Don’t get Italy’s Gelato Museum confused with the Instagram-bait Museum of Ice Cream that has toured the U.S. for the past few years—not in the least because one of the focal points of the former is defining the difference between gelato and ice cream.
A 20-minute drive from central Bologna (and a short train ride from Florence or Milan), off the usual tourist path, sits the imposingly large, industrial building housing global food-service supplier Carpigiani’s corporate headquarters along with its Gelato Museum and Gelato University.
There are a few photo-friendly displays—a gelato pedal-cart and human-size stuffed gelato bar—but this museum and the attached school, funded by gelato-machine company Carpigiani, are serious about the sweet stuff: hard-core history lessons and hands-on gelato workshops. Given the obsession of nearly every tourist to the country with stopping into the tiny gelaterias dotting Italy’s central plazas and stone streets, the opportunity to learn about the history and making of the country’s favorite frozen treat is worth the trip—like visiting the mothership for scoop shops.
Entry to the museum requires a guided tour, which brings you through the bright, modern interior and also through the history of frozen dessert, starting with its origins as a luxury only the wealthy could afford, when it required dragging ice from faraway mountains. Exhibits include depictions and passages from literature and letters about frozen desserts, eventually zeroing in on Italy as the birthplace of gelato—where, in the 17th century, the first machine for making gelato was invented. By the 18th century, a doctor first declared it a contributor to human happiness.
After the history section, visitors turn the corner into collections of gelato-related artifacts, including colorful arrays of tins, advertising posters, vintage freezers, dessert cups, various gelato conveyances including a tricycle and truck, and a timeline of gelato-making equipment running straight up to the present.
By the time visitors finish the one-hour guided tour of the museum, they’ve got a pretty good grasp on what the dessert is and how it’s made. From the tour alone, visitors will be better prepared to identify gelato imposters: artificially flavored or additive-infused to make the product look better or last longer. But with just a little more time and money, people can attend gelato classes for deeper knowledge.
Gelato University is the education branch of Carpigiani, with 15 campuses teaching 400 courses in 10 languages. The headquarters next to the museum also offers mini-courses in tasting, gelato making, and a master class that includes developing your own recipe. In a corner of what is essentially an ice cream parlor, students sit down to learn about gelato while behind them, an arching, stainless-steel counter holds a veritable world of flavors, and a busy kitchen makes even more.
One thing you won’t leave the museum complex without having learned is the difference between gelato and ice cream. Because gelato is made with milk instead of cream, it has much less butterfat (zero to 8%, while ice cream has 10% to 18%, according to Carpigiani). Gelato is also churned at a slower speed, which means that there’s less air incorporated, giving you a sweeter, denser dessert—which still tastes creamier despite having less fat. Another bonus: Gelato is served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, so it won’t melt as fast.
Other lessons seem a bit oversimplified: In Italy, it might be construed that gelato is seen as “artisanal” and ice cream is “commercial.” That isn’t always the case in the United States, where small-batch ice cream makers (see: Salt & Straw, Big Gay Ice Cream, Jeni’s Ice Cream—the list goes on) are flourishing.
But for frozen dessert aficionados, learning to hand-make gelato and understanding the way different types of fruits and flavors change textures (and thus recipes) can be inspiring. And for the full-on gelato nerds (and aspiring ice cream entrepreneurs), understanding the differences in fat percentages and how freezing temperatures affect texture is critical. And with plenty of samples throughout, the sessions don’t bog down the folks who just want a glimpse into why the passion for melting sweets is so long-lasting.
While graduates from the gelato classes won’t collect the kind of selfies the Museum of Ice Cream flaunts, they do leave with their own gelato “degree” (more like a certificate of participation), a full belly, and a rigorous understanding of what gelato is—and why it’s not ice cream.
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