The difference between gelato—that cool Italian treat—and the more American ice cream is not as easily distinguishable as many Italians would like to make it seem. However, when I made this bold proclamation to an Italian friend, she shuddered and later sent me a condensed version of a very long PDF which explained the differences. Essentially, gelato should contain less fat, “less incorporated air,” and is served at a higher temperature. In practice, however, gelatieri in Italy do not have a standardized instruction manual declaring the perfect gelato temperature.
There is quite a large difference between ice cream served in America and gelato in Italy. But then again, there is also a huge difference between Marble Slab ice cream (which I love) and what passes for ice cream in college cafeterias.
Artisanal gelato does tend to be made more often, in smaller batches, with fresher ingredients and so it often feels smoother and lighter than ice cream. The difference in temperature is a factor as well; ice cream is generally a lot colder than gelato. However, when I embarked on my quest to find the best of the best gelato in Houston, the challenge of distinguishing between the two was immediately apparent.
So how does one differentiate? I ended up using the store’s own terminology. Thus, the Eatsie Boys are not included but a place in the middle of Chinatown called Gelato Cup is. The list is not ranked as each place is very different from the others and each store seemed to have both really good and, alternately, only decent flavors.
The Un-Italian Alternative: Gelato Cup
When I drove up to Gelato Cup, I was suspicious. The sign was, first and foremost, in Mandarin with an English translation underneath it. Inside, the gelato selections were not particularly Italian: lychee, taro, and green tea, among others. And those were the tastes I could easily recognize. They were really good, however. The taro is a bit confusing at first because it seems like it should taste grainy but is actually smooth. The green tea tastes exactly like it should, only slightly sweet and so very tempting.
True Pistachio: Cafe Dolce
I go to Italy every summer to visit relatives. But even I, a gelato lover, have had a tense relationship with the pistachio flavor. Pistachio is hard to get right for some reason and even in Italy, more often than not, it is not even made with pistachios. So imagine my surprise when I tasted the pistachio gelato at Cafe Dolce (in the middle of the Galleria) and fell in love. The flavor is made using Bronte pistachios instead of artificial coloring (as is most common) and the difference is immediately recognizable. Bronte pistachios are incredibly rare and thus outrageously expensive and so most gelatieri will look elsewhere. Cafe Dolce may sacrifice larger profits for the good of local Houstonians but their talent has already brought them rewards, most notably by being given the opportunity to represent Houston along with Sweet Cup at Austin’s Gelato World Tour.
Where the Italians Go: Nundini Chef’s Table
Gelato Italia—or Nundini as it is also called—is the Phoenicia Specialty Foods for Italian-Americans in Houston. Here we get our prosciutto, capers, water, gelato. That does not make all of its gelato good though. The pistachio (which I use as an indicator of an all around good gelato place) was too strong, lacking in the subtlety which makes Café Dolce’s so good. However, their hazelnut flavor is worth the drive. It tastes of fresh hazelnuts from Piedmont, and is smooth and light. However, Nundini's other flavors are only decent, and they also tend to have a very limited selection of flavors available.
The Guilty Pleasure: Costco
Costco may not seem at first to be the right place to buy gelato. Then again, they make everything else so well, why not? The gelato is only sold at the Richmond location and only comes in three flavors. The berry flavor is not worth it, but their stracciatella (my favorite flavor) is very good and their pistachio is worth buying. The stracciatella distinguishes itself from standard gelato in that the chocolate chunks are quite large. Most stracciatella has very small chunks so the taste is focused on the creamy vanilla. However, Costco’s variety emphasizes the chunks, which are sweet and contrast with the vanilla very well. The pistachio flavor is also really good. It is of the right brownish-green color, tastes like actual pistachios and—very importantly—has a taste that never fluctuates.
Trentino Gelato is a locally made, artisanal brand that can only be found in supermarkets and at a few restaurants. Some of the flavors are developed by local chefs along with the gelato master, Marcelo Kreindel, and vary widely in taste but are all pretty good. Mascarpone—created by Monica Pope of Sparrow— is simply fantastic. On the box, Monica Pope is described as loving pure white gelato. Her mascarpone is riddled with berries that do contrast with a beautifully white cream. The zabaglione is also worth buying, if only because it is an endangered taste even in Italy. Trentino Gelato can be hard to find and there is never any guarantee that your preferred flavor will be in stock.
Houston is not renowned as a gelato city. Rather, heavy, creamy ice cream prevails, but it is by no means impossible to find good gelato. There is some hope for gelato fans, though: those specialties are often on par with gelato in Italy and gelaterias such as Gelazzi in the Heights are now opening all over town in rapid succession.