When my daughter and I drove through Tuscany a few years back, I ate gelato on a daily basis. It was dense and delicious, and I tried as many flavors as I could. By the time we left, I was a diehard gelato fan, and my affection has never waivered. So when FRIO Gelato announced it was opening a third store, I decided to make a return visit to check out the product line.
Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. But in the United States, “gelato” means ice cream made in the Italian style. Without splitting hairs, gelato is denser than ice cream because it has less air in it. Because it has less air in it, gelato is made with less sugar and fat than ice cream. In Italy, gelato has to have a minimum of 3.5% butter fat. The United States has no legal standard for gelato, but ice cream has to have at least 10% butterfat. Even so, gelato isn’t diet food, nor is it “better” than ice cream. It’s different, just as a Honeycrisp apple and a Pink Lady apple are different.
Gelato is especially popular in Argentina, a country where more than half of the population has Italian ancestry. FRIO’s owners, Karla and Sebastian Koziura, are from Bueno Aires, and the company’s gelato is made in the Argentine style. Here again, the differences are subtle, and I’d much rather focus on gelato’s creamy texture and Frio’s interesting flavors than delve into them.
It was mid-afternoon on a quiet weekday when I stopped in to talk to Sebastian. He gave me a short tutorial, first on gelato and then on FRIO’s gelato. As we talked, I managed to sample most of the flavors, enough to convince me that making a decision next time ’round could be difficult.
First up was the dulche de leche made with a base of caramelized sugar. It’s rich and flavorful, so creamy that the mouth feel lingers for a few moments after you sample it. Like all of Frio’s gelato, it’s made in the company’s commissary in Evanston to insure consistency.
FRIO’s gelato is made with milk from hormone-free cows, and none of flavors contain nuts or gluten or various other allergens. Check out the company’s website for a complete list of inclusions and exclusions.
Gelato is served at a lower temperature than ice cream. Think about the taste of an apple eaten straight out of the refrigerator as opposed to an apple eaten after it’s been left on the counter, even for a few minutes. To maintain the proper temperature, the gelato is stirred and smoothed between scoops.
As Sebastian talked, I grazed. There was the Sabayon (egg custard with Marsala wine), the Queso y Miel (honey and cheese), the berries with Malbec, and the Tramontana (chocolate chip streaked with a milky caramel), all of them interesting and all of them good.
The fruit based gelatos came next, beginning with the strawberry. Frio uses top-quality frozen fruit in its gelato. For some reason, a lot of people still have a problem with frozen anything. Get past it.
Think back to last spring and summer. How many times were you able to get strawberries that were perfectly fresh and ripe ? I know my numbers were small, and I bought strawberries whenever they looked even remotely passable. Berries have a short life. Freezing them when they’re at their peak captures that “just picked” flavor that makes berries -and other fruit- so wonderful. Bananas, in contrast to most fruits, don’t freeze well. FRIO uses fresh bananas, and when they’re not up to the company’s standards, banana gelato isn’t available.
The afternoon lull was over. Business picked up, and I knew it was time to leave. I promised myself I’d come back to write about the sorbet. The ones I tasted were superb. Even so, no visit to FRIO Gelato will ever be complete without revisiting the Tramontana gelato.
1301 Chicago Avenue, Evanston
3721 N. Southport
5152 N. Clark Street (opening soon)