Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Get your Gelato On

Not to be too patchouli about it, but I’ve got a lot of Karma. Not necessarily bad or good, just a massive steady stream of it—I find $100 bills, but I get stuck in elevators and fall down stairs. I’m that girl—the one with the story.

This summer has brought such a spate of events. (For example, I’m currently down both a state ID and a debit card.) Then I had the best. Weekend. Ever.

To top it off, I think I closed the gap on this farmer’s tan I’ve been fighting all summer long. This is extremely fortunate, because the tourists at the World Trade Center PATH station had begun to follow me with their eyes like a zebra at the zoo.

Anyhoo, the Fresh Mozz and Ms. Posanne spent Saturday exploring some of NYC’s gelato mainstays, and we set out to answer to question: what makes gelato different?

Image credit: Nodame

We started at Grom in the West Village, which feels like the confectionary equivalent of an old-style tiled bar where vested ‘tenders fix egg-white cocktails.

All of the gelati rest in gleaming climate-controlled containers, and our esteemed server doled out samples with effusive pride, as if to say: “No you absolutely MUST try THIS one next.” The optimistic melon and zippity mint were among out favorites, and the slushier “granitas” bloomed with a subtle effervescence.

Federico Grom and Guido Martinetti brought Grom and their particularity for ingredients to the Upper West Side from Torino in 2007, where it broke like Pinkberry—food bloggers marveled at the 30-foot lines outside their West 76th street gelato emporium. They opened their West Village location shortly thereafter.

Let me refine, for a moment: gelato (trans. “frozen”) is an Italian dessert that resembles ice cream but is not ice cream.

The major points of difference? Quality, milkfat, and air.

Ice cream in the fat plastic drums from Dominick’s doesn't use vanilla, I doubt they even use extract. And it tastes like cold wet sand. In contrast, gelato seeks to concentrate and essentialize the best aspect of the flavor, so every ingredient is top drawer: Bronte Sicilian pistachios, Amalfi lemons, Venezuelan chocolate, San Bernardo mineral water from Piedmont. (Grom also uses carob flour). The thickness and density also differ: ice cream primarily uses cream with a 10-18% milkfat content, while gelato holds the fat down to a low roar at around 8%. Since milkfat clouds and overwhelms the flavor of the overall product, a leaner frozen dessert condenses the flavor. Grom has a more upturned take: "Also, in our opinion cream tones down too much the incisiveness of the flavors."

And while you may have guessed that gelato or higher quality ice cream has less air, the number is actually quite surprising—its between a quarter and half, pumped directly into the unfrozen liquid. By contrast, gelato only has 10% air, leading to a creamier end product.

I think we love gelato it because also possesses a mystical quality; it hoodwinks the palate into conjuring the ideal form of a flavor. For a moment, we forget that oranges are round and heavy, almonds and their bite, or coconut’s grainy pieces, and in that second gelato flash mimics the essential character of the flavor in another form. At the same time it surprises with a new dimension to a food you thought you knew well, you thought were well acquainted with. Ms. Posanne put it best when she said, "It's like the Jetsons, it's like a flavor pill from the future."

Il Laboratorio del Gelato does this best. It was started by Jon F. Snyder, who also brought you Ciao Bella gelato and sorbet. After he sold Bella (at the ripe age of 25), he founded Il Lab which produces its mod rectangles of tasty on the Lower East Side. There we found enlightening flavors like Guinness (which I didn’t taste) and ricotta (which I did, and it was one of the most delectable pillowy textures I’ve ever crossed).

It might be a little less traditional, but the new insights into the “ideas” of flavors were provokingly satisfying, and made me reconsider my taste expectations.

To cleanse our palates between tastings, we went to Murray’s cheese shop, which might be heaven on earth.

Throw in some glasses shopping, bocce in the park, and savory waffles and color me happy.

Lastly, I’m working on coming back to Brooklyn. More details, as we say in the business, “t/k.”

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