Gelato is the Italian word for "frozen", and in the context of food, gelato refers to ice cream. But gelato is very different from traditional ice cream. Even though both contain essentially the same ingredients - water, milk, cream, sugar, flavorings and air, the proportions are uniquely different. Gelato has much less fat, a higher density, and it's served 10 to 15 degrees warmer than ice cream. With no air added to gelato, it is richer and creamier. The warmer serving temperature means that it melts in the mouth much sooner than solidly frozen ice cream.
Gelato can be traced back to 16th century Italia. It is usually attributed to the ingenuity of Bernardo Buontalenti, an Italian architect who was hired by the Medici family in 1565 to cater and plan events and banquets. He invented his fabulous "frozen desserts" which eventually became famous throughout the whole country. Because of the difficulty in getting the ice to make this unique treat, few could have it at first. This mixture of frozen sweet milk with egg yolks and flavorings was a very exclusive treat. Snow had to be collected during the winter months and then stored in cold places until it was ready to be turned into gelato. Rich families had their own ice basements or wells where they stored ice up to 30 meters deep. These intensive harvesting methods made gelato a lavish luxury in the 16th century.
In Northern Italy the gelato included milk, but in Southern Italy the ice dessert had only water, flavorings and no milk. This lighter version was known as sorbetto. Since the 16th century introduction of gelato in Italy, different countries adapted it and invented their own verisions. Argentina boasts helado and France has la glace, which was introduced by Catherine de Medici of Italy. Gelato is still extremely popular in Italy. Making gelato is a tradition as well as an art form, passed down from one family member to the next. Gelaterie, the cafes where this gelato is made and sold are sprinkled all over Italy and serve a wide array of delightful flavors, served with wafers, biscuits, or in cones. Different variations can be found in each gelateria.