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How To Order Gelato in Italy

How to Order Gelato in Italy: Rules of Three

One of the most authentic Italian experiences is also the most delicious: Gelato. For a few Euros, you can join the locals as they enjoy a cup or cone throughout the day or as part of their evening stroll, the passeggiata. Every visitor to Italy is encouraged to try as many flavors of gelato as possible. And after your first taste, you’ll gladly accept the challenge. But there are rules to follow, so here is our guide on how to order Gelato in Italy!

There are two types of gelato: cream-based (crema) and fruit-based (sorbetto). Cream-based flavors have whole milk as the main ingredient, mixed with cream and sugar. Chocolate, nut, and specialty gelati, such as coconut (coco), coffee (caffè), and caramel (caramello), all start with milk.

Fruit-based flavors have no (or very little) dairy; they are pure fruit of every kind, blended with water and a little sugar. The classic flavor is lemon (limone). Try raspberry (lampone), peach (pesca), and fig (fico), too. Gelato has no preservatives; after it’s made, it should be enjoyed within 48 hours.

Ready to go? Learning a few “Rules of Three” will let you walk into any gelateria with all the confidence of a local.

Gelato in Italy Close-up of Pistachio and Hazelnut-Realmonte Sicily

How to Order Gelato in Italy:

When you enter the shop:

1. Look at the choices. They should be in metal pans. They should also be the natural color of the flavors. Check out the pistachio (pistachio) first. It should be a pale, dull green, just like the nut. Strawberry (fragola) is a soft red, and banana (banana) is nearly white—exactly like the real fruits. If the colors are neon-bright, go elsewhere.

2. Next, check the shape of the gelato in the pans. Gelato is served at -9 to -12 degrees Celsius (10-15 degrees Fahrenheit) so it’s softer than ice cream… and level with the metal pan. If the gelato is piled high, it will make a great photo for the folks back home, but it’s not for you. Take a picture and move on.

3. Pay first. When you find the right kind of gelato, decide how many flavors you’d like and head to the cashier. You can hold up your fingers to show the number of scoops. Usually, cones and cups are the same price; if not, the clerk will ask which you want. With your receipt, go to the counter.

closeup of serving of gelato with spoon

At the gelato counter:

1. Cream-based and fruit-based flavors are in separate areas of the case. Some shops may even have them in two different cases. If you’re not ready to order, step back while you look and decide.

2. Italians don’t queue. Not properly, anyway. They boldly step right up and order. When you’re ready, work your way to the front, make eye contact with the server or hold up your receipt and point to a cup (coppa) or a cone (cono). Your receipt tells the server how many scoops you have ordered.

3. Don’t ask for multiple samples. After one, or maybe two, the server will lose patience. Better yet, just go with what looks good. There really aren’t any terrible flavors, and you may discover a new favorite.

Closeup of gelato bins in Italy

Ready to order gelato in Italy like a local?

Tommaso Pantè, a Licensed Tour Guide and International Tour Manager based in Sicily, offers three insider tips:

1. No self-respecting Italian combines a creamy gelato flavor, including chocolate, with a fruit flavor in the same cup or cone. For example, you can order pistachio (or another nut flavor) with chocolate, but not pistachio with orange (arancia). Stick with either cream or fruit. You can always switch to the other type the next time you order. (Tommaso also says you should order what you want. “You’re a tourist. They will forgive you…”)

Gelato in Italy - Ice cream vendor holding ice cream Lemon and Pomegranate-Palermo

2. One scoop is considered a waste of everyone’s time; it takes two scoops make an order.  This is no time to skimp. Besides, there are so many delicious choices!

3. Never tell the servers to stop (“basta”) as they scoop the gelato. Let them determine the amount that you’ll receive!

History of Gelato in Italy

Whether you use the tiny spoon or lick the cone as you savor your selections, think about the 500-year history of this remarkable treat. Gelato—which means “frozen” in Italian—has been around in some form since the 16th century. Stories vary about its origin, but credit generally goes to Bernardo Buontalenti. He was actually a brilliant stage designer who worked in Florence for the Medici family. When asked by the Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici to organize a celebration for Spanish dignitaries, he arranged for spectacular displays of theatrics and fireworks. He then set about making a frozen dessert made with ice, sugar, egg, honey and milk. Buontalenti flavored it with bergamot, lemons, oranges and a dash of wine. He also invented a way to keep snow in a cold storage room so that it could be used to make the exciting new treat all year long.

One final tip:  After scooping your flavors, the server may ask you, “Panna?” This means whipped cream. Why not? “Si, grazie” is all you need to say. Buon appetito!

How to order Gelato in Italy – Pin for later:

Pin: How to order Gelato-in Italy with background photo of gelato

Written by and photos by Suzanne Ball for


Thursday 2nd of March 2017

I do like gelato:)

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