History of gelato: world’s most beloved Italian dessert

by Marzia Parmigiani
15 minutes read
group of people having gelato cones - history of gelato

The history and origins of gelato have captivated people’s imagination throughout the ages. It is widely regarded as the most renowned Italian dessert worldwide, and its birth and historical narrative have been passed down through countless tales, often blurring the line between fantasy and legend. Unraveling the true origins of gelato is a complex task, given the abundance of historical accounts and references to ancient practices of preserving milk and food through freezing. Over the centuries, multiple disputes have emerged, each claiming the prestigious title of gelato’s inventor.

The gelato we enjoy today, with their luscious combination of milk, cream, eggs, and sugar, chilled and processed to achieve a creamy texture, differ significantly from their predecessors.

These early versions encompassed beverages or food items (primarily fruit), occasionally sweetened with honey, mixed with snow or ice, and stored in specialized containers known as “neviere”.

Traces of these frozen delicacies can be found in various ancient civilizations, spanning from Mesopotamia and China to ancient Egypt and Rome.

However, pinpointing a singular individual as the inventor of gelato is an elusive task. Instead, the history of artisanal ice cream unveils a captivating journey through time, filled with adventurous tales and delightful surprises.

“Gelato is delicious. It is a pity that it is not illegal”.


people having gelato cones

History of gelato and the Bible

The ancient tales surrounding the origins of frozen dessert reveal intriguing connections between history and mythology. According to one legend, the roots of gelato can be traced back to biblical times when Isaac, in an effort to combat the scorching heat, would offer his father Abraham a chilled concoction made from goat’s milk and snow.

As the chronicles of ice cream unfold, we encounter the ancient Roman tradition, popularized by Nero, of relishing fruit salads and sweet treats infused with honey and snow during the sweltering summer months. The earliest historical records referencing gelato date back to Athens in 500 B.C., where the Greeks delighted in preparing revitalizing beverages blending honey, lemon, and pomegranate juice with snow or ice.

The tradition of freezing and chilling fruit, milk, and other dairy products to preserve them appears to have ancient roots and can be traced back to Asian regions. As early as 2000 B.C., in China, a blend of milk and rice cooked with spices was being prepared and then solidified by placing it in snow. Subsequently, during the Middle Ages, chilled desserts made from milk and frozen fruit juices emerged, and these delicacies were introduced to Europe by Marco Polo in the 14th century.

hands close up with gelato cones

History of gelato in Sicily

In the context of Italy, the origins of frozen desserts can be traced back to Sicily. The initial instances of ice cream-like beverages or frozen treats in Italian history emerged in Sicily due to the influence of Arab rule in the 9th century. The local population enjoyed refreshing cold beverages known as sherbet, which were prepared using distilled fruit juices flavored with lemon, orange, pomegranate, cherry, and tamarind.

The Arabs in Sicily utilized snow from Mount Etna and nearby mountains to freeze these drinks in containers. Afterwards, they sweetened them with sugar cane imported from Persia. Therefore, it was in the lands of Sicily that the earliest predecessor of traditional Italian gelato came into existence.

During the Middle Ages, the Arabs extensively utilized frozen food practices, and they are credited with introducing the term “sorbet” derived from “sharbat”, which referred to a cold, syrupy substance made from cane sugar, flower petals, and fruit.

These Arab customs eventually spread to Sicily, and from there, the original sorbets made their way to the rest of the Italian Peninsula, gaining admirers, particularly during the Renaissance period.

girls having gelato cones

The history of gelato: but who was the creator of gelato as we are familiar with it?

Based on historical findings by the Italian Gelato Institute, the origins of homemade ice cream can be traced back to Italy and Italian cuisine. It was during the Renaissance in the 16th century that the birth of ice cream took place.

The credit for inventing ice cream goes to Bernardo Buontalenti, an architect at the court of Caterina de’ Medici in Florence, Italy. It was in this setting that ice cream was first introduced.

Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), a renowned gourmet and the queen consort of France (wife of King Henry II), played a significant role in popularizing ice cream.

When she relocated from Florence to France, she brought along her kitchen staff, including Ruggeri, an expert in preparing frozen sorbets, or what was known as ‘ice with sweetened and flavored water’ at that time.

In 1565, Ruggeri claimed to have invented the world’s most beloved Italian dessert. His recipe for delicious frozen sorbets included many of the ingredients still used in ice cream today, such as milk, cream, egg white, snow, salt, sugar, and lemon.

Another important milestone in gelato’s history occurred in 1686, when Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a Sicilian cook, created the first ideal mixture for making and packaging ice cream.

He inherited a peculiar machine for making frozen sorbets from his grandfather, and with this discovery, he moved to Paris, where he opened the famous Café Procope.

The café quickly became known for serving modern ice cream, not just in France but throughout Europe.

Francesco Procopio, who hailed from Palermo, became a prominent figure in the world of gelato.

However, the official start of the modern era of this delectable treat commenced when Filippo Lenzi, an Italian entrepreneur, opened the first ice-cream parlor on American soil in the late 18th century. Gelato gained immense popularity, which led to the invention of the hand-cranked sorbet maker in the 19th century, patented by William Le Young.

artisans making italian gelato

Gelato in the 19th century: the inaugural frozen treat creator

Continuing our expedition into the past to uncover the origins of homemade frozen delights, a pivotal moment in its production occurred in the United States. It was there that a visionary by the name of Nancy Johnson devised and secured a patent in September 1843 for the inaugural hand-cranked ice cream maker. This groundbreaking contraption consisted of a container brimming with ice and salt, accompanied by a mechanized metal cylinder for the mixture, which was then set in motion using a handle. A few years later, a shrewd individual named William Le Young capitalized on Johnson’s financial struggles and acquired the rights to her patent for a mere $200. It was Le Young who ushered in a revolutionary era of gelato production by affixing a motor to the container, thus ensuring a more consistent cooling process for the mixture. These technological advancements laid the foundation for the emergence of the first automatic sorbet maker with a mechanized spatula in the early 20th century.

The 20th century: the advent of the frozen treat vessel and the inaugural crispy wafer

The inception of the gelato cone took place at the onset of the 20th century, and its origins have sparked much debate regarding the first person to serve ice cream in this delectable vessel.

The credit for inventing gelato cone goes to Italo Marchioni, an Italian ice cream artisan hailing from Cadore, who ventured across the ocean to New York.

On the 13th of December, 1903, Marchioni made a trip to Washington to obtain a US patent for his ingenious creation—a printing device for crafting edible ice cream cups.

The birth of this precursor to the ice cream cone stemmed from the pressing need to offer ice cream in cups that were not susceptible to breakage like paper or glass counterparts.

Marchioni faced the issue of customers often failing to return these fragile vessels, resulting in unnecessary financial losses.

Another hypothesis surrounding the inception of the ice cream cone revolves around Ernst Hamwi, a confectioner from Syria. According to certain accounts, Hamwi was the first to serve ice cream in a crispy pastry known as zalabia, which was formed using a wafer press.

The serendipitous opportunity presented itself during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. When an adjacent gelato vendor ran out of ice cream dishes, Hamwi stepped in and ingeniously rolled some crispy wafers into cone shapes to serve as containers for the frozen delight.

History of gelato: industrial ice cream

The first industrial gelato on a stick, Mottarello al fiordilatte, was born in Italy in 1948. Soon after, in the 1950s, came the first cone with an industrial wafer, the legendary Cornetto.

The 1970s and the spread of the domestic frezeer instead baptised the first family-size bucket, the Barattolino.

All the way to the first famous biscuit that became a successful gelato, the two-coloured Ringo. After that, thanks to evolutions in freezing systems – to which we owe, among other things, the birth of the famous ice cream trucks that are very popular in the Anglo-Saxon world -, ice cream production became more and more widespread, involving a growing number of consumers who were also attracted by lower costs compared to the past, when ice cream was considered a kind of ‘luxury’.

The gelato boom was also linked to the commercialization of packaged ice-creams, which began in Italy in the 1940s with the launch of the Pinguino and Mottarello ice-creams on sticks – the ancestors of Cremino – and was corroborated in the following decade by the advent of the Cornetto and other ice-cream cones, as well as a series of cups.

The growing popularity of home freezers then led to the worldwide success of ice cream in buckets. And today, gelato is a mass consumption: a success, fuelled by the rediscovery of ancient artisan variants and preparations that increasingly wink at health (thanks to light recipes and gluten-free wafers). All this, accompanied by the continuous experimentation with alternative flavours to the traditional ones: from parmesan cheese to tomato, passing through rosemary, beer, beans and so on.

artisanal gelato

What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?

Although often considered synonymous, ice cream and gelato are not the same thing.

Ice cream and gelato are both frozen desserts, but they have a few notable differences in terms of ingredients, texture, and serving temperature.

  • Ingredients: Ice cream is typically made with cream, milk, sugar, and flavorings. Gelato, on the other hand, has a higher proportion of milk and a lower proportion of cream, resulting in a lower fat content compared to ice cream. Gelato often uses fewer egg yolks, if any, compared to traditional ice cream recipes.
  • Texture: Ice cream is churned at a faster speed, incorporating more air into the mixture, which results in a lighter and fluffier texture. Gelato, on the other hand, is churned at a slower speed, resulting in less air being incorporated, giving it a denser and creamier texture.
  • Serving Temperature: Ice cream is typically served at a colder temperature, around -10 to -15 degrees Celsius (14 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it firmer and harder. Gelato, on the other hand, is served at a slightly warmer temperature, around -5 to -8 degrees Celsius (23 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit), which gives it a softer and more easily scoopable consistency.
  • Flavor Intensity: Due to its lower fat content and denser texture, gelato has a more intense flavor compared to ice cream. The reduced amount of fat allows the taste of the ingredients to come through more prominently in gelato.

It’s important to note that these differences can vary depending on the specific recipes and methods used by different manufacturers or regions.

Ultimately, personal preference plays a significant role in deciding whether one prefers the lighter and fluffier texture of ice cream or the denser and more intense flavours of gelato.

chocolate gelato stick ice cream

The Bottom Line

Numerous food items have experienced remarkable transformations throughout their historical journey. In particular, gelato, or its earliest renditions, has undergone a fascinating evolution, progressing from early experimental preparations to the diverse array of frozen treats available in today’s supermarkets and stores.

The realm of gelato owes much of its culinary brilliance to Italy. In 1686, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli established the first ice cream parlor in Paris, introducing this delightful treat to a broader audience. Then, in 1903, an ice cream maker named Italo Marchioni revolutionized the industry with the invention of cone wafers, providing a convenient and portable vessel for enjoying ice cream. The period between 1939 and 1948 witnessed the launch of Pinguino by the Pepino company and Mottarello by Motta, marking the advent of packaged ice creams.

Determining the exact origins of gelato is no easy task, as it is a culinary creation with a rich and complex heritage. Some trace its lineage back to biblical times, attributing its creation to Isaac, who supposedly mixed goat’s milk with snow to invent the first-ever frozen delicacy. Others attribute its beginnings to the ancient Romans, who became known for their nivatae potiones or chilled desserts, showcasing their early mastery of the art of frozen treats. We hope that history of gelato: world’s most beloved Italian dessert, satisfied your curiosity about an ancient and delicious food. Keep following our blog to discover everything and learn about LCN App.

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