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With the arrival of summer, even in the chilly city of San Francisco, there is a warmer and relaxed atmosphere. During the long joyful days of sunshine, while attending one of the several music festivals, being part of one unique cultural celebration in a historic Italian neighborhood, or enjoying the many artistic activities planned throughout the month of July, what better idea to have a break for a refreshing Italian gelato?
Thanks to the culinary tradition handed down over the years by many Italian immigrants, but also thanks to the San Franciscans’ passion for fine quality products from Italy, beside many ice cream shops it’s possible to find traditional gelato producers as well.
North Beach is definitely the place that makes it easier to came upon a good gelateria and taste classical flavors like cioccolato gianduja and zabaglione, but there are a few interesting locations in other fringe areas of the city, such as the close-by Embarcadero, the Mission, Nob Hill, or the Sunset—the proximity of which to the ocean offers a special occasion for a walk along the beach.
What makes gelato different from ice cream? This is a common question for tourists and locals alike. In fact, it is known that people who have tried gelato before or who have heard of it, at times have misconceptions about what it is and how it is made.
Obviously both exist for the same purpose, as they were created to satisfy our desires for a cold and creamy dessert, but gelato is considered by most to be better than ice cream for several reasons.
The main difference is air, or the lack of it. While there are differences in the ingredients, the real difference is the way the equipment is designed to make the product. Gelato equipment is designed to incorporate the least possible air into the mix as it is being frozen, while ice cream equipment is designed to incorporate as much air as it is being frozen, having as much as 50% or more added air. Gelato, depending on the flavor, will likely have no more than 15-20% air. Less air means a denser product with a smoother and creamier mouth feel.
The other major difference is the amount of added fat. Ice cream must be made with a minimum of 10% butterfat and most premium ice creams have even more. Gelato has less than 6% butterfat, and 20-30% less calories than most ice creams. This is one of the reasons why Gelato flavors are more intense, healthy and naturally tasting.
In any case, the best way to prove it is experience firsthand, stopping by one of the location mentioned below, and delight your palate with a flavorful, refreshing gelato.
Here are just a few places where you can enjoy gelato in the San Francisco Bay Area:
Gelateria Naia (North Beach - Castro - East Bay). Berkeley-based Naia has won more than a few taste tests. The three founders are friends who traveled all over the world and everywhere they went, they had to try the gelato. They met with and learned from master gelato artisans from Italy and took professional university courses. There are only two simple components for their outstanding gelato: pure, natural ingredients and small, artisanal batches. Gelato is made by hand and always enjoyed fresh. The flavors are true to their origins. Hazelnut tastes like hazelnut, not like hazelnut flavoring. The texture is always creamy, and the selection is vast enough to encourage experimentation. This business has attracted celebrities over the years, and its location in North Beach is very easy to find.
Gelato Classico (North Beach). A neighborhood cornerstone, the shop has been here for 25 years. Gelato Classico is the perfect choice if you want to enjoy a gelato during your visit to Washington Square. The space is tiny with less variety than some of the others listed, but the flavors are fantastic and the almost-hidden setting in North Beach makes it special. As the name implies, this place specializes in classical Italian desserts. Started in 1976 as a single, family-owned store in San Francisco, today it is regarded as the top gelato maker in the United States, and desserts are known nationally for their exceptional quality.
Mara’s Italian Pastries (North Beach). Mostly known for its incredible variety of pastries, cookies and focaccia, since 1984 this family owned shop serves 7 flavors of traditional and fresh gelato, even if not self made by the store.
Ciao Bella (Ferry Building - East Bay - Corte Madera). Ciao Bella started in New York’s Little Italy in 1983, based on family recipes from Torino. In 2003, Ciao Bella opened a branch inside the Ferry Building, a restored landmark, but it is now available at various shops throughout the Bay Area. Crafted like no other, Ciao Bella’s indulgent collection of gelatos and sorbets create moments of happiness for all its countless customers.
La Copa Loca (Mission District). This location deserves to be mentioned for its quality, variety, and for its unusual location in the heart of the Hispanic Mission district. The venue is small, but there’s a bit of extra seating around the outside. La Copa Loca gelato is featured at the popular Grove café among other places in town, and the flavors range from amaretto to saffron, with soy and sugar-free varieties, plus a large selection of sorbets. Bringing the old fashioned gelaterias of Italy to the San Francisco area has been Mauro’s dream. In 2005 his dream became reality when he opened La Copa Loca which has been highly recommended in the community and in 2008 was voted “best ice-cream” in SF Weekly magazine.
Dolce Gelato (Nob Hill). Unlike some smaller shops where seating is at a premium, at Dolce Gelato you can take your gelato and coffee in the upstairs space, or find a bit of seating outside. The menu includes a variety of flavors (from tiramisù to black currant sorbetto).
Melt Gelato & Crepe Café (Union Square – SOMA). Aware that gelato derives its flavor from the density rather than from fat, Melt makes its own with the finest ingredients and lower fat and calories than traditional American ice cream. Melt serves up to 32 flavors of Italian gelato, sorbetto, yogurt and sweets. This place has the advantage of being surrounded by a food court, the Centre at Westfield San Francisco.
Tango Gelato (Fillmore - East Bay). Tango has an Argentinean pedigree, founded by a Buenos Aires native and gelato lover. Even as a Latin/Italian hybrid, Tango Gelato is as authentically Italian as what you’d find on the streets of Florence. It would be hard to resist any of the 31 homemade gelatos and sorbets here. The flavors are varied, from Ricotta Lemon Zest to Irish Coffee. The café setting makes it easy to take a break and enjoy your gelato.
Marco Polo Italian Ice Cream (Outer Sunset). This unconventional shop has very good gelato which is made in the back of the store. Marco Polo hits the spot when you’re looking for something different. Lychee fans think Marco Polo’s lychee gelato is the best in the city. The Sunset location is great if you’re heading to the San Francisco Zoo or out to Ocean Beach.