This is not a food blog, but somehow it’s the second post in a row that has some food in its headline. There’s a clear motivation for it: temperatures keep heating up Milan, and the semester is over. Some of my students are soon leaving the city. It’s always warm enough for gelato in Italy. For them, occasions are running out. At the chance that one of them gets back on the blog… students, here is where you should go (and anyone else, for that matter).
Before I get to the Top 5, bare with me for a moment. I have a few more words that will help you to find a good gelateria anywhere in Italy. Also, we need to talk about Granita. But I will compensate you for this long intro. I’ll just throw in a few more places – some honorable mentions that are definitely excellent – or at least very good and better than anything else around in their area.
General advice on how to spot a good gelateria.
Italy is breezing hot in Summer. Obviously, gelato shouldn’t melt while still in the shop. I’ve seen that happening occasionally. Less obviously, your gelato needs to be cold enough to not melt immediately after being served. It has to maintain it’s thick, creamy structure for long enough to give you a chance to avoid that gelato drips all over your fingers and onto your clothing. This characteristic needs to last throughout the day.
A gelateria can achieve this by not showing off the gelato that it has on offer. Now, there are more extensive lists of how to spot good gelato. I find that the way ice cream is not displayed is the best one-rule proxy you could come up with.
The traditional gelateria would put the gelato in metal trays and arrange them next to each other, so you can follow the visual cues. This is not wrong. But it leaves the ice exposed to air and sun. It’s worse in those places that fill the metal trays way above the tray height. Those mountains of gelato often look fancy and conspicuous, but it exposes three sides of the ice to warmth. And they contain added fat in order to preserve the mountain.
The alternative to openly displayed gelato are closed metal bins. Historically, gelaterias had to use them because open freezers were not a thing yet. Then they were abandoned. Marketing is display, isn’t it? No, actually it is not. These bins have a massive advantage: they preserve the cold better, and they extend the durability of the gelato without any need for added preservatives. They were re-introduced by Grom. I haven’t seen any ambitious gelateria that opened or refurbished since 2015 that has not switched to metal bins. Typically, two bins are stacked on top of each other to save some space.
So, avoid mountains. Search for metal bins. And the cheapest option shouldn’t cost more than 2.50 EUR. It’s gelato, after all. That’s joy for the masses, not pleasure for the upper 10,000.
But avoid Grom. And Rivareno. And definitely Amorino.
I’ve tried all of them. I have different problems with all of them. This is not to say that their gelato is bad. It’s just that their reputation is better than what they offer. And definitely it doesn’t justify the waiting times. Let me explain.
Grom is a fascinating business case. They were a startup that set out to create Italy’s best ice cream. They certainly succeeded at creating Italy’s best ice cream chain. Grom stores have now spread all over the country. They re-introduced traditional craftsmanship and attention to ingredients. In many ways, they paved the way for Italian gelato to truly reach new levels. None of the places that I recommend could exist without them. Their gelato is good. And yet. The atmosphere is gone. They are part of Unilever now. They are everywhere. They offer standardized flavors. To me, gelato lives from the experience of a local artisan, where each stracciatella ice cream is a tiny bit different from another one. And it kills the experience if I have to wait 15min in a queue of foreign tourists that have read about this place in their local newspaper. And on top of that: it’s good gelato, but it’s by no means extraordinary. There’s nothing innovative or unique about any of the flavors they offer. There are only long queues.
With 12 shops in Italy and 6 shops across the World, Rivareno are not anywhere near the size of Grom. In Lombardy, they have two locations in Milan and then one each in Brescia, Pavia, Bergamo, and Como. Rivareno calls itself a gelato laboratory. In 2015, everyone in Milan was talking about them. Their ice cream is known for being particularly thick and creamy. Too thick and too creamy. Yes, it’s gelato structure is unique, but not in a good way. There’s no butter inside and yet it tends to taste like. I also find them expensive, as they are not very generous with the portions that they serve. The hype has moved on. For fairness, there are a few similar chains that you’ll find widespread over Lombardy. Chocolat now has several locations in Milan, and you find Venchi also in Verona and at airports. Like Rivareno, they are successful, but like Grom, they represent (good) gelato as craftsmanship-gone-franchise, not the experience of your local gelateria.
There definitely is no hype in Italy around Amorino. It’s the Starbucks of Italian ice cream. Like Starbucks, they were founded abroad and stayed away from Italian soil for a while. Like Starbucks, they conquered the World. Unlike Starbucks, they have already come now. Amorino is marketed with great effort. It’s a successful brand. It’s absolutely not authentic. Well, almost. The founders were Italians. Still, Amorino is more about how to sell gelato then about selling gelato. Honestly: a gelateria as standardized as an H&M store should make you look for alternatives even outside of Italy. And if you don’t find it: open it yourself; you’ve found a market gap.
Try something new: Granita.
In winter, Italian gelaterias offer you ice cream and crêpes. In summer, they replace the crêpes with Granita. Granita originally comes from Sicily and it is one of the highlights of Italian food uniqueness. But unlike, pizza, pasta, wine, and gelato, it didn’t rise to international fame. Even though Starbucks now added it to its offerings. In other parts of the world, you will find similar things to Granita. Shaved ice, snow cones, and slushies are all ugly cousins of Granita. (Slushies are also sold as granita in many Italian gelaterias. If you see one of these rotating containers filled with a neon-colored liquid: run. Don’t even try the gelato.)
At its base, Granita is frozen water. So you could also prepare it at home. Professionally, some prepare it in gelato machines and others mix distilled water with all other ingredients, freeze that, and then shave the ice blocks. The first method renders it thicker. So, unlike slushies, it’s more than just mixing crushed ice and cheap chemically-tasting syrup. The mixing is done before the freezing, like with gelato (and sorbet). It has Sicilian origins: The most traditional flavors are almond, lemon, and coffee. Strawberry is not as traditional, but as widely found. Other flavors are more rare, but possible. However, a good granita replicates natural flavors. (Coffee is natural in Italy.)
Gelato is fantastic at warm temperatures. But when it gets breezing hot, even gelato can feel too heavy. Nothing beats Granita in those toughest conditions. As it’s mostly water, it feels much ligher. The coarse structure of the ice melts a bit slower in the mouth than that of sorbet. Therefore, I find that it gives more sustainable refreshment. More than that, it cools down the head.
You’ve made it to the top 5 of all gelaterias in and around Milan. I don’t restrict myself to the city itself, because I’ve found places elsewhere in Lombardy that just put Milan’s gelaterie to shame. Those places deserve the praise. The cities are often well worth a visit, too. I noticed that occasionally I plan my route such that one of these gelaterie will feature mid-ride or at the end. So, without further ado:
1. Cremeria Rossi, Milano
I’ve had the privilege to live 60m from this place. I still go back now that I’ve moved. It’s so much worth it. The place looks like a slightly trashy neighborhood gelateria from the outside. The orange-colored sign greets all across Piazza Bolivar. The gelato, however, is great. They have some very distinct flavors. Many of them are variations of well-known flavors, but their variations give an edge to it. Some (like white chocolate and bergamot orange) are outright unique. On top of this, they serve in generous portion. And anyways they cost slightly less than the average in Milan. That’s the bonus of the remote location.
Aside of their gelato, they are the best place in this list to offer granita. Their flavors are spot on – it’s like eating the real thing. They have a small direct farm-to-gelateria vendor for their pistacchio gelato and granita, and their chocolate granita is beyond anything I’ve ever tried. Since I had that, I don’t eat chocolate gelato anymore.
Should be mentioned: in 2014, they won the award for Italy’s best pistacchio gelato.
Piazza Simone Bolivar 7.
2. Gelateria Loggetta, Mantova
Loggetta is another award winner. In their case, they earned the Italian trophy for Fior di Latte. That’s the most basic flavour: essence of milk. Stracciatella without ice cream. I can confirm that it is worth the award. In the creamy section, they have a number of outstanding flavours. Mascarpone with honey and nuts is but one of them. On a busy weekend day, maybe you need to wait a second, but the ambience is nice. Of all places in this list, they have the widest range of different flavors.
When I was there in Summer, they also had a small selection of granita. I had been very happy with a combination of lemon and strawberry. This granita was prepared in a gelato machine.
Piazza Broletto 12.
3. Gelateria Toldo, Lecco
Lecco is rich of gelaterie. Many of them look inviting. Of all that I tried, Toldo is my preferred choice. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll pass by when walking down from Lecco’s train station into the center. It’s on your right-hand side. Inside, it looks more like an artisan’s workshop. Definitely this one has the nicest interior of all places in the top 5. It also has the best stracciatella. Aside of ice cream, they are doing excellent crêpes.
There are other great places in Lecco. Lecco might truthfully host Italy’s highest density of high-quality gelato (and ordinary ice cream). To me, Toldo stands out in a crowded field of high quality. One note on the side: it’s actually not the only place of Toldo. This gelateria was born in Tirano in the heart of Valtellina region, where it’s still operating as well. The Bernina Express starts from there. The like-named gelateria in Milano has different owners, however.
Via C. Cavour 39.
4. L’Imbarcarderi, Laveno-Mombello
Gelato is great, and it becomes greatness when you can eat it in a beautiful environment. L’Imbarcarderi translates to “the one where you board a ship” – roughly. You get the idea. It’s at the port of Laveno-Mombello. You’ll get a fantastic view over Lago Maggiore – to Verbania, Isola Bella, and Stresa. Once done with the ice cream, you could take the ferry to set over to Verbania. Or the train back to Milan; the train tracks almost literally end in the water.
Anyways, they actually also have good granita. Among their gelato, I recommend their yogurt flavor and the one that tastes like sweet rice. Last time I went there, they advertised to source local milk from the Alps. They have a wide selection. I’m usually not keen on too many flavors that mimic famous chocolate bars. They have only a few of those, and the Kinder flavor was well-balanced. The gelato melted slowly in my mouth. Portions are very generous.
Viale Porro Edoardo 3.
5. iCream, Mortara
Mortara is that lonely place of Lombardy to the West of the Ticino. It’s surrounded by vast rice fields and nothing else. There are few reasons to go there. But it has a direct train connection with Milan. I used it as a bridge to start a bike ride into the Montferato, which is only 25km away. At the end of that ride, I missed the train by 30 seconds. I still saw how it started to move. For that reason only, I discovered iCream. An intellectual property rights law suit might be pending for them.
iCream’s signature feature is the display of their gelato. I spoke about mountains and metal bins. They use a big fortune wheel of gelato. The ice cream is stored in trays, and the trays are filled credibly low. Upon my visit, the selection was a bit small. My favorite flavor here is mint with chocolate. That flavor is a bit tricky to get spot on. In bad gelaterias, it may taste a bit like chewing gum. At iCream, this was a very natural mint flavor and some intense notes of dark chocolate.
Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi 58.
Ten honorable mentions
There are a few more places that I very much enjoyed. Very easily, this could be an endless list. However, very soon I’d find myself in difficulties to find big differences between great and also great. So here are some more fantastic places, sorted by location.
Baci Sottozero, Piazzale Siena 18. This one is the favorite of some family members. They have a strong Sicilian heritage. Their signature flavor is Cassata.
Ciacco, Via Spadaro 13. I always found it difficult to name a really good gelateria in the heart of town. Recently I stumbled upon Ciacco. They have strange flavors. Like green tea gelato. It’s an interesting experiment.
Latte Neve, Via Vigevano 27. Situated in the Navigli area, it faces stiff competition from all of the big chains (avoid!) and some other gelaterias. It’s not the newest kid on the block anymore, but still young. Barely missed the cut for my top five.
Tra le righe, Via Teodosio 44. I have friends living in the area, for which reason I discovered it. It’s close to Lambrate’s train station in the East of Milan. All biological.
Biogelato, V.l Papa Giovanni XXIII 96. The name gives it away: this is all about biological ingredients. You’ll get the most environmentally-friendly granita in Lombardy. It’s close to the train station. Finish your visit to Bergamo here.
Arte Dolce Lyceum, Via C. Cantù. In Como, there is no shortage of gelateria, but there’s a shortage of convincing places. It’s as far away from the lake as it can get in Como’s center. Instead, it’s almost at the famous big Roman city gate. Try the riso flavor.
Lovere, Lago d’Iseo
La Piccola Gelateria Italiana, Piazza XIII Martiri 24. Lago d’Iseo rose to fame when Christo exposed his installation in 2016. Now it’s a quiet hidden gem again. Up in the North of the Lake, the small village of Lovere hosts a gelato marvel. Small selection.
Menaggio, Lago di Como
La Fabrica del Gelato, Via Carlo Porta 1. Bellagio is one of the most visited places at the lake. Many access the lake via Menaggio. From my perspective, there’s no decent gelateria in Bellagio, or anywhere in the central part of the lake. Except this one.
Gelateria Iglu, Corso Cavour 14/d. This is a tiny place tucked in between other shops on one of Pavia’s main pedestrian streets. So it’s a rather small variety. It’s great, but not excellent gelato. I enjoyed the feeling of picking up home-made gelato from my neighbor.
Riva del Garda, Trentino
Dolce Stella, Vl. Dante Alighieri 86. In a more quiet part of Riva’s busy historic center, Dolce Stella upped the level of local gelato. For me it’s now the best of those that I’ve tried all around Lago di Garda – and I’ve tried many.
Golosandia, Corso P. Rolandi 48. Absolutely an accidental find in a tiny village. I just craved for something cold. And found gold. They have a creamy carrot flavor that is absolutely unique and fantastic. Also yogurt with lime is great. And overall a big variety.
That’s fifteen places. What this list should demonstrate is that the art of great ice cream expands well beyond the confines of Milan. And you should anyways leave the city and explore some of Lombardy’s countryside. Unfortunately, I might have missed some great places. I still haven’t tried them all. If you did come across something good, leave me a comment. I’m happy to try your favorite picks. There’s always a good justification for gelato.