In the small Italian village of Panicale, L.A. native Gail Silverton said she was drawn to the piazza, the warm, welcoming town center where citizens of all ages gathered at gelaterias to enjoy a dish of stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings), a hazelnut gelato cone, or even a raspberry sorbetto. They would sip an espresso, gossip with neighbors, and because it felt so good to be there, linger as long as possible.
When she returned home to Studio City, Silverton and husband Joel Gutman, longing to recreate that special sense of community, founded Gelato Bar in trendy Tujunga Village, where all ages and groups could meet. And because it feels so good to be there, folks tend to linger.
It’s not easy to find a place where everything seems right with the world.
But it’s possible to encourage the same camaraderie at our bar or bat mitzvah parties by creating a warm, welcoming environment. And at the center, your own gelateria, where guests are invited to sample the flavors, personalize their handmade cones or bowls with a variety of toppings, and kibbitz, laugh and linger with guests from every generation.
What Is Gelato?
Gelato is dairy-based dessert made with fruits, nuts, chocolate, toffee or any number of enticing ingredients. Sorbetto is dairy-free, made only of fruit, sugar and water, so it contains no fat or cholesterol.
As delicious as gelato is, it’s lower in calories, sugar, carbs and fat than American ice cream. Gelato uses more milk than cream so it contains 4 percent to 8 percent butterfat; American ice cream features 10 percent to 18 percent butterfat.
How to Pick the Best Gelato
When deciding on flavors for your party, a good mixture is four gelatos, such as stracciatella, vanilla, pistachio and hazelnut and two sorbettos, such as raspberry and mango.
If you’re feeling adventurous, experiment making your own gelato, but for a large party it’s easier to buy it from the gelateria in your neighborhood, like Gelato Bar or Piccomolo.
High-quality gelato is made in metal pans with fresh, natural ingredients and has no preservatives or artificial flavoring. Beware if the color is too intense, warns Silverton and Tyler George, vice president of operations at Piccomolo. It is probably filled with food coloring. Lemons are not sun-blinding yellow and pistachio nuts are not florescent green; in fact, they are a dull, grayish green color. The flavors should be just as they appear in nature.
To retain the high quality and flavor, gelato is made in small batches and stored in display cases at 6 degrees to 8 degrees so it retains its soft, creamy texture. Because gelato is not rock-hard, it has a sculptural, wavy presentation which can be accented with fresh fruits or nuts. It works best to use a flat, rather than a ball- shaped scoop.
For your party, arrange to pick up the gelato at the last possible minute; experts say it should be consumed within hours after it’s made. According to George, Piccomolo will pull a pan of gelato if it’s been in the case for more than 36 hours.
Because gelato has such a rich, intense flavor, it doesn’t cry out for toppings; it is itself a topping, Gelato Bar’s Silverton says.
She loves to plop a scoop of gelato atop a brownie or a brioche, wedge it between a pair of Oreos or peanut butter cookies (Silverton prefers the cookies baked by her sister, La Brea Bakery owner Nancy Silverton) to make a gelato sandwich or even a double-decker gelato sandwich. Silverton also loves to top a scoop of gelato with a flat chocolate cookie so it resembles a graduation hat or even a fan made of a pizzelle wafer.
Since American teens love toppings, set out bowls of chopped toasted almonds, Valrhona chocolate pearls, English toffee, shredded coconut, miniature chocolate chips or even colorful gummy bears.
Adults will probably take their gelato plain or with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. In Italy, it is made with a smidge of sugar, vanilla or hazelnut flavoring.
Silverton says sorbetto needs little more than freshly whipped cream.
A good gelateria such as Piccomolo will have a commercial pizzelle iron, which resembles a waffle iron and produces thin pliable waffle cookies. You can shape the warm pizzelles into a cone or for the “spoon set,” a bowl, which actually holds more gelato.
Make them in advance or set out two irons on the gelato table at your b’nai mitzvah celebration and, under supervision of a knowledgeable pizzelle maker, let guests make their own.
The beauty is there will be no two alike. This appeals to the artist in me, but if you’d rather have a sea of cones of the same dimensions, you can order them from your local gelateria.
Although cones with a flat bottom are easier to serve, many people prefer the classic sugar cone, which comes to a point at the end.
The lingering part of our gelato dessert table is enhanced by adding some do-it-yourself drink ideas, such as Affogato, Italian Soda, and Raspberry Verjus (see recipes).
Presentation is Everything
If you know a catering company or gelateria with a gelato cart for rent, think no further. It will keep everything at just the right temperature and make you feel like a pro as you deftly scoop out the gelato and allow guests to personalize their dessert. Silverton and Gutman sometimes come out with a gelato cart to cater an event themselves.
Even if you’re setting up the table yourself, keep the gelato in the metal pans they were made in and place them on top of a container filled with ice; dry ice is even better since it stays colder longer and leaves no moisture as it changes state. Remember, gelato melts quickly, so have an ice chest or freezer nearby and keep replacing the pans of gelato as needed. A pan of gelato can stay out of the freezer or ice chest for up to 15 minutes.
Your table should have plates of cookies used for making gelato sandwiches, the gelato toppings set out in pretty, colorful bowls, and all the ingredients and accessories for assembling the cold drinks and the pizzelle batter.