Everyone knows gelato is a dish best served cold, but there's a lot more to mastering this creamy postre. Its secrets are revealed at Gelato U. in Bologna, Italy.
Author Nina Burleigh Photography Michele Borzoni
THE FIRST AND LAST THING I held in my hand during two days at Gelato University was a plastic spoon, not a pen. In fact, during a two-day visit to the school, I worked my way through a rather large number of these disposable utensils. It might have been wasteful, but what could I do? Two dozen apt pupils were churning out about 60 different flavors of gelato each day, and, well, I was the only nonstudent available to test them.
The seven-year-old Gelato U. is in Bologna, on the grounds of the Carpigiani gelato factory, the world’s largest maker of gelato machines, which produce the improbably tiny ice crystals that account for the dessert’s smoothness and flavor.
In a Jetsons-style lab and lecture room dating to the 1960s, gelato experts train a biweekly influx of students from Italy and around the world, who sign up to learn how to turn flavors and fruits into an icy treat.
During my two days at the school, maestro Gianpaolo Valli was running the lectures and lab. Most weekdays, year-round, Valli can be found clad in a blue chef’s jacket, strutting like Napoleon before 20 to 30 students for eight hours, barking out his secrets, occasionally disappearing behind bushels of persimmons and gallons of cream.
In class, the maestro takes no prisoners. On day one, he lays out the regimen for the week. “No homework today, but tomorrow, homework! A very, very strong exercise on Thursday night! Friday you have a test with seventeen questions. You will have twenty minutes to answer them!”
First, however, the students must begin with a method that a real gelato expert would find highly distasteful. They cook up their first practice batches of gelato using what look like paint cans full of industrial artificial flavoring. The results are good, but not great. And that’s the point, because the maestro wants these novitiates to understand the taste difference between the easy way and the hard way—the latter involving real fruit, 12 hours and plenty of elbow grease.
“Tomorrow is great artisanal day,” he shouts as they clean up after their inaugural efforts. “Why? Because tomorrow we transform the fruit! We peel! We peel for forty minutes. You know kibana? Kee-bah-na. It’s a wedding of kiwi and banana. We make that. But first, our theoretical lesson about balancing sugars and fats! And tomorrow, when we finish, you are very, very happy. Why? Because tomorrow we obtain the final result. Maybe better than fresh fruit!”
The gelato classes, which run for one week, are given in English every other month. Students pay 700 euros (about $1,000) for the course and must cover their own room and board. Most of Gelato University’s enrolees are Italians hoping to open their own gelaterias—not in Italy, which is saturated with them, but in far-flung corners of the earth. The English classes are international, and during my visit, the two dozen students (average age: midforties) included a Nigerian, several Germans, two Turks, a Dutch woman, a pair of Serbs, several Swiss, a man from the South Pacific and two Americans.
At seven in the evening after their first long day at Gelato U., some of them gathered on couches in the lobby of a nondescript hotel, their dorm. They had just churned out their first batches of mostly tasty desserts, and now, like students everywhere, they were comparing notes, fretting about upcoming tests and, most of all, dreaming about where their degrees might take them. Could there ever be a Starbucks-like gelato franchise, they wonder, and who would start it?
One was Canadian mountain climber James Coleridge, who is in his 50s, with a six-month-old first child at home. He recently decided it was time to settle in at lower altitudes. With his wife of six years, he plans to open a gelateria in Vancouver in April. As befits a man who has climbed some of the world’s highest peaks, he says his gelateria will be serving the Mount Everest of desserts, a triumph of taste. “I am not interested in making just any gelato, I want to be the best worldwide,” he says.
For Coleridge and his fellow students at Gelato U., gelato is not just another dessert. It’s a calling, a way of life, a rebuke to modernity and a return to healthful living, all in one smooth spoonful. “Today’s society is too fast, and the slow food movement is a response to that,” says Coleridge, clad in a cream-splattered apron and cap and pouring the makings of a vanilla gelato into a machine. “We need to move away from processed foods. Obesity issues in America come from processed food. Then you have the homogenization of food flavors. Gelato is the healthiest dessert on the market. This is the lost art of the artisan.”
“Many people come and decide to change their lives,” says Valli. “They say, ‘I am so stressed.’ When you sell gelato, you can go to the beach! You go to a Pacific island, make gelato in the morning, sell in the afternoon, and when it’s done, you go to the beach, find a woman. It’s good, no?” The maestro, though, prefers a more rigorous sort of gelato maker. In his view, people who view gelato as a ticket to easy street are headed for trouble. “What if you didn’t produce that second limone sorbet and you run out? What if you don’t sell enough and you have to put it back in the freezer, and it comes out hard as a rock?”
The maestro is adamant that nowhere on earth is too remote for gelato. He has been called to advise new gelaterias all over the world: Damascus… Cairo… a small town in Northern Australia. Different climates require different formulas; different regions call for special ingredients. “In Africa, I make gelato only with sugar and the local fruits,” he says. “Our goal is to adapt, because it costs too much to import.”
In Italy, there are an estimated 25,000 gelaterias. Italians are hard-core gelato fans, partaking with considerable gusto and little apparent guilt. Crowds cluster and jostle around gelato counters in the summer months, and in this reporter’s eyewitness experience, it is rare to see an Italian of any size, age or gender walking out of a gelateria with anything smaller than a towering three-scoop cone.
The Carpigiani corporation would like to see that attitude go global. CEO Andrea Cocchi says the university wants to expand the culture of gelato beyond Italy’s borders, as much as it wants to sell the company’s machines (though not every student heads home with his or her own gizmo). “We hope the students learn that gelato is an interesting and affordable business, and then start gelaterias,” Cocchi says. But the company doesn’t keep track of how many graduates go pro. “Some of them wait two years, and then we hear that they opened up.”
Due in part to the recession, which has prompted a number of people to seek second careers, the university has a seen a 50 percent increase in the number of students enrolled since last year. The pupils of Gelato U. see a sweet future ahead. If Italians and now other Europeans love the stuff so much, can Americans be far behind? Is ice cream headed for a meltdown?
Cocchi isn’t so sure: “It’s a matter of culture and taste. It’s a passion.”
After spending a week or two of listening to Valli, the students can’t help but catch some of that passion. He sprinkles his lectures on theory and practice with the exhortations of a street preacher. Before the students go to work on heaps of passionfruit, kiwi, oranges, figs, melon, apples and assorted other fruits, the maestro extols the importance of flavor: “I need you to tell the mamas, when they come into your shop, the mamas whose children grow up on fish and chips and never taste strawberry unless it’s the flavor in antibiotics: ‘You have the opportunity to give your kid nutritional value!’ You go and tell the mamas!”
A few hours later, after the students have peeled, diced and churned mountains of fruit into small tubs of sweetness the maestro promised would be an improvement on fruit itself, I work my way through some two dozen plastic spoons. And I am happy to tell the mamas—and the papas and the babies—that a spoonful of freshly churned fig gelato may well be the closest we can come to heaven this side of the pearly gates.
NINA BURLEIGH ate Italian-style while researching a new book, but she still likes American soft-serve, too.