Walking Guide III: Sweet Gelato Kisses in Gràcia
Editor’s Note: This is Part III of an on-going series of culinary walking guides for Barcelona neighborhoods by EatCatalunya’s resident walking food expert, Jordi, who provides us with not only strictly Catalan picks, but also international fare for those hungry in Barcelona and on a budget. Bon profit!
Ah, gelato! More than an epicurian pleasure and an excuse to take another edible walking tour, it is a way of life, a committment and a task of girth-altering proportions in Gràcia, home to 5 gelaterias with an average of 25 flavors each, or, said otherwise, a different gelato every day during four months (note: eating gelato every day for 4 months may improve your Italian).
Gelato means frozen in Italian, and that’s what they call their ice cream. Italy is the birthplace of ice cream (some time between 1565 and 1650) and the keeper of the traditions and orthodoxy of all things gelato. Tasting gelato is a learning process, a river of slow-thawing emotions that school the palate in the joys of real ice cream as compared to the chemically-stabilized froth known as industrial ice cream.
More importantly, gelato is now your chance to patch things up with your date after the vegetarian and ethnic eats fiascos. The Italians are masters in the art of amore, and gelato is one of their secret weapons. Allow the delicate ice magic set the mood with its sweet kiss, and eppur si muove! If gelato doesn’t get the job done, your date needs to be immediately replaced with someone with more piacere and less pecatto… or so they say in Italy.
Gelato: A Primer
– Not all ice cream is gelato. Gelato is tradition, simplicity, quality ingredients and, ideally, an authentic Italian ice-creamster or creamstress. If it is made on the premises or nearby, extra points. If you meet the ice-creamstress in the market buying the fruit that later that same day will be sold as ice cream, super extra points with a maraschino cherry on top!
– Gelato has a lower butterfat content (4-8%) than American-style ice cream (14%), as well as slightly lower sugar content and lower overage (air content) (20% to 35%) compared to the 50% of ice cream. High-quality artisan gelato holds its peak flavor and texture of delicate ice crystals for two or three days only, even when stored carefully at the proper temperature. This is why gelaterias typically make their own gelato on premises or nearby.
– The spectacular puffy ice cream sold to tourists downtown, fluffed every morning with a special air pump… not gelato! Ben & Jerry’s, despite it’s undeniable chunkiness, is not gelato either.
– The flat spatula (you see in the picture above) in each of the flavors is also traditional, so as not to mix flavors using the same scoop washed in water. The spatula is flat because gelato isn’t traditionally served in balls but in “slabs”
– Traditionally, the quality of a gelateria is measured by tasting just one flavor: the pistachio. Because of the elevated price of this nut, pistachio ice cream often contains a few nuts and a lot of green coloring. Aside from the flavor, which should be toasted, nutty and a bit oily, an important visual hint is the color: real pistachio gelato is brownish, not highlighter green.
– Before choosing, feast your eyes. Let your intuition guide you away from the usual suspects (unless you are a certified chocolate freak, in which case try at least to order a differing second flavor). Remember you’re allowed to taste a few options before choosing; don’t be bashful!
– Think quality, not quantity. The small cups hold two scoops. Two scoops of high quality gelato provide enough calories to operate a treadmill for a week, which is why the spoons are so damn small. Eat slowly, enjoy and return another day for more. Or buy a half kilo container, take it home and gorge until your face goes numb. By the time you can even look at gelato again without heaving, chances are you’ll stick to the small cup.
A local Catalan chain owned by an Italian family with 45 stores in Catalunya and Baleares. Ice cream made in Empuriabrava, where the first Dino opened 30 years ago. A tourist favorite in many parts of the city, it nevertheless qualifies as gelato in our book, albeit at a more popular and less quality-driven level. Can do in a pinch, like when there’s a 45-minute line at the Gelateria Italiana next door.
Details: Clean, well-lit, good selection. 35 flavors from a total of 50 with seasonal rotations.
Strong points: The creamy ice creams, the variety
Weak points: The fruits, compared to the Gelateria Italiana next door
Price: 2,60 Euros for a small cup (2 scoops)
Specials Flavors: Roquefort cheese, Sant Jordi
Our expert went with:
Dark Chocolate: Creamy and round; good sweet/bitter balance to the cocoa.
Mango: Too sweet and too milky, the mango appears too little too late.
Coffee: A winner. Italian capuccino made ice cream.
Sant Jordi: One of the seasonal flavors; whipped cream with aroma of rose. Delicate.
(Disclaimer: our expert has been a regular at the GC Italiana for so long she remembers when the cup cost 150 pesetas)
Gràcia’s first and for a long time only real bona fide Italian gelatteria. Opened by mother & daughter tandem Gina and Marina, 3rd and 4th generations of Italian gelato-making family tradition, this gelateria used to open only in spring and summer, and the rest of the year they worked in Italy as consultants. Ice cream made on premises, travels only a few feet to the counter (requisite of true artisan gelato). Recently the shop and the recipes were passed to new ownership, which, after an adaptation period, is now making it as good as the original.
The black chocolate ice cream is famous throughout Barcelona, the recipe was invented by Gina’s grandfather for her pregnant grandmother who was craving very dark chocolate ice cream. In total about 20 flavors, all old school classic, no funny stuff. Specialty in fruit ice creams, made fresh every day from seasonal market produce. Strawberry, pear, melon, fig, nectarine… the choice varies by season, but is always right on.
Price: 2,50 Euros for a small cup.
Strong points: The fresh fruit flavors and the black chocolate
Weak points: bad lighting, tacky decoration… not that anyone sits indoors anyway. The cork boards, however, are full of neat info about traditional gelato and deserve a peek.
Our expert went with:
Black chocolate: IL PRIMO GELATO. Strong, bittersweet high quality cocoa with almost no cream. Only for certified chocolate freaks; if you’re more of a nutella type, stick to the gianduja (the original hazelnut chocolate). Recommended accompanied by another contrasting flavor to take off the edge; our expert likes a fresh fruit ice cream to clear the palate.
Pear: like eating the platonic ideal of the fruit itself in the form of ice cream. Ditto for all the fresh fruit flavors; special mention for the fragola (strawberry).
Cinnamon: balanced, creamy, delicate yet full-bodied cinnamon. Lingering perfumed aftertaste.
Pistachio: A classic that never goes out of style, especially when made fresh with real pistachios. Was the best in town until the Bellamia opened.
Gelats Artesans Ottimo
Ottimo (website) opened last year in the Plaça Vila de Gràcia (the clock tower square) as the personal dream of an ice-cream loving Gràcia resident born in Southern France, near the Italian border, who was allegedly unable to find real gelato in Barcelona (obviously she didn’t try very hard). The Ottimo is located in an old pharmacy, and has maintained the dark wood interior decoration for the traditional look. The gelato, from bases made in Italy for the brand, ranges from traditional to contemporary flavors, from stracciatella to Snickers.
Strong points: A well-balanced selection of flavors and colors; quality raw materials.
Weak points: Gelato not manufactured locally, making it the most expensive of the gelaterias in this review (in all justice, the cup is generous).
Price: 3 euros for the small cup.
Specials flavors: violets, Snickers, watermelon, poppy
Our expert went with:
Dark chocolate: Bittersweet and intense, a real contender.
Maracujá (Passion Fruit): Hardcore, intense enough to blister the palate. Made from concentrate.
Mint chocolate chip: Fresh mint flavor with bittersweet chocolate bites. Everything an After Eight aspires to be in another life.
Coconut: Hard to go wrong with the coconut. Good proportion of chewy bits. Simply said, coconut.
The newest addition to Gràcia’s gelato roster (2 weeks open at the time of our first visit), the Bellamia offers perhaps the purest Italian gelato experience, including decoration which recalls a milk parlor of yore and ice cream in covered metal canisters in order to avoid surface frosting, keep the ice cream at the perfect temperature and save energy. So much for inspiration by color; here it’s all about the palate, not the eye. The roughly 20 flavors on offer are old-school traditional Italian recipes, including traditional toppings like crushed nuts, chocolate chips and varied syrups.
The Bellamia gelato bases are imported from Italy and transformed here. This works well for the cream-based flavors, but not for the fruits. As in the case of Ottimo, which also imports from Italy, they simply cannot compete with the freshness of the GC Italiana fruits. The creamy flavors, however, more than compensate with the delights of simple and unassuming recipes handed down from one generation to the next. What could be humbler than a panna cotta ice cream, and yet so damn yummy?
Price: 2,50 euros for a small cup.
Strong points: The nut flavors; pistachio, pinoli (pine), nocciola (hazel) and mandorla (almond).
Weak points: The fruit flavors
Special flavors: Pinenut, almond, pistachio, panna cotta
Our expert went with:
Dark chocolate: Creamier than the GC Italiana, not quite as potent but worthy of consideration.
Banana: Fruit in the background; cream in the foreground.
Cinnamon: A little too heavy on the cinnamon; the Gelateria Cafeteria still makes the best.
Pine-nuts: A pleasant surprise, one of the best nut ice creams tasted to date.
This gelateria (website) has had a special place in our gelato-lovin’ hearts ever since opening their Gràcia store a few years ago. The reasons for this are simple: quality gelato made on premises, small but well-balanced selection and super generous portions. Their vanilla gelato is superior; a must for a la mode presentations with warm pie or brownies. Because of the on-site production, the quality of the fruit creams and sherbets is rivalled only by the Gelateria Cafeteria Italiana, although the variety of fruit flavors is smaller. Do not let its location on the “wrong” side of Gran de Gràcia deter you… it is well worth the incursion, and even has a small square with benches in front to give the gelato the attention it deserves.
Price: 2,80 Euros for a small cup
Strong points: The vanilla, the fresh fruit flavors, the generous servings
Weak points: The overly-generous servings (they have plastic lids to take home what you can’t finish)
Special flavors: mel i mató, strawberry sherbet, crema catalana, tangerine
Our expert went with:
Dulce de leche: dark, creamy and delicate, 10 out of 10.
Pineapple: light, fresh and palate-tingling.
Crema Catalana: with a layer of burnt sugar on top, cinammony, one of the top sellers.
Pistachio: the real McCoy, brown toasted nutty creaminess.
Note on the map: Just in case you are direction-impaired and rely blindly on the map, the location of the Fontana metro exit is incorrect in Google Maps. While Google negotiates with the city to move the exit, please note it is still to be found on the corner of Gran de Gràcia and Asturies (red circle on the map).
Jordi is a professional writer and contributor to EatCatalunya who also blogs over at 99 Percent Space.
First image is of Tomo II, via Tomo II. Dino image by koalie, Cafeteria Italiana image by Alexandra Guerson, Bellamia image by yosoynuts, all on Flickr via Creative Commons. Ottimo image via the Ottimo website. Final Tomo II image via Tomo II.