That's a lotta Gelato

Italian chef Tommaso Affaldano races around his cozy kitchen tossing ingredients into a colander and throwing his hands wildly in the air as he discusses a life's pursuit: "gelato perfetto."

The Italian version of ice cream, gelato means "frozen," he says with the aid of a translator. "You have to strike the right balance between fruit and milk and sugar. The ingredients may be easy, but you have to understand how they react together."

Any tourist who's strolled the narrow, cobblestone streets of Florence or the broad avenues of Rome has likely been drawn to the gelato cafes or gelaterias like an Italian to a scooter.

Although sticky chins - layered with flavors as inventive as puffed rice or tangerine - may keep tourists from roaming the Uffizzi with style, to Mr. Affaldano and other master gelatieres, they're a sign of culinary bliss that has endured for centuries.

Affaldano moved to the United States from Ortona, Italy, in 1994 and set up shop at Marino Lookout Farm in Natick, Mass., one of the oldest farms in the country. Using fresh ingredients, some of which are grown on the 160-acre plot, the artisan daily whips up fruit and dairy-based flavors like raspberry, chocolate, and fig, for local stores and restaurants. He's honed his craft over 30 years, and won 14th place in a world competition in Italy, for his tangerine ice.

He piles heaps of "samples" onto cones, as a deep freezer stashed with coconut, strawberry, and rum raisin hums contently nearby. Its giant size underscores how the tiny kitchen might be confining to an artisan, but Affaldano seems right at home.

"Gelato tastes best on a cone," he says, scoffing at the suggestion of eating his creations in a cup. His personal favorite? Truffle, a mix of hazelnut and chocolate.

Using a spade instead of a scooper, he plops a hefty dollop of coconut gelato on a cone and thrusts it forward. For this, he's mixed 2 gallons of milk with 600 grams of coconut, he says, along with sugar, water, and a stabilizer, a substitute for eggs, which were more commonly used in the past.

"You taste the fruit, nothing else," he says.

Wrapped in a white apron and wearing a serious expression, he begins making fig gelato, peeling fresh figs and dumping them into a large vat. He moves eagerly around the kitchen, like a child awaiting the first few licks of a cone.

Whipping up gelato has become so second nature to him, he swiftly and instinctively throws ingredients into his concoction. He measures fruits by eye and recipes - stored in his head - are constantly subject to improvement.

Plus, he says with a hearty chuckle, "If one doesn't weigh, the gelato is better."

Italian gelato is more about intense flavor and less about richness, he explains. It's much denser than American ice cream and contains low-fat milk (or none at all if it's a sorbet), less sugar, and often has more fruit, which means fat content is between 0 and 4 percent.

American ice cream is creamier and usually turns out fluffier because more air is mixed in. This, he says, allows commercial makers to sell more ice cream.

Here, "we're not efficient, only good," he says.

Affaldano first started dreaming about making gelato when he was a boy. Living in a southern Italian town, he would dart over to the local gelato seller, Galileo, and help him push his flavor-filled cart up the town's steep hills.

His reward? A fresh scoop of icy gelato. Affaldano couldn't afford to buy the treat, as his father earned a modest living fixing umbrellas and making pasta cutters. But when Affaldano grew up, he turned to Galileo for some pointers on gelatomaking. He later studied the art at Capac Institute, a prestigious school in Milan.

As he pours his blend of figs and the sugar-water syrup (best if it sits for 24 hours, he says) into a huge mixing machine, he recalls how gelato was first created.

The "art of chilling" was invented by the Italians, he says. Around the 1550s, just before royal Caterina de Medici was to leave Florence to marry King Henry II of France, she held a contest to see who could make the best dessert.

An Italian chicken farmer mixed snow, which he had stored for summer in a deep hole, with fruit and other ingredients and presented Caterina with the sweet-tasting ice. He took first prize. Caterina took the farmer with her to France to work as a royal dessert maker, Affaldano says. But after one of her Parisian chefs tried to "beat the recipe out of him," the Italian fled back home, keeping his secret.

Another legend says that some 2,000 years ago, servants to Roman Emperor Nero hiked into the mountains on a quest to bring him a "refreshing" treat. They didn't return until they had perfected a mixture of snow, fruit pulp, and honey. It's also thought to be one of the first Italian ices.

Affaldano's fig gelato is just about ready. As it freezes, it thickens from a clear pulp to a milky pink flecked with green.

Using a spoon that resembles an oar, he stirs the swirling mixture and scoops out creamy globs of gelato. Total time from start to finish: 20 minutes.

This batch has turned out well, he says, as he tastes a sample. It's difficult to get sorbet just right, because the consistency can become too watery or too hard.

But he adds, "Simple things are always the best, even if they are the most difficult."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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