For the Love of Gelato
Updated: May 3
It is impossible to live in Turin and not start a love affair with gelato. It is a city that takes this heavenly creation very seriously. Unlike more well-known Italian cities that draw far more tourists, Turin boasts a lower profile. I have a theory that this reality has actually led to the generally high quality of gelato in the city. People living in Turin know where to go to get the best. To borrow a culinary metaphor: the cream of the crop rises to the top, leaving residents of Turin spoiled for choice. For us, it started with a visit to a local chain located in the piazza below our apartment. It brought back fond memories of a trip to Siena a decade prior when we were still a family of three. It was a delicious welcome and just the beginning of the unexpected rewards that we encountered as we ventured beyond the familiar. During those two years in Turin, our search for gelato led us to discoveries that taught us more about the city and more about Italy. Our favorite gelaterie (pl.) became some of our favorite destination
Our time in Turin was always rigidly defined. Returning to California was never (really) in question. There is something special about knowing when a beautiful experience will begin and end. You see things a little differently; your senses become heightened. I often noticed myself hitting the Ctrl+S command in my mind. Nearly every day spent in Piedmont’s capital felt precious. Perhaps that’s another reason why gelato tasted exceptionally good to me, and why views of Turin, a city framed by the Alps, were exceptionally beautiful.
Having this mindset I felt a responsibility to take advantage of this affordable luxury. In our early months in Turin going for gelato became another step in our daily routine. The weather was hot, the gelato was cheap, and there always seemed to be a gelateria around the corner from wherever we happened to be.
What we found were unusual flavors that piqued our interest. Various nut flavors: mandorla (almond), nocciola (hazelnut), gianduja (chocolate and hazelnut), pistacchio (pistachio), drew me in. I learned new Italian words: croccante, (crunchy), cachi (persimmon), chinotto (a type of bitter orange), meliga (cornmeal/polenta from Piedmont), amarena (a dark, sour variety of cherries). My husband used these opportunities to revisit a childhood favorite: granita, a Sicilian frozen dessert that uses ice, rather than milk, as its base. Our daughter’s early favorite was playfully named “Smurf”, and — as far as we could tell — could only be found at a single gelateria on Via Po. Our son was our reliable purist, frequently opting for the simple deliciousness of fior di latte (milk cream), occasionally pairing it with different flavors.
Stimulating Turin’s Economy One Gelateria at a Time
Recognizing these unique opportunities, I was excited to try new gelaterie and to get inside tips on favorite places and flavors from new friends and acquaintances. When it began to feel like we were indulging a little too frequently, I began to justify our visits by telling myself: “At 2,50€ a cup, and 10€ for the whole family, it’s cheaper than going out for ice cream back home.” As true as that was, we rarely ever went out for ice cream so the comparison was laughable.
Our afternoon and evening visits to the gelateria became important “family time”; something we could all agree upon. With our kids frequently questioning the international move, it was a reliable way to lift our family’s collective mood.
I eventually moved on to other “noble” and highly rational reasons for patronizing our local gelaterie: We are clearly stimulating the economy, I told myself. Was I wrong? These virtuous justifications continued as the days and months went by: My children need calcium. It is a healthy choice. Forget that never in my life had I ever consumed so much dairy! It is interesting to note that gelato is marketed as “sano”, or “healthy” in Italy; a claim not generally made about ice cream.
I would use every excuse to line up and order my coppetta piccola (small cup). I’m not sure that my husband or children needed an excuse, but I did. As time wore on, I got curious: What else was out there? Which gelateria was best? Where were our Euros going? We ended up with a couple of favorite gelaterie scattered around Turin, but mainly in Centro, the center of town, where we lived.
There Is Never A Bad Time for Gelato
My daughter and I would pass a certain gelateria daily, on our walk to school. As early as 8 in the morning it was open (in the pre-COVID-19 era), serving gelato and caffè (or espresso, as many English-speaking cultures call it). By 10 it was common to see nearby office workers stopping by for a quick gelato, while other colleagues opted for a more traditional morning pausa caffè (coffee break). This early-morning gelateria featured a caffè-gelato combo. Not an affogato that combines the gelato and espresso in a single cup, but a caffè that you enjoy “al bar” (at the counter) and a gelato that you take with you to eat at the casual tables set-up outside, or to a sunny bench in a nearby piazza. A mid-morning gelato break? Yes and yes. Turin was quickly becoming my kind of town.
I am not suggesting that this was common in Turin, it wasn’t terribly out of place in our neighborhood. I remember numerous occasions when I would be compelled to check the time, taken aback by the fact that someone was hurrying down the street with a gelato in-hand, hours before lunchtime. Witnessing it was one of those remarkable moments when you try your best to imagine what you are seeing taking place “back home”, and you just can’t. In moments like this, I revel in comparing and contrasting the scenes of daily life at home and abroad.
Except for one single occasion, I did not eat gelato before noon, and now I quite regret it. How nice it would be to break a “rule” in such a benign and pleasant way. Contemplating this, I wonder if I knew deep down that if I started a morning gelato habit, I might never stop. Similar to this “guardrail”, I also never ordered a coppetta media (a medium gelato), vowing to do so only in our final week in Turin.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Is it possible to get tired of so much gelato? For us, the answer was yes. Perhaps not tired, but one by one, we each reached our gelato threshold. After a couple of months in Turin, I remember our 12-year-old son declining a gelato one evening. “What do you mean? Are you okay?” I began to worry. Could he be unhappy? Moving to a new country on the cusp of teenagehood, being required to learn a new language and make new friends: Why in the world would he be unhappy? As I focused on all of the positive aspects of our move, his refusal of gelato puzzled me. We all faced particular challenges as we adapted to life in Turin, but at that moment maybe he just didn’t feel like having a gelato.
Over time, even I got used to the fact that we could — in fact — have gelato any time, and that we didn’t have to have it constantly. Our early, almost daily gelato habit marked our early days in Turin and lasted roughly until school started in September. As our life in Turin got busier we reserved gelato for the moments when the four of us were together on certain evenings or weekends. Gelato became a social activity in itself: meeting my daughter’s friends after school, or sharing our favorite places with visiting friends and family.
Something useful, and — dare I say — permanent, had to come from our gelato adventures. I offer you this reflection, the first in a short series dedicated to gelato in Turin. I hope it has brought a smile to your face, after all, that’s what gelato is for. (Oh yeah, and calcium.)
P.S. Readers in Turin, please go out and have a gelato!
Don't Just Call it Granita by Silvia Donati
Italy Magazine's Foodie Guide to Sicilian Granita by Laura Morelli
Why Gelato is Good for You from Italy Magazine (Italian audio version available)