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Gelato Sets Out on a World Tour

Can Italy’s answer to ice cream keep its identity while on the go? Our reporter investigates.

Gelato cone

Under a giant pop-up tent in Chicago’s Millennium Park, beneath the funhouse reflections of the city’s beloved “bean” sculpture, Cloud Gate, I’m being swept up in a crowd of gelato enthusiasts clutching fistfuls of tasting tickets. We’re here to sample the top flavours from 16 competitors vying for the title of World’s Best Gelato. I consider which lineup to join – saffron pistachio with lemon peel, or Texas pecan pie topped with whisky caramel sauce? – before queuing for the simple maple gelato from Vermont. My first lick takes me back to the porcelain-white fior di latte gelato I ate years ago in Bologna. That velvety mouthfeel and pure milk flavour were enough to inspire me to track down the icy treat whenever I travel, from the tidy mini-scoops in Freiburg, Germany, to the lustrous custards in Paris, artfully folded into petals like a rose in bloom. Clearly, different destinations put their own spin on the Italian dolce. And now here I am, in the home of deep-dish pizza – miles and miles from wafer-thin Neapolitan slices – roaming the aisles of audaciously un-Italian flavours. Coming face to spoon with my inner purist, I start to wonder: Can taste be exported and stay true to its roots?

A marvel of clever cultural marketing with support from the Italian government, the Gelato World Tour is the first travelling competition of its kind and a testament to the borderless state of modern food culture. It’s organized by Carpigiani, one of the leading producers of gelato equipment and the same Italian company that runs Gelato University. The hands-on training facility in Bologna welcomes 2,000 students annually, with 10 satellite campuses on five continents and courses ranging from a few hours to a few months. By dedicating a whole curriculum and establishing an entire vernacular around the quintessential Italian frozen dessert, the university is quickly building a global crew of gelato-making ambassadors that includes everyone from tech entrepreneurs to surfers, from Singapore to South Africa — all keen on adding their own twist.

On the third and final day in Chicago, I watch the competition unfold like a kitchen-battle reality show, with competitors in chef coats dashing between the lab and trade-show booths where they kibitz with customers. The crowd swells by early afternoon, and the panel of expert judges takes the stage to score each submission for flavour, texture and appearance. Taking home one of the top three prizes goes beyond bragging rights; it secures a spot in the Tour’s grand finale in Rimini, Italy, next fall. With just a few hours left to taste, I line up for a Seattle chef’s signature flavour, billed as Magic Carpet Ride: black-sesame gelato with dark-chocolate stracciatella and pomegranate molasses topped with toasted sesame seeds and shredded white chocolate. While I like all the ingredients individually, as a mouthful it’s at the very least mystifying. Perhaps there is such a thing as straying too far from tradition.


In search of an answer, I track down Carpigiani’s Luciano Ferrari, a 40-year veteran in the gelato industry, who is busy scurrying backstage in an area where visitors watch competitors whip up batches of gelato on the other side of a large, clear plastic window. Away from the din of churning machines, I ask how he feels about being surrounded by trendy cross-cultural flavours with a reliance on toppings and mix-ins. “When you go anywhere in the world, what you find is no longer a duplication of an Italian product but the local expression of it,” he says, between sips of takeout coffee. He adds that the climate, the water, the air – the terroir of the place where it’s being made – all come into play. Gelato is “amazingly adaptable” and the perfect platform for catering to different taste preferences, like matcha in Tokyo or Bananas Foster in New Orleans. In other words, let them lick frozen Red Velvet.

When the winners are announced in the afternoon, I see this theory in action. Rewards are handed out to the more experimental (the public vote is worth 65 percent). Bronze is awarded to a chocolate bourbon maple-candied pecan creation from Stella Luna Gelato Café in my hometown of Ottawa. A Chicago competitor’s spin on Rocky Road made with marshmallow meringue takes the silver, and a creamy gelato swirled with dark chocolate and tangy-sour passion fruit from a shop in Medellín, Colombia, gets the gold. As the crowd disperses, I think about Ferrari’s diplomatic view on the state of my favorite dolce and recall an aside he shared with me: “Sometimes if you mix too much together, you lose the identity.” Perhaps that’s what makes gelato so remarkable; it goes from being an icon of Italy’s fiercely regional cuisine to a product that any culture can call its own. But I still melt for my fior di latte alla Bolognese.

Gelato flavors

The Big Chill

Top flavours from the Gelato World Tour 2016 in Chicago

1. Amor-acuyá mixes South American passion fruit with 65% Colombian chocolate for a hint of bitterness, to sweet and sour effect.

Dolce Gelato, Calle 49, #33-38, Medellín, Colombia


2. Chicago Pothole, a next-level tribute to Rocky Road, contains Ecuadorian chocolate, roasted and caramelized pecans, dark-chocolate chunks and marshmallow meringue.

Massa Cafe Italiano, 7434 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park, Illinois, 708-583-1111


3. Rich Chocolate, Koval Single-Barrel Organic Bourbon, Ganache Swirl and Maple-Candied Pecans- it’s all in the name.

Stella Luna Gelato Café, 1103 Bank St., Ottawa, 613-523-1116


Reigning champion from the most recent Grand Finale in Rimini, Italy, Almond Affogato, a coffee kicker on a Madagascan vanilla base with salted caramel sauce, took the gelato crown in 2014.

Cow and the Moon, 181 Enmore Rd., Enmore, Australia, 61-2-9557-4255

Lemon gelato cones

Inside Scoop

For deeper knowledge about all things gelato, Gelato University has campuses around the world – the U.S. base is in North Carolina – with short- and long-term courses, including one-day workshops. After qualifying rounds in Germany and Italy, the Grand Finale of the Gelato World Tour will take place in September 2017 in Rimini, Italy.
Prop Stylist: Pierce Atkinson; Food stylist: Chantal Legault



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