Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gelato: Italy's sweet spot

Now that Pavarotti is gone (God rest the maestro's soul), gelato officially reigns as Italy's greatest export. Many Americans haven't tried their hand at making this queen of Italian sweets, but some new products are coming on line that will help the process.

Italians have indulged in the rich, intense taste of gelato for centuries, yet one in two Americans haven't even heard of the creamy frozen dessert, according to a new poll of 1,000 adults nationwide. The poll, oddly enough, was taken by a gelato manufacturer, but that's no surprise.

It's that lack of awareness that brought "Gelato Amante" (Gelato Lover) Marco Casol to the United States in 2002. He is a native of the region in Northern Italy where gelato was first invented, and his family has owned and operated gelato shops throughout Europe for more than 100 years.

Knowing Americans and their sweet tooths, the market here would seem ripe for importing this cultural icon.

"I was basically born in a gelato pan," said Casol, president and chief executive officer of PreGel AMERICA, the specialty dessert ingredient company that conducted the recent survey. "My earliest memories are of the scents of vanilla, lemon and coffee in my family's gelato shop, and of the smiles their tastes would bring to our customers each day."

In recent years, gelato has been named by some as a hot trend in the United States, particularly along the East and West coasts. But despite the fact that shops offering this little taste of Italy are popping up on more and more American street corners, fewer than one in three people surveyed have actually tried it.

Of those polled who have heard of gelato, nearly half don't know the difference between gelato and other frozen desserts. While most Americans choose to eat it as a snack, many Italians eat gelato in place of lunch or dinner in addition to as an afternoon or evening treat.

American survey respondents - particularly 18- to 24-year-olds and those with children - agree that the social/shop aspect of gelato parlors is part of the appeal. (One things Europeans have mastered is the culture of dining and company). Of those who eat frozen yogurt, ice cream or gelato, two in three young adults and seven in 10 of those who have at least one child at home said they'd prefer to enjoy it at a shop where they could be with friends and family and have fun.

When asked which flavor they would choose if they could only eat one kind of frozen yogurt, ice cream or gelato for the next month, nearly two-thirds still stuck to the old favorites - chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla - in that order. Seven in 10 survey respondents who've had the chance to find their favorite gelato flavor said they've done it in the United States. An equal number of those who haven't yet savored its unique, creamy taste said they'd be most likely to do so by sampling it at a local shop.