A five-foot fluorescent sign depicts an ice cream cone topped with pink, green and ivory gelato. Across many of Rome's narrow cobble-stone streets, gelato shops announce their presence with illuminated signs that also list words like artisanal and natural. Inside the shops, displays feature overflowing ribbons of classic flavors like pistachio, hazelnut and vanilla -- all packed artistically into steel tubs. The setting suggests that you're just a few moments away from the city's most delectable scoops.
But the truth about gelato isn't so sweet. In fact, fewer than 50 of the 2,500 gelato shops in Rome use all natural ingredients, according to Katie Parla, the Rome-based blogger behind Parla Food, travel writer for publications such as the New York Times and National Geographic, and creator of the app, Rome for Foodies. More than 98% of all shops opt for artificial ingredients. For this reason, Parla believes that Rome is studded with low-quality gelato.
"Many use artificial colors and flavors, vegetable oils, milk powder, instead of fresh dairy, and stabilizers that aren't natural," Parla explains. To check vendors for these artificial ingredients, just take a quick look at the legally-required ingredient lists within the shops. On some occasions though, finding the list isn't easy.
There are other ways to spot the worst offenders. "The ways to spot junk-filled gelato is simple: look at the way the gelato is displayed. If it looks fluffy and overflows its tub, it likely has artificial and unnatural ingredients that incorporate lots of air so the vendor can sell you less for more," Parla continues.
Another indicator is color. "If the mint is green, it's got coloring in it; pistachio should be vaguely green, not bright green. And if a gelato shop sells "Puffo" flavor (bright blue bubble gum flavor), run away!" she recommends.
There are several well-known shops that fall into the 98%. These include the chain Blue Ice, which has a large presence in the center of Rome, and Della Palma. Others include Giolitti and San Crispino, which are probably the most famous gelato shops in Italy's capital.
"Giolitti in particular is way past it's prime and while the shop has an old school charm, the gelato is practically mass produced and incorporates artificial colors, glucose syrup, and vegetable oils -- not exactly a traditional approach to gelato making," Parla reveals.
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In the past few years though, there has been an influx of all natural gelato shops. In fact, four more opened this past summer. Parla's current favorites include Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, Fatamorgana, Gelateria Gori, and Neve Di Latte.
These shops don't offer vibrant green pistacho and mint flavors. Instead, they excel with seasonal creations, such as Il Gelato's aromatic combination of delicate pear and cinnamon sorbet. Fatamorgana has received wide-acclaim for more creative chocolate variations like their Kentucky, a dense chocolate gelato hinted with a dose of tobacco. Now that's natural.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.