I have to admit my appreciation for Arab culture skyrocketed when I discovered that they invented sorbet. It's true -- the Chinese taught them how to make sweet syrup from puréed fruit, and the Arabs took this knowledge to Sicily, combined these syrups with snow from Mount Etna, and called the resultant treat sharbet. Italians preferred the term sorbetto ("something frozen").
Later in the Thirteenth Century Marco Polo brought back from the East the secret of cooling without using ice, which led to "water ices" becoming hugely popular in Italy (guess that's why they're now known as "Italian ices"). Ices made with milk, cream, and eggs wouldn't appear until 1650, when a French chef in the court of Charles I came up with the idea.
Ice cream production proved to be a viable career option for out-of-work blacksmiths from the valleys of the Venetian Dolomites, and by the end of the 1800s there were over a thousand manufacturers of what was known as "gelati mantecati" -- far too many for the limited Italian market. Enterprising gelatieri thus set off for Vienna, then across Europe, and eventually to the Americas. Six months ago Julio Bertoni, whose grandfather and father have been making gelato for 54 years in Argentina, with his cousin Hector Emede opened up Dolce Vita Gelato Café by the Normandy fountain in Miami Beach.
Dolce Vita Gelato Caf
954 Normandy Dr, Miami Beach
305-865-2523. Open Monday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., Friday through Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Inside and outside the gleaming, well-lit café are small, metallic round tables with a few seats nestled around each. Espressos and other coffee drinks are served, along with homemade apple pie, croissants, and small sandwiches (bocaditos). Still the focus of the room is on a pastel-colored lineup of some 40 fabulous flavors of fresh gelato.
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Gelato contains a lower ratio of butterfat and air than regular ice cream, which makes it denser and more intensely flavored. Your first bite into any of Dolce Vita's bold chocolate offerings will confirm this -- Swiss chocolate, chocolate mousse, chocolate amargo (dark), chocolate with almonds, white chocolate, or mint chocolate, to name a few.
Super Sambayon (known to most as sabayon) is the most requested selection in Dolce Vita's Argentine store, and the custardy blend of cream, eggs, and Marsala wine is proving to be a big hit here as well. Likewise four dulce de leche variations that are probably the sweetest of the gelati, but what I like about Dolce Vita is that its flavors aren't overly sugary. The pistachio gelato is so subtle, and so honest, you can almost taste the salt on the nut.
More truthful flavors burst forth from fruit-based gelati sorbetti. Peach is my personal favorite, and a very glossy, meringuelike lemon stands out by dint of being different than the rest, but cantaloupe, mango, apple, cherry, strawberry, and raspberry are equally refreshing. I know because I asked the counter worker for a little plastic sampling spoon of each. To his credit he exhibited nary a trace of impatience -- until, upon tasting the kiwi, I commented on it being very kiwi-ish, then admitted I wasn't crazy about the fruit to begin with.
Dolce Vita scoops its tasty gelati into cone ($2.50/$4), cup ($3/$4), or rectangular Styrofoam take-out box of varying size ($4.50/$9/$18). Right now is perfect gelato-eating weather in South Florida, as during the summer an outdoor lick melts too quick. Then again, some would say there's never an inappropriate time for enjoying what has been described as "baby food for angels."