If ice cream and pudding had a baby, they might call it gelato. It’s frozen, it’s silky, it’s custardy. It’s Italian ice cream. But why can’t it play nice with the little tubs of American ice cream in the shop?
Because unlike American ice cream, gelato is churned with a lower percentage of air and made from a mixture of dairy (often milk and cream) that has a lower butterfat content. According to gelato guru Pete Palazzolo of Palazzolo’s Artisan Gelato and Sorbetto in Michigan, “Gelato provides a taste as creamy to the mouth at 8 percent butterfat as its high-air and high-butterfat cousin.” So true gelato feels much more dense and creamy than ice cream, with a flavor that springs forth uninhibited by lots of mouth-coating cream. Gelato’s high density also means that it can be kept at a warmer temperature than American ice cream, which then explains why the first bite yields immediate flavor. Think of the difference between enjoying chilled and room-temperature cheeses. HUGE.
The thing is, many frozen treats masquerade as gelato without ever reaching this gold star standard. “Just like ice cream there are many levels of gelato, from natural to fake,” says Palazzolo. “Ours is made from perishable raw ingredients, but there are many companies selling a powder that is fake, and flavorings are used instead of fresh perishable ingredients.” Here we give you the cold, hard run-down on several of our own gelato spots. (Note: Also check out our follow up with the gelato at Wilde Roast.)
Cafe Kem, $3.07 for a single serving
2524 Nicollet Ave S #101, Minneapolis, MN 55404; 612.208.0254
Unless you’re about to succumb to heat stroke right outside their door, gelato fans shouldn’t bother stopping at Cafe Kem on Eat Street. They offer fewer choices than other gelaterias, and many of them mimic the precious flavors often found at a cupcake shop (including a boring red velvet). Their Chai flavor wasn’t bad, with generous flecks of cinnamon, but nearly everything else we tried felt like a poor imitation of McDonald’s soft serve, breaking off in icey hunks instead of smooth curls, and marked by a weirdly slick mouthfeel that might come from the pre-made base Cafe Kem buys. The major upside to Cafe Kem is that their single-serving vessels are almost twice as large as the others we’ve seen, and at a comparable price.
Jackson’s Coffee and Gelato, $3.25 for a single serving
822 W Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55408; 612.454.6613
In terms of texture, Jackson’s on Lake Street is doing well. Almost every flavor we sampled had that desired, unbroken silkiness. The Black Chocolate flavor is by far our favorite, with a real cocoa intensity. A fellow taster deemed it “black as the heart of a Disney villain,” and its overall flavor is just as irresistibly dangerous. An espresso flavor perfectly mimicked the toasty quality of the real thing, but could have used a tad more butterfat to lift the flat, almost bitter final note. Both the Key Lime and Wedding Cake flavors were more sweet and innocent than complex and fresh-tasting. Whether Jackson’s secret to smoothness is the gelato base mixes they reconstitute with whole milk, or a perfectly cooled case, is unclear. But it’s hard to argue with the suave, clean finish of these mostly authentic-tasting flavors.
Pandolfi Candy Gelato and Gifts, $2.99 for a single serving
3904 W 50th St, Edina, MN 55424; 952.928.3000
We’ve already dug on this little candy and gift spot hidden in the shops at 50th and France, and a year after our first review, it’s still the heaviest hitter in Gelato Land. Because really, there’s no substitute for the tingling sensation that tells you the gelato was made with real fruits and fats instead of artificial ingredients. That’s what you’ll find at Pandolfi. They ship their gelato in from Pete Palazzolo himself in Michigan, where gelato is made to order in batches as small as two and a half gallons, and the freshness arrives intact. The classically Italian pistachio is a stunning yellow grass green. Full of whole, soft, chewy nuts, the inherent toasty, meaty quality of sweet pistachios comes right on through. Also, the Limoncello is a zinger. Made with actual liqueur (unlike Fat Lorenzo’s candy-sweet version, we suspect), it zaps your glands the second it touches your tongue, and as it melts it slowly sizzles, like a nostalgic mouthful of Pop Rocks. Impress your friends with a pint, clean your sinuses with a mouthful. This stuff’s amazing.
Other winners include a rich, eggy coconut flavor, filled with healthy shreds of coconut meat, and a bruised blueberry swirled with butter cookies that taste like pie. Pandolfi’s undeniably fresh and innovative flavor offerings make up for an occasional blip in texture. Not quite as smooth as Jackson’s gelato, the stuff at Pandolfi still bears the stickiness of real cream solids. So while their gelato might not win the prize for texture, it tastes blessedly real.
Fat Lorenzo’s, $3.09 for a single serving
5600 Cedar Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55417; 612.822.2040
Ah, Fat Lorenzo’s, that goofy corner Italian kitchen off Cedar Avenue, with the flying veggie mural. There’s gelato there too. It’s smack dab in the lobby, bordering the big open kitchen. We’re told that the chef has created over 100 flavors, but what we tasted didn’t bear the mark of a master gelato maker. Each flavor we tried was more icey than luscious. In fact, combining the chocolate chip flavor (which was sorely lacking in chips) with the chocolate malt was like a really expensive McDonald’s twist cone. The pomegranate and limoncello options were saccharine like popsicles, and satisfying in an adolescent way. Like Cafe Kem and Jackson’s, Fat Lorenzo’s gelato is made with whole milk. So while it doesn’t coat your tongue, the lack of that close-knit texture makes Fat Lorenzo’s taste more like Diet Lorenzo’s. Nevertheless, it’s a cheap and appropriate way to finish up a hot slice on the patio.
Ring Mountain Cafe and Creamery, $3.10 for a single serving
1965 Cliff Lake Rd, Eagan, MN 55122; 651.454.7464
Finally, in the furthest reaches of our gelato search is Ring Mountain in Eagan. And it is by far the creamiest specimen we’ve found. Not even one flavor we sampled ran the risk of being mistaken for soft-serve. Over 20 pans of gleaming flavors (next to another 20 or so flavors of ice cream, jump back!) all had that silky, come-hither look that gelato is famous for. And while each bite was as smooth as the last, the flavors were noticeably less fresh tasting than those at Pandolfi. Although pistachio is one of our favorites, we couldn’t stop comparing the false undercurrent and lack of nuts to its much chewier, full-flavored counterpart at Pandolfi. Similarly, the tiramisu option couldn’t hold a candle to the bitter growl of the espresso gelato at Jackson’s. In fact, Ring Mountain’s tiramisu is more like a gorgeously churned version of a novelty Coffee-Mate creamer. Worth the occasional indulgence, but not quite the best. Their mango was the truest flavor we tried, seductive like a Creamsicle that bites back with a piney aftertaste.
Whether you swoon over texture or taste, these shops run the gamut of variations. It’s just a shame that perhaps the most delightful gelato in Minneapolis-St. Paul’s comes from Michigan. Won’t someone get on that?