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Flavor Field Notes: Gelato Heats Up Cool Desserts

Posted: April 16, 2007

“Traditional may no longer be enough to satiate the appetite of a society obsessed with novel and intriguing flavors, leaving plenty of room for creative flair both on menus and in the consumer marketplace.”

A close relative of ice cream, Italian gelato is quickly becoming the jet setter of the frozen treats category when it comes to flavor. At first glance, the two appear very similar, but there are a few definite differences that set them apart. To begin, gelato tends to be slightly lower in fat (traditionally under 8%) than ice cream, which requires a minimum of 10%. It contains approximately 35% less air and is produced using a special cooling process in a forced-air freezer. This process coupled with the minimization of ice crystals, makes for a luxuriously creamy and flavorful treat. As a result, gelato has become the elite purveyor of creative combinations and intense flavors.

True gelaterias house talented artisans who craft a wide array of original concoctions, many welcoming input and suggestions from top chefs and patrons alike. A star on the rise, gelato is rapidly gaining favor among consumers and can now be found at select supermarkets near the ice cream, or as a hip addition to popular restaurant menus.

According to Mintel Menu Insights, a resource that tracks national restaurant trends, around 250 menu items featuring gelato as a main feature or ingredient were identified on mainstream menus in 2006. The number of menu offerings related to this category has increased substantially since earlier last year, suggesting that the decadent dessert’s popularity is on the rise. However, many of the gelato flavors noted lean more towards traditional Italian flavors such as gianduia (chocolate hazelnut), stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings), pistachio, zabajone (eggnog) and nocciola (hazelnut). Some upscale restaurants have moved the innovation needle more in gelato creativity. Otto Pizzeria in New York has served Guinness Stout gelato. In a more-encompassing dessert presentation, Rathbun’s of Atlanta has served a signature extra virgin olive oil cake, including balsamic gelato and red wine syrup.

While many mainstream restaurant offerings remain delicious additions to the rolling list of gelato assortments, they lack the experimental innovation that the niche, independent gelateria strives to achieve. Traditional may no longer be enough to satiate the appetite of a society obsessed with novel and intriguing flavors, leaving plenty of room for creative flair both on menus and in the consumer marketplace.