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Gelato: The Ultimate Scoop
Valerie Ng

Photo: Valerie Ng
You heard all about Aunt Sally and Uncle Ted’s trip to Italy—battling with the pigeons and tourists in Venice, overdosing on Renaissance art in Florence, and rubbing shoulders with the gladiators in Rome. Now when it’s your turn to enjoy Italia, you realized that your savings have been swallowed up by rent, gas, and beer. Most of all, you’re bawling over the lost opportunity to savor authentic gelato in its homeland. You’ve had enough of the rich, fattening Cold Stone stuff here in the States. You know that you can actually taste natural flavors in gelato without being overwhelmed by any excessive sweetness. Plus, lining up at a gelateria and then licking away at your three scoops of gelato during your passegiata is one of the few tourist activities that even the locals will engage in.

But before you start crying over the gelato you’d dreamed of enjoying under the Italian sun, remember that you live in the foodie wonderland that is the Bay Area. You can find pretty much any exotic cuisine you can think of, and chances are it will be pretty good. So use this guide to find the best gelateria right in your own backyard. You won’t find one on every block corner like in Napoli, but there are enough to keep you busy for the next couple of months. Keep in mind, though, that not all Bay Area gelaterias are alike. Each has its own approach to gelato and caters to a variety of tastes. The diverse food scene ensures that there are a plethora of choices available, so your selection varies. Some choose to be very traditional, while others serve up a multitude of flavors that would never be found in an authentic Italian gelateria. And for a dessert without the guilt, or for the lactose-intolerant, go for the dairy-free sorbetto flavors. They make for a very satisfying vegan
and fat-free alternative to gelato and ice cream. True, even the very best Bay Area gelateria will never match Giolitti in Rome or Vivoli in Florence, but they will help drown out your sorrows until you do finally make it the old country.

Photo: Valerie Ng

If it’s the most authentic gelateria you’re looking for, Gelato Milano is the closest to the real deal. Fans have been known to drive all the way from San Francisco and east of the Caldecott Tunnel for a taste of what’s been called the best gelato outside of Italy. The small interior and barren white walls don’t make it look like much, but it’s only a ploy to not distract visitors from what’s on offer—the same tastes that you can find in Italy. Traditional Italian music, broadcast live from Milano, plays softly in the background as fans peruse the 24 flavors on display. Owner Curtis Chin brings out new batches of gelato every day to ensure that the gelato is served completely fresh. Offerings change with the seasons and Chin rotates multiple varieties of chocolate hazelnut. He doesn’t go out of his way to be innovative, though—Milano only produces flavors that can be found in Italy so as to reproduce the type of authentic gelato experience you’d find in Rome or Turin.

If you’re in the city and need a break from shopping in the Westfield Shopping Centre, head straight to Cocola, a European bistro on the 4th level. Though not much of a setting, the eatery offers a small selection of delicious gelato. The overwhelmingly fruity flavors will more than make up for the lack of choice. If you don’t know what to order, ask for a free taste. Sit down at one of the tables and take the time to enjoy the most authentic European-style ambience you can find—in a North American mall environment that is.

If you’re in a hurry, though, you can head for Melt in the shopping center’s food court. The attractive gelato and sorbetto options include the traditional and exotic, from fresh strawberry and hazelnut to marscapone caramel pistachio and pomegranate. The setting will be substantially less romantic than the average gelateria, but like all authentic gelato, it is all made from real fruits, nuts, chocolate, milk, and cream.

Photo: Valerie Ng

If you’re looking for some exotic flavors that will never be found in Italy, you’ll be happy to know that many Bay Area gelaterias take advantage of the abundance of local ingredients to add some innovation to a traditional recipe. Yoogo Gelato, tucked between North Beach and Chinatown, brings a multicultural approach to Italy’s classic ice cream, offering Italian, American and Asian flavors. Choices include the traditional (chocolate, rum raisin), the exotic (taro, durian, lychee) and the unusual (peanut butter, Budweiser beer!). Wash your dessert down with some pearl tea, or choose to enjoy it with a waffle or crepe.

Marco Polo Italian Ice Cream, located in the Sunset, one of San Francisco’s new Chinatowns, adds an Asian flavor to gelato. The modest shop is popular with its neighborhood regulars, who are big fans of its green tea, lychee, mango, soursop, and other Asian flavors. If you’re hard-core enough, try the durian—but be sure to ask for a sample first, because it’s quite pungent. There are even Italian flavors for those who prefer the traditional to the exotic. Sit back and ponder how this Asian-run establishment, named for an Italian explorer
who brought Chinese noodles to create one of his country’s signature staples, puts an Asian twist on a
classic Italian dessert. If a few scoops isn’t enough for you, pick up some pints to go. They’re rock solid when
they come out of the freezer, but they’ll be soft enough to eat after an hour.

If Asian flavors aren’t for you, how about a bit of Latin flavor? TangoGelato, with locations both in San Francisco and the East Bay, was started by natives of Argentina who wanted to reproduce the delicious flavors of their homeland when they relocated to the Bay Area. With locations on Fillmore in San Francisco as well as Oakland, gelato enthusiasts on both sides of the bay can taste its variety of dulce de leche, Irish coffee, and even black berry cabernet sorbetto.

Photo: Valerie Ng
A stroll along Columbus Avenue in North Beach will easily set the mood for a lunch in one of the trattorias, so why not follow your meal up with some gelato? Gelateria Naia offers 54 flavors, including some soy flavors, so it could take you all summer to try the entire selection. In addition, there are other locations in the Castro, downtown Berkeley, and on the Berkeley campus. Naia prides itself in using good quality, natural ingredients, mostly from Italy, and no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Other ingredients come from near, like Berkeley’s Scharffen Berger chocolate, or far, such as vanilla beans from Madagascar or Maccha green tea from Japan. For the best variety, Naia is your place.

Ciao Bella, part of a national chain, also offers a variety of traditional and innovative gelato and sorbetto flavors. With roots in New York’s Little Italy, the franchise began with a traditional recipe from Turin. It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings—with a bit of creativity, it has since expanded its options to offer a long list of inventive flavors, including banana walnut praline, chocolate jalapeno, green tea, lychee, peaches and cream, as well as some traditional favorites like vanilla and strawberry. It won’t provide the ambience of a gelateria (all it’s got is a mere gelato counter in the Ferry Building and Berkeley’s Epicurious Garden) but there are plenty of delicious options. If you want more than just a couple of scoops, the Ferry Building location offers a few more options, including floats, smoothies, and shakes. Or, you can pick up pints to enjoy at home.

One last tip before you embark on your search for the best gelato in the Bay. Make sure the gelato, especially the fruit flavors, are of natural colors and hues. Anything that is brightly colored is a sign of inauthentic, artificially flavored gelato. As a rule of thumb, use the banana flavor as your test. If it has a grayish tone, rather than a bright yellow hue, you’re good to go. Always remember that real banana flesh is never bright yellow.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Marco Polo Italian Ice Cream Tango Gelato

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