Photographer: Chris Warde-Jones/Bloomberg

Italy Can Officially Say Everyone Loves Its Gelato

  • Country produced 6.8 billion scoops of ice cream last year
  • Italy leads in consumption of treat that dates to 16th century

Italy’s economy may be struggling as European Union rivals recover, but there’s one area where the country is an unrivaled leader: ice cream, as demand from sweet-toothed gelato lovers has made the country Europe’s top producer.

Italian ice cream makers whipped up 595 million liters (157 million gallons) of gelato last year, or 19 percent of total EU production, according to official statistics. That would work out to about 6.8 billion scoops of ice cream. Germany ranked second with 515 million liters.

Over 19,000 gelaterias, or ice cream parlors, dot the country, and more are being added every year. The number of shops in the northern city of Milan grew 4.5 percent in 2016. Though gelaterias are mostly small and family-run, they account for total business of 1.4 billion euros ($1.6 billion) a year, according to an August report by business association Confcommercio. Almost 69,000 people are employed in the ice cream parlor business across Italy.

“We can sell up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds) a day on the busiest summer days,” said Alberto Manassei, founder of the booming gourmet chain Gelateria dei Gracchi, which opened a fourth shop in Rome this month.

Gelato, always a summer favorite in hundreds of flavors, has been an even bigger seller on the streets of Rome and other Italian cities in recent weeks, as locals and the traditional hordes of tourists seek relief from a scorching heat wave dubbed “Lucifer.”

With each Italian consuming an average of more than 100 scoops of ice cream per year, tops in Europe, there’s not much left to sell abroad. And with most production done on-site at gelaterias, it’s mostly a local business in the country, which ranks only fifth in ice cream exports, a category dominated by Germany, France and Belgium.

Travelers to the country say they know the difference. “Italian ice cream is creamier and has more flavor than in France,” said Alexandre Merlen, a French tourist. “I’m planning to eat one a day during my five-day stay in Rome, one a day at least.”

While Italians proudly agree that their ice cream is superior, debates over the best flavor can be heard in any gelateria line, with strong opinions on the merits of classic flavors versus newer fads. ”Chocolate is the all-time favorite, but ginger, which can be mixed with cream or fruit, is the hot flavor this year,” said Nicole, who scoops at the Fata Morgana parlor in central Rome.

Some historical accounts report ice cream-like frozen treats as far back as ancient Greece, though noblewoman Caterina De’ Medici is generally credited with turning the recipe into a popular dessert during the Florentine Renaissance.

De’ Medici’s sixteenth century court was said to have held a competition for the “most unusual dish ever seen.” According to historical records, the competition was won by a kitchen maestro named Ruggeri, who mixed ice, sugar and fruit flavors. Now if he’d just added ginger...

— With assistance by Lorenzo Totaro

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