The Best Gelato in America?

Larry Olmsted
The Best Gelato in America?

First, let me set the record straight: I’m a bit of a gelato freak.

 

I love the stuff. I’ve been to just about every renowned gelateria in Italy, from Sicily to Florence to Turin. If I am in a city with several notable shops and have just one day, I’ll hit them all, one after another. I’ve read books on the subject and have repeatedly made my own, the latest and most successful effort using pistachios I hand carried home from Sicily. I’ve attended cooking schools in Italy and tried the various seasonal, regional, and unusual flavors less commonly available. So having said all this, I am certainly not the world’s leading authority on gelato, but I know a heck of a lot more about it than most people do, and I know what makes for great gelato. And that’s why I have always been so disappointed with gelato in this country.

What exactly is gelato? It’s very similar to ice cream, and usually described as “Italian ice cream,” except it’s typically made from some type of milk, rather than cream, and has a substantially lower butterfat content. Now I also happen to love ice cream, and in ice cream, the higher the fat the better, which is what separates the so-called super premium ice creams like Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs from the regular supermarket brands. But the higher butterfat really lends itself to decadence in the more dessert-like flavors, especially anything chocolate-based, and leaves a fatty finish on the tongue, very indulgent. There is a reason why chocolate peanut butter sells well as an ice cream flavor and watermelon does not. Gelato, on the other hand, is much creamier, in the physical sense, served warmer and thus softer, and you can taste the flavors more at lower temperatures. It’s smoother in texture but actually denser because it has less air incorporated in it, giving it a really thick and unctuous feel without the fat. But the lower butterfat is the most important thing: absent the overpowering fat, the flavors of ingredients really shine through, especially with fruits and nuts. You can still get earth moving chocolate gelato but it is because those who make it tend to use extremely high quality artisanal cocoa, and chocolate gelato inevitably leans towards the bittersweet end of the spectrum.

I love, love, love chocolate, but when it comes to gelato, I usually go for a fruit or nut version, which I rarely do in ice cream, because the nature of gelato amplifies the taste of the ingredients. The benchmark gelato is pistachio, because every shop in Italy has it and Italy grows some of the world’s best pistachios. Another fantastic nut flavor, less common but still widely found in Italy, is almond. In fruits they do everything, but the common stunners include various melon and berry flavors.

The easiest way to assess gelato is simply by looking at it. Good gelato has muted natural colors, nothing bright. Pistachios are not actually electric green, and neither are kiwis, while cantaloupes are light orange, not bright orange. Gelato should be the color of its ingredients slightly lightened by milk, so when you see gelato that looks like neon, even in Italy, it means it's jacked with ingredients not found in nature and should be skipped. And believe me, not every gelateria in Italy is good, and if it is in a popular tourist zone or next to a train station, there’s a very good chance it is not good at all.

Anyway, my love for gelato means that any time I see a new gelateria, I have to try it, pretty much wherever it is. So I’ve had gelato all over the US, from downtown Manhattan to Colorado ski resorts, from San Francisco’s Little Italy neighborhood of North Beach to Las Vegas. But until recently, I had never had standout gelato on our shores. I’ve had okay gelato, passable gelato, and gelato trying really hard, like at New York’s Il Laboratorio del Gelato, but not great gelato. The biggest problems are either “mass market” style gelatos made from bagged mixes, which you will find in resort areas and malls, and hipster-style gelato, which seeks to improve on the original before mastering the original, with flavors like star anise when they can’t perfect pistachio.

The most crazily disappointing gelato I have had in this country was at Grom, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When Grom opened, the New York Times ran an article about how finally, an authentic gelateria from Florence had opened in New York, and as a result, the lines were out the door for the first few months, and though I walked by it all the time, I could never bring myself to wait that long. This is very typical of the food media, which embraces things because of their pedigree or long lines or cool backstory without asking the most important question, is it good? What the New York Times failed to mention is that the original Grom is probably the worst gelateria in Florence, a city full of great gelato, and if you go to it you will find exactly the same people on its line as wait at the New York version: tourists and American college students. You won’t see any locals (at least I have not) because they know where to go for great gelato just a few blocks away. When the furor inevitably died down I made it to the American version, and I even went back again to give it a fair shake, and the results both times were reminiscent of the Grom in Florence: unsatisfying. Just to be clear, it is not bad gelato, and certainly better than what I tried in the faux-Italian Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, but because of its “authentic Italian” marketing and posture, and New York Times endorsement, many people in New York, foodies included, think Grom is what good gelato tastes like. They are badly mistaken. (These days Groms also can be found in Malibu, Tokyo, Paris, and about two dozen locations throughout Italy).

So I had pretty much given up on American gelato until I tasted some in the unlikeliest of places, the weekly summer-only Farmer’s Market in Hanover, NH. Now Hanover is a college town, and an Ivy League one at that, home to Dartmouth, so it makes sense they’d have some culturally diverse and interesting foodstuffs around, and they do (though not enough). Also, the town sits on the Vermont border and shares the regional aesthetic for ultra-fresh local products of high quality, with access to farmstand fruits and the area’s famed and mostly chemical-free dairy trade.

I tasted this gelato and it is the real deal. Turns out woman behind Morano Gelato (Morgan Morano, naturally) grew up here in Hanover before moving to Italy for six years, during which time she worked in gelaterias, learning the trade mostly from a Sicilian gelato chef who became her mentor. Like anyone who has spent a lot of time in Italy eating gelato she realized the obvious: Americans are totally missing out on this! So she came home and set up shop at the Farmer’s Market. Her small batch gelato, in just two flavors each week, were a smash hit, and the town immediately recognized its potential and embraced gelato, allowing her to move to a permanent stand within a local café, open daily. I happen to live near Hanover, and have had occasion to speak to some college students who seem unanimously and hugely enamored of the stuff, and before too long, the Ben & Jerry’s franchise about a block away disappeared after more than decade in business. This is a pretty remarkable happening in a college town, especially in New England, especially less than 90-minutes from the B&J world headquarters, but I think it is an obvious endorsement of how good the gelato is (for the record, I like Ben & Jerry's, and the shop became a different, unbranded ice cream storefront).

The popularity continued, and in less than year, Morano Gelato was able to open an actual storefront of its own on Hanover’s Main Street, adding authentic Italian espresso-based coffee drinks to their menu, and increasing the still relatively small number of flavors they offer, which change regularly, another sign of an actual authentic gelateria, which embraces seasonal ingredients at their best.

For instance, I found out that when Morano makes strawberry gelato, the very popular version called fragola in Italy, it buys strawberries from the same excellent local farm I choose when buying fresh strawberries. You cannot count on your favorite flavor being available when you visit, but you can count on excellent gelato.

So if you find yourself find the area of Hanover, New Hampshire, do not miss the best gelato I have ever had in the United States, and I’ve had it a whole bunch of times.