If you think gelato is just the Italian equivalent of ice cream, think again. The frozen treat contains less fat and less air, and is served at a higher temperature than conventional ice cream, lending it a more intense, concentrated flavor.
Gelato can be made using either a cream base or a water base, which differentiates the Italian dessert from its French counterpart — sorbet — which is never made with dairy. The American version of sorbet, sherbet, is also water- and fruit-based, but may contain up to 2-percent butterfat, giving it a slightly more gelato-like creaminess.
But nothing can compare to the dense, creamy texture of gelato. While this beloved treat has an Italian name (gelato means "ice cold" or "frozen" in Italian), it actually hails from the other side of the Mediterranean. The Moors of northern Africa brought the basics of gelato making with them when they conquered Sicily in the year 965.
Combining mountain snow with the essence of certain plants, such as jasmine and rose, the Moors were making gelato long before it became popular in Italy. But the native flavors of Sicily — mulberry, almond, lemon, blood orange and mandarin — made their mark on what is now considered an Italian staple. Eventually, small amounts of cream and sugar were added to the mix as well, creating a recipe that more closely resembles today's gelato.
When the Moors left Sicily in the 11th century, the art of gelato making stayed behind, preserved by nuns who sold the frozen treat to earn money for their convents. In the centuries that followed, gelato made its way to mainland Italy, and in 1565, the Florentine cook Bernardo Buontalenti brought the dessert into the mainstream when he served Catherine de' Medici, the Italian noblewoman and eventual queen of France, her very first cup of gelato.
Today, gelato is served up with pride in Italian ice cream parlors (gelaterie) throughout the country as well as abroad.