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Searching out the best gelato in Florence, Italy

Published May 15, 2014

FLORENCE, Italy

It's only 9:30 a.m. but I'm ready for my first gelato of the day. ¶ Standing at the counter of Il Re del Gelato, a short walk from Florence's Santa Maria Novella railway station, I'm eager for a taste of the creamy orange gelato that won a top prize at the 2013 Gelato Festival. Each May, the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of gelato-licking enthusiasts in Florence, Milan and Rome. ¶ Il Re del Gelato is my first stop on a gelateria crawl through a city that earned a place in ice cream history by figuring out, during the Renaissance, how to transform custard into a delightful frozen treat. I want to seek out Florence's best — gelato shops that make small batches from great ingredients, with no artificial colorings or preservatives. ¶ Artisanal gelateria signs promise produzione propria (made in house). But legal definitions are loose enough that lesser establishments can make that claim even if they're reconstituting a powdered mix or throwing gelato shipped in a bag into a machine for a last-minute whirl.

Il Re del Gelato owner Tony Cafarelli is a self-crowned "King of Gelato" who is among Italy's most celebrated gelatomakers. On this day, he's still at the Milan festival, but his nephew Geri Lagati shares samples on plastic spoons while stocking the case with gelato, sorbetto and granita flavors in jewel-like colors.

Lagati points to the softened surface indicating an all-natural gelato, and he invites me into the adjoining laboratorio. I watch him and an assistant slice fresh pineapple for one mixture, spoon Amarena cherries into another, add walnuts to a third.

"To judge a gelateria's quality, taste the fior di latte (flower of milk)," Lagati advises. It is the base for many flavors, but in its unadorned state substandard ingredients can't hide. Here the blend consists of 6 liters of fresh milk and 1 liter of cream, plus sugar and carob, a natural stabilizer.

The Sicilian-born Cafarellis are winning Florentines over to gelato-stuffed brioche, and I can't leave without trying one. I settle on two fillings: cassata (candied fruit and nuts) and Modica chocolate with cinnamon and a hint of chile. In a word, divine.

Next stop is Vivoli, with elegant wood moldings testifying to its status as the city's oldest gelateria. I dip into the pale golden goodness of crema, the plain custard flavor that went up against exotic confections such as pecorino with caramelized pears at Florence's Gelato Festival in 2013 — and took second prize.

In a climate where gelaterias are clamoring for business and recognition, Silvana Vivoli wanted to stress the importance of fundamentals. "Crema was the first flavor made by my grandfather in the '30s, when gelato was a rare treat for a family's Sunday dinner," she says.

Made with eggs, milk and cream, crema was the groundbreaking treat introduced to the Medici court by the Renaissance architect Bernardo Buontalenti. Honey was the presugar sweetener and, all over Florence, gelaterias pay tribute with honeyed gelato named after Buontalenti.

The hardest part of making artisanal gelato is getting the flavor balance right, according to Vivoli. "Sometimes melon tastes like pumpkin or white peaches aren't as good as last week," she says. "When you're not relying on syrups or artificial flavors, you might have to give up and make something else."

On a small street near the Arno River is Gelateria dei Neri, popular with the university crowd. The tasty pistachio flavor is khaki-colored rather than vivid green, indicating the absence of artificial coloring.

A Gorgonzola-walnut combo doesn't do it for me. "That's a very particular flavor," says the server, wrinkling his nose. But mint granita is a winner. Giddy from the aroma, I ask for a scoop of mint gelato on top.

Crossing the river to the Otrarno side, I find Gelateria della Passera, a tiny, charming gelato shop in a tiny, charming piazza. Owner Cinzia Oltri acquired her gelatomaking expertise by studying with a grand master at the University of Bologna.

There are just 10 bins, all covered, with gelato surfaces smoothed flat. Oltri says, unapologetically, "I have no interest in making 40 flavors, and I find big fluffy mounds of gelato unappetizing." As for the lids, they protect gelato from air and light, which can damage colors, flavors, textures. Oltri adds, "Gelato is an organic thing, always changing — ours can't go beyond the third day after it's made."

Gelateria Passera excels with fanciful flavors. The most memorable is a seven-spice flavor bomb that includes espresso, star anise and cinnamon.

Le Parigine is so close to the cathedral that tourists descend in big, scary waves, sitting on wrought-iron benches and posing for gelato photos beside the life-sized ceramic cow outside.

Inside, there's an open kitchen where customers watch employees cut up fruit and pour fresh milk and cream into machines. I want the popular pear gelato but it is finito for the day, so I console myself with Greek yogurt and chocolate, both worth eating.

Just one street over, Carabé is a longtime favorite of mine. It's late afternoon and I've churned through a lot of gelato. Still, it's a hot day, and the icy melon- and citrus-based granita, made with fruit from owner Antonio Lisciandro's native Sicily, is a welcome sight.

Lisciandro is renowned not only for luscious gelato but for an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft and passionate insistence on high standards. A tasting in his presence requires a car trip to his farm in Terranuova Bracciolini, south of Florence. Open since April 2013, it's not easy to find, but gelato obsessives like me are making the pilgrimage.

Another day, I do just that. After taking in the panoramic views, I stroll into the only farm-based gelateria I've ever seen. Lisciandro invites me and several others to enjoy each gelato's aroma before tasting. In quick succession I taste crema with lemon zest, ricotta gelato, strawberry gelato in a bright pink.

Finally, I savor a soft yellow gelato made from heirloom quinces grown on the farm and a cherry granita I'll remember forever.

My quest ends with visits to two gelaterias in quiet neighborhoods near Fortezza da Basso. Acquolina refers to a phrase meaning "make your mouth water," and the ricotta and caramelized fig gelato certainly succeeds. I also love the gelato with organic pine nuts from orchards near Lucca.

True to the name, Gelateria de Medici specializes in flavors such as crema suprema (mascarpone with honey), based on old recipes.

I'm especially taken with displays of tropical fruits such as pomegranates and cactus fruit, their emptied shells filled with sorbetto from the same fruit. Customers take them home for Sunday dinner with the family — in the same spirit as the gelaterias that began to spring up in Florence 80 years ago.

Toni Lydecker of St. Petersburg is a food writer whose cookbooks include "Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks" and "Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal." For her lemon ricotta gelato recipe, go to tavolatalk.com.

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