delicately delivering the fruit’s distinguishable perfume. The gelato’s sultry creaminess is also contrasted with periodic bites of candied olive, sending the beholder into a limbo between sweet-savory-bitterness. Other Il Gelatauro must-haves include La Reina Siciliana (pistachio, almond and sponge cake), pomegranate-bergamot sorbet, pear sorbet with dark chocolate, and coffee granita (topped with whipped cream or hazelnut gelato for an Italian-Vietnamese iced coffee).
Gianni ended the conversation by attesting to gelato’s containment of all the essential components of a meal (“maybe just find some fiber elsewhere”) thus vindicating gelato as a substitute for breakfast, lunch or dinner. With fall in full swing, two-a-days may even be in order (it is layering season after all — nobody will know). So, in case you’ve hit your gelato rut, the Observer polled SAIS Bolognese for their favorite flavors. Read the following only if you are no less than 50 meters from neighboring cremeria and mentally prepared for the fanciful images of twirling cones and jolly Calabrese men.
SAIS’ top flavors:
- Pistachio: Salted or not, the experience of eating pistachio anything in Italy is akin only to the contentment of first falling in love.
- Chocolate-Hazelnut: Nutella is for hazelnut-philistines; these gelatos — when well done — are most remarkable for showcasing hazelnut with a complement of chocolate, not the reverse.
- Crema: An eggy wonderland often with a delicate addition of lemon zest.
- Chocolate: Similar to pistachio, the intensity of most chocolates — specifically cioccolato fondente — induces an intra-mouth enlightenment.
Top spots to try in Bologna:
- Il Gelatauro: Traditional, yet inventive; also masters of sorbet.
- La Cremeria Santo Stefano: A technocratic gelato with a wealth of seasonal-based flavors; an exceptional gelato slightly richer than Il Gelatauro.
- La Cremeria San Francesco: Commendable gelato with an impressive selection of vegan options.
Galeria 49: Largest array of perennial granitas in addition to solid gelato.