South Beach's reputedly favorite food may be sushi, and there are ample places to prove it, but let's face it: Everyone's real fave food is dessert -- not the strong point in standard sushi bars. How many times could any discerning diner be satisfied by a one-trick pony like ice cream tempura? And just try suggesting the only available ice cream flavors to two kids, six and eleven, having their first Japanese food experience. "Green tea? Or red bean?" "EEEEEEUW!" they agreed.
Fortunately for roughly the past year there's been an alternative: Coco Gelato, whose ads temptingly tout "home-made Italian ice cream"-- just as signs in the best authentic gelaterie in Italy proclaim "nostra produzione" to specify superior gelato (a term used imprecisely even in Italy to include both dairy and water-based creations) that's made in-house rather than industrially produced. In other words Coco Gelato's ads suggest that theirs is the Real Stuff. (Interestingly there may well be an historical precedent for going out for gelato after an Asian, rather than an Italian, meal. China has claims to inventing the water-based sorbetto sort made from snow about 3000 years ago, and milk-based gelato in the Tang period, 618-907 AD. One Tang emperor even employed 94 icemen to produce his favorite flavor: camphor, the stuff in Vicks Vapor Rub. Venice, anyone?)
Actually some of Coco Gelato's flavors sound little more appealing -- or more authentically Italian. Listed as "classic" flavors, for instance, are not Italy's most basic, fior di latte (vanilla gelato without vanilla, just delicate creaminess) and gianduia (rich chocolate/hazelnut), but Coca-Cola and bubble gum. The "homemade" claim is also slightly fudged; the stuff is not totally made, or even churned, on premises but in the company's Coconut Grove factory that supplies South Beach's shop plus two in the Grove and Bayside (it is made there fresh daily). And frankly the gelato's colors did not encourage the hope -- fostered by Coco Gelato's co-identity as a fresh fruit smoothie shop -- that all ingredients were even entirely natural. Pistachio, for example, a naturally grayish nut, was a shade of day-glo baby green that would've been nice on, say, a skateboard, but not something you'd want to put in your mouth.
1434 Washington Ave, Miami Beach
305-538-1179. Open daily 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.
The kids loved it! Even better, they thought, were those other Italian classics cookies n' cream, vanilla chocolate chip, and dulce de leche -- all of which I found too sweet but are probably perfect for local sweet-tooth tastes. And for one looking for authenticity, it was a plus that the chocolate chips were not Nestle-style but shaved chocolate slivers. Additionally all were indeed, as true gelato should be, softer and less heavily rich yet somehow creamier than American ice cream. (This lighter richness is due to dairy gelato's use of egg custard bases and balance of raw ingredients, rather than premium American ice cream's butterfat overload, and also to gelato's greater density -- U.S. government rules allow whipped-in air to constitute up to 50 percent of American ice creams.)
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For my taste, coffee and chocolate almond were cloying and a bit granular, but intense not-too-sweet dark chocolate was a hit, as were several sorbet-type fruit flavors: complexly tangy tamarindo, mango that tasted like a festive concentration of the real fruit, and a very zingy lemon champagne that the eleven-year-old judged, with wrinkled nose, "too alcoholish, like my parents' cocktails"-- but that for a grownup was the ideal aprés-dinner summer refresher.