The Culture Behind Italian Gelato

There are some sounds in the world that can make you feel nostalgic. For me, it’s the sound of the ice cream truck. Even when it’s sometimes off-tune, it makes me want to run outside like a kid again no matter how old I am.

Ice cream truck


Imagine my surprise when I learned I could have been eating ice cream for a living.  I should have switched my major and gone to school where my homework was edible. I think I may have been a better student if I did. On the outskirts of Bologna in the town of Anzola dell’Emilia, Emilia-Romagna that’s exactly what students do. They travel from all over the world to go to Carpigiani Gelato University. Yes! There really is a school for eating studying gelato!

Here students slice fresh fruits of strawberries, cantaloupe, and banana, add whole milk with just enough sugar, at just the right temperature for just the right taste. In fact, there is a science behind authentic Italian gelato. It takes precise calculation to roll out delicious results – a creamy texture, silky, smooth, and never entirely frozen to taste. I also had a hand in making my first batch with Gelato Master Luciano Ferrari. He’s not related to the Ferrari family – I asked!

Gelato Master Luciano Ferrari teaching the art of Italian gelato


James showing me how to slice the perfect kiwi to make Kiwi Gelato


Strawberry and Cantaloupe Gelato




Gelato di frutta


However, in the Gelato Lab, it’s not about merely scooping up delicious flavours. Sure, thousands of people travel to Italy each year for gelato (after all, it does taste better here and Italian gelato-makers know how to craft that perfect scoop) but the significance of this frozen dessert goes beyond indulgence in Italy. Gelato has become a way of life here and I loved being a part of it when I lived like a local in Bologna.

As a Social Tradition

Gelato has a way of bringing people together. Even before the first form of modern gelato was created (as far back as the 16th century) and distributed (the first scoop was served by Francesco Procopio in Paris’s famous and now oldest coffeehouse, Café Procope) royals and noblemen enjoyed frozen drinks together for special occasions. It created a sense of belonging. Today, at any given time of day, you’ll find Italians sitting in the piazzas, socializing with one another, and enjoying each other’s company over a cone or two.

To End a Good Meal

At the heart of Italian culture is food. Not just any kind of food but products that are local and in-season. Italians like to end a good meal the right way – with all natural sorbetto (a combination of fruit, sugar, and egg) to help cleanse the palettes or gelato “drowned” in espresso, known as affogato. Thanks to Kirsten and Dante, I had my first affogato in San Marino!

My first affogato in San Marino

During La Passegiata

Slow walks, strolling through the streets, and enjoying the city around them is an Italian past time and custom.  Unless it’s raining, it happens everyday and in every town. During the week, la passegiata in the evening marks the end of a workday. On weekends more families and children take to the streets throughout the day. Italians will change attire “to see and be seen”, swap news and gossip, and catch up with family and friends over gelato. Originally, the custom was practised by single women eligible to marry but la passegiata has become an integral part of everyday life. All ages from young children to adults participate in la passegiata and many cities will designate car-free areas for a safe passegiata.

To Live Longer

Gelato is milk-based so it’s only 5-10% fat compared to ice cream which can be 20-30%! It’s made with pure, all natural, in-season and local ingredients. The churning process is at a much slower speed, filled with 25-30% air rather than 50% found in that commercial stuff. This makes the flavour more intense and creamer so you don’t have to eat a lot to feel satisfied. Real gelato has no preservatives which means the quality is lost after 2-3 days compared to a 3-month shelf life in other ice creams. Conclusion: Gelato is actually good for you and helps you live longer! It’s low in fat, high in calcium, protein, and even vitamins like A and B2!

As a Global Culture

What was once a dessert unique only to Italy, Gelato has now transcended beyond borders. Young entrepreneurs from all over the world travel to Emilia-Romagna to spread the culture of gelato around the world. During my visit, I met students from Japan, China, Russia, Holland, the United States, and Canada looking to export a 14,000 year old tradition and bring a new skill back to their own country.  Gelato is not just a part of Italian culture. It has become a global culture even non-Italians eagerly want to be a part of.

Elise from Singapore slicing oranges


Carpigiani Gelato University is not just about creating a tasty, creamy, frozen dessert, but the institution is actually preserving the tradition of gelato, history, health, and sharing the culture of gelato around the world.

Of course, if I was going to help spread the word it would be necessary for me to taste test a few.



After. My “OMG that was good” look


Thank you Luciano for teaching me the craft of authentic Italian gelato!

Gelato Master Luciano Ferrari and me


How to get there:  Via Emilia, 45 in Anzola dell’Emilia, Bologna


Want to see gelato-making in action?

Check out my gelato video!


I was a guest of Emilia Romagna Tourism during their #BlogVille campaign and while all opinions are my own, they are solely responsible for the extra pounds I gained during my visit.

More in this series:

A First Taste of Local Life in Bologna
The Cheesiest Place on Earth
To Imola with Wine
The Medieval Town of Ferrara
The Other Leaning Tower of Italy
The Oldest Wine Bar in the World
Porticos of Bologna
Instagramming Bologna
Video: Making Gelato at Gelato University