A gelateria (pronounced jell-a-ter-EE-a) is an Italian shop that sells gelato or gelati (pronounced jell-A-to or jell-A-ti). If you've never had the pleasure of eating gelato, put it on your itinerary -- it's a taste treat you simply must try while in Italy.
Gelato vs. Ice Cream
Gelato is sometimes labeled as "Italian ice cream" in the United States, but that definition is not really correct. Gelato is closer to ice milk, as the Italians discovered that too much butterfat interferes with the fresh, flavorful taste for which Italian gelato is noted.
In fact, it would be downright wrong in the United States to call Italian gelato ice cream, as ice cream is defined by the FDA as a frozen product with no less than 10% butterfat and typical Italian gelato is lower in butterfat.
A gelateria will often sell fancy gelato concoctions, a simple cone (cono), or a cup (coppa). The customer picks their desired flavors, which are labeled, often with pictures. Most of the time you will get 2 scoops (two different flavors) for the least expensive option.
Look for a gelateria that says "gelato fatto in casa", or house made gelato, for the best authentic gelato. Avoid places with brightly colored displays and instead look for colors that are closer to the real thing. A good flavor to check is pistachio which should not be bright green but a paler, almost brownish color. Fruit flavors should look like the actual fruit, not something brightly (read: artificially) colored.
Also, big mounded piles artistically arranged are most likely factory produced products.
You can find gelaterie that offer choices such as yogurt or soy milk gelato. If you are dairy-free, look for granita or sorbetto, fruit-flavored ices that don't have milk in them.
More than Just Gelato
Usually, you can find a few other things at even the most basic gelateria, such as ice cream cakes or desserts that you can take out.
The gelateria may be combined with other functions, becoming a bar-gelateria, a gelateria-pasticceria or even a combination of all 3. If it is also a bar it will serve coffee, liquors, snacks, pastry, and gelato all under the same roof. If the name includes the word pasticceria, it will also offer fresh pastries in addition to gelato. In bigger cities, you will frequently find a gelateria that sells only gelato, but in small towns, they often combine with other functions.
Sampling Gelato Throughout Italy
If you're going to Florence, book the Pizza and Gelato Class or Gelato and Vino Tasting through Select Italy for an inside look at a gelateria and how gelato is made. Food tours often include a stop at a recommended gelateria with inside information. In Rome try Eating Italy Food Tours or food tours with The Roman Foodie.