By definition, gelato is Italy's lighter version of ice-cream – milk, cream, sugar and eggs (not always, though), typically flavoured with nuts, pastes or fruits. What sets it apart from ice-cream is a lower butterfat content thanks to a milk-to-cream bias, and a denser, more elastic texture resulting from a slower churn and a warmer serving temperature.
Real gelato is a delicate beast. Because of the lower fat content, large ice crystals begin to grow as soon as it leaves the churn. Any real fruit will start to oxidise too. Vendors therefore need to either serve it immediately, keep the product protected from the air in pozzetti (covered metal canisters sunk into a temperature-controlled counters) or increase the sugar and other anti-freeze stabilisers so the gelato can stay soft despite exposure to the air. Long story short: if you're looking at soft, pearlescent mountains billowing out of tubs in all the colours of My Little Pony, that gelato has had some work done.
Does any of this matter when it comes to who's doing Melbourne's best scoops?
Thankfully, the traditionally-made small batch stuff doesn't need defending. It just straight up tastes better, melting to a clean finish without that weird mouth-clinging film you get from excessive stabilisers.
On the flip side, much like MSG, the fake stuff still has its charms. Maybe you want to pound a cupful of E-numbers and sugar? Maybe you prefer the "pistachio" flavour that's actually marzipan and green? As a consenting adult, that's your right. But let's stop calling them the same thing, OK?
For better or worse, we've rated Melbourne's top gelato stores on everything from gelato texture and flavour to the quality of the tunes.
Some argue that pistachio is the true litmus test for good gelato, but it's all about banana. You can't fake it. At Pidapipo, Lisa Valmorbida's new permanent store on Lygon Street, the fresh fruit flavours punch cleanly through a light, bright milky base. There's just enough sugar in the mix here and they only do a few flavours at a time to ensure high turnover and maximum freshness. Peanut butter is salty with a sharp, tart kick from frozen jam streaks, or there might be a strawberry and cream number that incorporates roses in a way that doesn't make it taste like cheap Turkish delight. They're using the pozzetti system, but they still make a visual impact with a tap pouring liquid chocolate, and a pastel pink and yellow paint job. Take your scoops in fresh waffles or go Sicilian-style and load 'em up in a brioche bun.
Gelato texture: 4.5/5
299 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9347 4596, pidapipo.com.au
Massimo Bidin is a god among mortals who like their sweets a little more savoury. Con Christopoulos imported the gelati expert two years ago to run the gelateria out the front of Spring Street Grocer. Bidin in turn started importing pistachios from home, which he deemed necessary to make the best product possible. It was Bidin who arguably started the real gelato renaissance two years ago when he made us realise how clean and clear the flavour of gelato could be. Everything from the subtle fior di latte gelato - purely milk and cream flavoured by its own caramelised sugars - to the chilli and watermelon sorbet which makes you feel like you're cleansing as you eat. Everything is made daily, with flavours scrawled up on a roll of paper on the wall and once a tub is spent, that's it. There's almost always a vegan option on the go, too.
Gelato texture: 5
157 Spring Street, Melbourne, springstreetgrocer.com.au
Every ingredient for the dense gelato at this cinema-facing cafe in Northcote is fastidiously sourced - the watermelons, mangoes, berries and apples all have their origins next to flavour on the wall. The pistachios are roasted and crushed on site so the end product is properly nutty and speckled brown rather than lurid green. To say that every flavour tastes like its namesake shouldn't be a high bar to clear, but it's weirdly rare. Here, Marco Enea, a third generation gelato maker from Sicily tailors every single gelato base to the ingredient he's using so there's a nice diversity of texture and sugar across the board. Hit up the Ricci Method, made using Melbourne's first wood-roasted espresso beans, or the so-weird-it-works chocolate and rosemary.
Gelato texture: 4.5
76 High Street, Northcote, 9482 2092
Billy Van Creamy
For the last two years, brothers Mitch and Alex Wells have been locked in their kitchen attempting to defeat science and conventional gelato wisdom, by creating a creamy product using no stabilising crutches. Everything in their gelato is organic where possible – milk, fresh nuts and fruit. Their gelato is serious stuff. They've got a proper pozzetti system built into their van, keeping the espresso, choc chip and mint (infused with real leaves) and pistachio and apricot gelati supple and soft. You can keep track of the Billy Van on Twitter (@billyvancreamy), but right now you're most likely to find them at Rucker's Hill in Northcote or cruising Edinburgh Gardens.
Gelato texture: 4
Two pieces of advice for this Argentinean-style gelato store: do order the rich and caramelly dulce de leche number, and don't get the durian unless you've got a serious thing for the world's cheesiest fruit. Even so, in gelati form it still smells like a gas leak. And who needs that when there's the savoury and tannic appeal of yerba mate – Argentina's answer to green tea? Helados, aside from having great left-of-field flavours and a leafy terrace out the front, also nails the elastic texture and sugar-to-flavour ratio better than most. They're not stingy on the samples either, but if you do want to taste the lot, they offer a masterclass for $55 which includes a take-home tub.
Gelato texture: 4
254 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9041 2927, heladosjauja.com.au
N2 Extreme gelato
Is this actually gelato, given that the flavoured custard base is frozen by being whipped in a mixer with liquid nitrogen? Maybe not. More to the point: who cares? Sydney import, N2 Extreme Gelato has possibly the least regard for the traditional flavour palate. They've been known to do SPAM flavour as well as blue cheese. Luckily the weirder flavours are usually more indiscernible than offensive. The intensive freezing method gives you an incredibly smooth product as ice crystals have no time to form. It melts fast, but the crowds are reasonable these days, which means you can usually find a space on the AstroTurf benches and smash through your cup on site.
Gelato texture: 4
329 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, n2extremegelato.com.au
Nobody has lukewarm feelings about this crazily busy Sydney import that's as much a nightclub as a confectioner. You're either in line, or shaking your fist at said line with rage. On the one hand, the cakes, fashioned into toadstools and spheres are multi-layered works of art, and the gelato itself breaks down the traditional flavour barriers, bringing the likes of balsamic vinegar, apple pie or coconut and lychee into the fold. It contains rich veins of cookies and crumbles and swirls to keep things interesting. On the flip side, if you're not a candy-fanged sugar bandit, the gelato is pretty sweet and does that mouth-glazing thing. Not bothered, but too proud to stand in line? Go at 3pm and get a takeaway tub.
Gelato texture: 3
237 Smith Street, Fitzroy, 1800 435 286, gelatomessina.com
Casa del Gelato
This isn't exactly where it all started, but owner Ottorino Pace is credited with kick-starting Melbourne's gelato scene. He still makes cameos at the peach-toned Lygon Street store, but it's usually his son Eric you'll find churning out their mix of traditional and less conventional flavours throughout the day. Get the ricotta if its on - it has a light and subtle flavour along the lines of fior di latte - and try to come by in the early evening if you want a chance of finding somewhere to sit or lean while you eat.
Gelato texture: 4
Casa Del Gelato, 163 Lygon Street, Carlton, 03 9347 7500
The corner of a busy residential road in Pascoe Vale South doesn't seem like a winning location for a gelato shop, but on a Monday afternoon, a dozen 10-year-olds muscle in as we're ordering cherry and coconut and apple crumble gelati. This pristine white shop forms the front of Emma Nicholas-Jennings and her husband Gary's house. The couple learnt the ropes while helping out Emma's parents at their Sorrento store, Glace, during their visits home from London over the last few years, and now they've struck out on their own. The flavours are inventive, (if sometimes a little sweet) with a good batch of coconut-based dairy-free options. It's a stand-and-eat situation with this one - there's only one bench inside.
Gelato texture: 4
71 Melville Road, Pascoe Vale South, 9383 4258
Gelobar was one of the real gelato vanguard, but with the recent death of their head gelato maker their product tastes a little more commercial these days - but it still makes the cut for the scene. While Messina is playing the siren song to the hipster elite, this dessert bar (and actual bar), is packed from 7am till late at night with young families, older Italian men in their fun shirts and and young goons resplendent in singlets and thongs. Everyone loves Gelobar. It has everything you need from crisp cannoli to shots of grappa. Get a triple scoop of hazelnut, chocolate and bacci – the nut and chocolate flavours are superior to the likes of the blueberry, which tastes a bit like Wizz Fizz.
Gelato texture: 3.5
Gelobar, 74 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9388 1419, gelobar.com.au