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Flavor Field Notes: Gelato Heats Up Cool Desserts

“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.

The possibilities for cool, sweet gelato satisfaction seem limitless. A light dish of Irish cream amaretto gelato is pretty tempting to some. Or imagine perhaps enjoying a nice generous bowl of white chocolate prickly pear while lounging poolside on a warm, sunny afternoon. Jack Daniels butter pecan is also another flavor that makes for a sweet treat. Rose petal, carrot ginger and chocolate jalapeño are just some of the daring varieties offered by the New York-based Ciao Bella Gelato Co., one of the more established gelato artisans located in the United States.

Founded by the former owner of Ciao Bella, Jon Snyder, New York gelateria il Laboratorio del Gelato touts flavors ranging from tarragon with pink pepper to Mexican cinnamon basil, as well as five different varieties of plum.

Not surprisingly, there are other companies who have joined the gelato flavor revolution as well. The “lab,” as it is cleverly referred to, encourages chefs and caterers to suggest their own unique flavor combinations in order to keep new ideas in constant rotation.

Gelateria Naia, based out of Northern California, is also experimenting with gelato’s potential by introducing exotic spices to the mix such as anise, cardamom and Thai iced tea.

Michigan-based Palazzolo’s goes as far as to offer gelato customization of “any flavor imaginable,” in addition to its extensive list of almost 500 others. The categories offered at Palazzolo’s, as well as an example from each, are as follows:

  • Vanilla—sour cream vanilla 
  • Chocolate—French chocolate caramel brandy fudge 
  • Coffee—cappuccino orange peel 
  • Flavors of Italy—roasted pine nut 
  • Fresh fruit—sun-dried cranberry 
  • Liqueurs—peanut honey amaretto 
  • Nuts and things—toasted sesame raw honey pistachio 
  • Seasonal/holiday—butter walnut

With summer just around the corner and gelato becoming quite the hot commodity (or cool, if you prefer), it is definitely time to take note of these flavor-infused trendsetters hitting the soon-to-be sweltering city streets.

Mintel Menu Insights tracks trends through data sourced from the 350 largest US chain restaurants and 150 independent restaurants. Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD) tracks new product launches, trends and innovations internationally. For more information, visit or call 1-312-932-0600.

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