Gelato is ice cream’s sophisticated continental cousin. Smoother and denser than ice cream, this Italian treat is traditionally served in smaller portions and, generally, without a distracting overlay of sauces, toppings and whipped cream.
Long Island is well served by ice cream, with dozens of independent parlors supplemented by scores of Carvels, Friendly’s, a smattering of Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs and assorted other chains. But gelato — more perishable, made in smaller batches and altogether more trouble to make and sell — is a much rarer treat.
Ice cream and gelato have a lot in common. They’re both made with a mixture of cream, milk, sugar, flavorings and, sometimes, eggs. That mixture is poured into a machine that freezes it while churning it.
Unlike ice cream, gelato (Italian for “frozen”) has no legal meaning in the United States and, theoretically, the term can be used to describe any frozen dessert. That said, most gelato makers hew to Italian tradition, and the difference between the two products can be boiled down to three:
FAT: Ice cream has more fat. Federal standards require at least 10 percent milk fat; super-premium brands such as Häagen-Dazs — and homemade ice cream at most independent parlors — contain 14 percent to 18 percent. There is no federal standard for gelato, but fat content usually ranges from 6 percent to 8 percent.
OVERRUN: The churning process introduces air (overrun) into both ice cream and gelato. Ice cream can have up to a 100-percent overrun, which means that what you’re getting is half ice cream, half air; super-premium brands typically have overruns of about 20 percent. Gelato is made with an overrun that can approach zero.
TEMPERATURE AND STORAGE: Once it’s finished churning, ice cream goes into a sealed container in an extremely cold freezer, where it must “cure” for 24 hours. Stored well below 0 degrees, it will keep for ages, but ideal serving temperature is 6 to 8 degrees. Gelato, on the other hand, should be served as soon as possible. In a gelateria, small batches are held in open tubs at 10 to 20 degrees and lasts, at most, a few days.
Now that you’re all boned up on theory, it’s time for some practice. Here are some Long Island purveyors that make their own gelato.
Caffe Italia (1745 Deer Park Ave., Deer Park): Michael Costigliola, the Italian-born owner of Caffe Italia, doesn’t understand the American penchant for gelato “with crazy stuff in it.” After all, what could be better than vanilla with real vanilla beans, coffee with freshly pulled espresso, strawberry with fresh strawberries, pistachio with nuts from Sicily? Bending to popular demand, he does make an Oreo gelato, but his heart is in the simple, elegant flavors that remind him of Italy. Try a big scoop of gelato sandwiched inside a split brioche bun (pictured). More info: 631-667-0201
Sant Ambroeus (30 Main St., Southampton): Sant Ambroeus is the East End’s gelato central, the Southampton outpost of a Manhattan ristorante-gelateria itself inspired by the original cafe that opened in Milan in 1931. The surroundings may have an aura of hauteur but the gelato is pure, unadulterated joy. The coffee flavor is done with house-brewed espresso. Fresh banana goes into the banana gelato; the result puts the fruit itself to shame. Also recommended: tangy passion fruit, grapefruit and lemon, and the lush chocolate, hazelnut and vanilla. More info: 631-283-1233, santambroeus.com
Leonetti Pastry Shop
Leonetti Pastry Shop (82 Glen Cove Rd., Greenvale): Saverio and Stella Leonetti used to make gelato back in Bari, Italy. Here, on Long Island, they continue the family tradition at this Greenvale bakery. The gelato here is creamy and clean tasting, made frequently to ensure freshness. There are usually around 20 flavors on offer -- among them excellent hazelnut, pistachio, coffee and chocolate (pictured) -- plus a number of fruit sorbetti. Enjoy your scoop of choice at one of the little tables, and pretend you’re in Italy. More info: 516-625-8242, leonettipastryshop.com
Pazzo Gelato (2374 Jericho Tpke., Garden City Park): Across the “piazza” from his Uncle Bacala’s Italian Seafood restaurant, Peter Hewitson and partners opened a gelateria that makes its own fresh, creamy Italian-style ice cream. Ingredients are imported from the Old Country and on any given day Pazzo offers about a dozen flavors. The pistachio tastes deeply of nuts; the dark chocolate is practically black; the banana-chip (pictured) is surprisingly forceful, the lemon sorbet is both light and intense, tart and sweet. More info: 516-746-3100
International Delight Cafe (Rockville Centre)
International Delight Cafe (241 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre): Now under separate ownership from the Bellmore location, Rockville Centre’s International Delight Cafe makes more than 50 flavors, classic and decidedly untraditional such as confetti M&M, cake batter, apple brown Betty and rainbow cookie. Enormous sundaes hark back to the Jahn’s ice cream parlor that once occupied this spot, including the Kitchen Sink with 25 scoops, banana, waffles, five toppings, whipped cream and cherries. (Pictured: Mint chip gelato). More info: 516-766-7557, internationalrvc.com
International Delight Cafe (Bellmore)
International Delight Cafe (322 Bedford Ave., Bellmore): An avowed chocoholic, owner Toni Rollandi makes a dozen-odd chocolate flavors, including Baci, Dolomite (an Italianized rocky road) and Coney Island, made with Nutella and broken-up chocolate-covered ice cream cones. Her cafe is the outlier that features gelato in American-style confections such as shakes, sodas and whimsical sundaes, the largest of which, The Universe, contains a couple of gallons of gelato, unlimited toppings, whipped cream, waffles and upended cones and comes in a bowl large enough to hold a Thanksgiving turkey. (Pictured: Digging into the "shooting star" sundae are, clockwise from lower left, Genesis, Jerry and Amy Najera of West Babylon and Michelangelo DeLucia from Westbury.) More info: 516-409-5772
Viale Gelateria (424 Sunrise Hwy., Lynbrook): At her chic little gelateria, Italian expat Anna Franchi offers about two dozen flavors every day. Always on hand are vanilla, hazelnut, pistachio (particularly outstanding), milk chocolate, dark chocolate (which, since it contains no milk, is actually a rich sorbetto), coffee and stracciatella (chocolate chip). Among Franchi’s most popular rotating flavors are salted caramel, apple pie and lime cheesecake. Do not miss the resonantly nutty pistachio gelato. Franchi has found her customers endlessly curious about the gelato-making process, and if she can’t manage to explain it, she is happy to let them peer into her spotlessly clean kitchen to see the gelato mixer and batch freezer. (Pictured: Pistachio gelato topped with graham cracker). More info: 516-442-0094
Baci Gelato (591 Willis Ave., Williston Park): Baci’s wares come in about 100 flavors; two dozen or so are available on any given day. Classic Italian gelato varieties -- such as fior di latte (milk flavor), stracciatella, espresso -- mix it up with American innovations such as banana split and cookies and cream. The store’s most popular flavor is “bacio,” a chocolate-hazelnut base with bits of hazelnut. It pays homage to the famous Perugina candy -- and its namesake store. More info: 516-801-1706, bacigelato.com
D'latte Cafe (218 Main St., Greenport): At this well-known spot, owner Frank Purita uses local produce and his own imagination to produce very fine gelato. During the summer, his flavors follow the season: strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, peach; even local goat milk turns up in gelato. For his pistachio he blends nuts from Sicily and Turkey to get just the right flavor. Recent inspirations include white chocolate with lavender, and coconut with lemon grass. More info: 631-477-4060
Fiorello Dolce (57 Wall St., Huntington): In addition to excellent cakes and pastries, this Huntington bakery makes gelato in season -- usually from Memorial Day through Halloween -- and generally offers about 10 classic flavors, among them a sweet-savory pistachio, piquant ginger, vibrant raspberry and a coffee gelato so dark it looks like chocolate. (The chocolate is even darker.) (Pictured: Lemon gelato). More info: 631-424-0803, fiorellodolce.com