Here’s a familiar situation in my life: I’ve just finished dinner with a group of friends, and we’re trying to figure out what follows. Someone will volunteer ice cream, because my *real* friends know that I love ice cream. I don’t even have to say “I want ice cream” after meals anymore. They already know. But maybe there’s a new friend who doesn’t know me as well, or there’s a friend of a friend, who will pipe up with a suggestion: Il Laboratorio del Gelato? Grom?
Someone will shake their head knowingly. “Amy doesn’t like gelato.”
Sometimes the reaction is a shrug and further searching on Yelp. Sometimes the reaction is “What’s the difference?”
Well, I’m glad you asked!
First of all, I want to say that we don’t have to not get gelato. I will happily accompany you to the gelateria, where I will abstain from ordering. I respect gelaterias for what they do, and I respect gelato for what it is. I respect others’ delight in gelato. It’s just that ice cream is superior.
The difference between the two isn’t just semantics. Ice cream and other frozen desserts are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and legally defined by the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Part 135 (21 CFR 135). According to 21 CFR 135, the distinguishing features of ice cream are that it contains at least 10% milkfat (from cream and milk) and less than 1.4% egg yolks by volume (more than that and it’s custard). It also contains air, incorporated during the mixing process, that affects how much the final product weighs (I won’t bore you with how 21 CFR 135 sets this forth).
Gelato, on the other hand, is not defined by the FDA, possibly because it was originally an Italian product. Generally, it’s made from milk, no cream, so it has less than 10% milkfat, and it’s mixed in a way that incorporates less air.
Both are sweet and delicious. But there are noticeable differences in texture and mouthfeel. Ice cream looks and feels rich, creamy, and fluffy. Gelato looks and feels smooth, elastic, and dense.
The tongue-coating richness and paradoxical fluffy-dense texture of ice cream make it crave-worthy in way that makes gelato seem like just a less indulgent version of ice cream. Some people think less richness is a good thing. I am not one of those people. I’d rather skip the calories than settle for gelato. Give me full-fat superpremium ice cream, or nothing.