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The History of Gelato

Gelato means “frozen” in Italian and refers to the famously beloved creamy, dairy-based dessert made with milk. It is also sometimes used to refer to similar frozen desserts, such as the fruit-and-water-based sorbetto. Frozen desserts date far back into human history. As early as 3,000 BC, societies in Asia were enjoying crushed ice with flavorings. Centuries later, both the ancient Egyptians and Romans enjoyed ice sweetened with fruit juice. Southern Italians — especially Sicilians — have a long history of blending crushed fruit with ice and snow stored in underground caverns. Italians living near the Dolomites used snow from the mountains to make frozen confections with milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and various natural flavorings. The Medici family was known to serve frozen desserts during banquets. Notably, they employed Bernardo Buontalenti, who created a creamy, frozen dessert very similar to the gelato we know today as a special treat to serve the visiting King of Spain. He is now considered the father of modern gelato. However, gelato did not catch on until Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened a café in Paris in either 1686 or 1694 (there is some debate) where he sold a gelato-like frozen dessert (along with other delicacies like coffee) to the public for the first time. (Until then, gelato had largely been reserved for the rich and only served on private estates due to the cost of ingredients.) Gelato caught on as a popular treat and by the turn of the 20th century, Europeans were enjoying their frozen desserts at cafés. Grand cafés opened in Rome to serve gelato and other treats; many of them are still in operation today. In the 1920s, mobile gelato carts became popular and were a particularly common sight around Rome, where there is an especially strong gelato tradition. Over time, the carts were replaced by specialty shops called gelaterias. In the 1990s, a new kind of gelateria arose in response to Carlo Petrini’s founding of Slow Food in the mid-1980s. Dedicated to promoting local ingredients and traditional cooking methods, the Slow Food movement gave rise to many artisanal eateries in Italy — including gelato shops. Today, gelato is beloved all around the world, but the most authentic, artisanal versions are still found in Italy itself, especially in Rome.

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