The display case of gelato flavors was overwhelming in its variety and volume. But it still wasn’t sufficient to prepare me for my first taste at the La Coppa Artisan Gelato stand in the food court at Madison’s West Towne Mall.
“Try the Wedding Cake,” suggested the helpful clerk. “People like that one.”
Given that June is wedding season, the suggestion seemed reasonable. So I accepted a tiny spoon and popped the sample in my mouth.
Astounding, I thought. The gelato not only tasted exactly like wedding cake, but like some of the best wedding cake that I’ve ever tasted. I decided on the spot that ice cream would be moving to the back of my freezer to make way for this lower fat and more richly flavored Italian treat.
It’s hard not to love all the varieties and flavors of gelato, a word derived from the Latin gelatus, which means “frozen.” The opportunities and presentations of the Italian version of ice cream appear endless.
Milwaukee-based La Coppa, which also operates gelato cafes in Bayshore Town Center in Glendale and on Madison’s State Street, offers 40 inventive creations and dozens of flavors. Each one seems more appealing than the next, making it an effort just to choose.
In the exotic category, for instance, there’s “spaghetti chocolate” — a scoop of vanilla bean gelato shaped like spaghetti and served over fresh whipped cream, smothered in strawberry sauce and topped with shaved white chocolate “cheese.” Or you could opt for a gelato “snowman,” three scoops of the gelato of your choice dusted with white chocolate “snowflakes” and decorated with a candy face topped with a sugar cone hat. There’s the very adult “electric lemonade,” which involves two scoops of non-fat lemon sorbetto dressed with whipped cream and dosed with vodka and Blue Curaçao.
Or just have a full order of wedding cake.
Gelatarias, as gelato cafes are often called, have proliferated across the U.S. during the past decade. In Milwaukee, gelato competes with traditional ice cream and frozen custard, a Wisconsin favorite.
In addition to La Coppa, there are a growing number of gelatarias in Milwaukee, including Cold Spoons Gelato, 5924 W. Vliet St.; Cream City Swirl, 2663 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.; Paciugo Gelato & Caffé, 2500 N. Mayfair Road and several others.
In Madison, La Coppa has two locations. Gelato is also served at Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, 468 State St.; Babcock Hall Dairy Store, 1605 Linden Dr. on the UW-Madison campus; Michael’s Frozen Custard, with three Madison locations; and Villa Dolce Pizza Bar & Italian Restaurant, 1828 Parmenter St. in Middleton.
Gelato’s origins date back to the time of the ancient Romans, who brought ice down from the Italian Alps to make frozen dessert. Bernardo Buontalenti, a Florentine, is said to have invented modern ice cream in 1565 and presented his recipe and his innovative refrigerating techniques to Catherine de Medici, who in turn took the frozen novelty to France.
Despite a common origin, gelato differs from ice cream both in the way it’s made and how it tastes and feels on the palate. Unlike ice cream, which is subject to strict FDA standards, there are few if any guidelines governing the production of gelato, which means there are variations upon variations. That’s part of the dessert’s unique appeal.
Ice cream begins as frozen water to which cream is added, along with sugar and, in the case of custard and some home-churns, egg yolks. All three ingredients keep the ice crystals from freezing together and give ice cream its softness and pliability. Ice cream is churned at a certain speed, with adds air to the mix and makes the result lighter on the palate.
According to regulation, all ice cream must have a fat content of at least 10 percent, but premium brands generally have more. The better brands usually are churned so that the air amount, called “overrun,” constitutes roughly 25 percent of the finished product. Cheaper ice creams may have overrun levels of between 50 and 90 percent, which accounts for how insubstantial they taste and how quickly they melt.
Gelato, in comparison, uses more milk than cream and generally no egg yolks, which reduces the fat level in the mixture to as little as 3.5 percent. It’s churned at a much slower speed, which introduces less air into the mixture and contributes to its denser, creamier flavor.
In addition, gelato display cases are set at a higher temperature than those for ice cream, which are usually 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher temperatures offset the lower fat count and keep the gelato from freezing into a solid brick.
Back at the La Coppa stand in West Towne for a light dessert, we pondered over the 20 styles, including some fat-free sorbetto. Choosing was difficult, but we ended up with a scoop each of caramel with sea salt and caramel latte.
The caramel with sea salt was a little sweeter, and the coffee undercurrent of the latte was rich and smooth, blending well with the caramel overtones.
It was only after we were served that we saw the sign for spaghetti chocolate. Now we have a good excuse to return.