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Gonzo Gelato Grazing

June 5, 2013

Nobody in their right mind would lead a ragtag group of fourteen adults across three counties to sample the wares of five different gelato shops in one day.

But I did. And fourteen adults of otherwise sound mind decided to volunteer their bodies to the Tour de Gelato.

The idea here was to get a broad snapshot of each gelato case to try and determine which is the best place to get this frozen Italian dessert in the Capital Region. After all, we already have a pretty good sense of where to go for homemade hard ice cream and soft serve. Maybe next spring we can tackle frozen yogurt in my absence.

Anyhow there are a ton of findings from the event. So let’s get to it.

Even more than the Tour de Homemade Hard Ice Cream, this was less of a contest between shops as it was about their execution of individual flavors. For example, the one place that was nobody’s favorite had hands down the best stracciatella of them all.

Still, the place that came out on top had no stinkers in the bunch with two flavors that were among the highest scoring of the day.

All told there were twelve fully completed scoresheets that made it into the final evaluation.

The Rules
In an attempt to create some consistency for each reviewer as we traveled from place to place, I asked each participant to stick with one flavor category of their own definition. Some were able to execute specifics like strawberry. But most were broader, the most popular two being “Fruit” and “Nuts”.

However, the gelato experience is also about finding new and interesting flavors that strike your fancy. So each participant was also asked to sample a second flavor at each stop based solely on what sounded most appealing.

Each flavor was scored for flavor and texture with a maximum combined score of ten points.

It Begins
, where we started the day, had the most sampled flavor of the bunch. Seven of the twelve couldn’t resist a scoop of their Honey Pear, which turned out to be one of the bakery’s strongest flavors. Flavor is really where Crisan shined. Their strawberry tasted like fresh strawberries. Chantelle, who picked Crisan as the best shop of the day, summed up the place nicely with this conclusion:

Their toasted almond was a warm, comfy flavor that highlighted the actual almond more so than an almond-flavor or extract and included almond pieces. Their tiramisu provided a bold expression of both rum and espresso equally. Although their texture could have been creamier, the flavor was best overall.

While Crisan is often seen as a value pick with their $2 scoops, we discovered that it takes two scoops to equal the portion sizes of other shops. Two scoops weigh in between 130-149 grams and will set you back $4.

Best bets: honey pear, pistachio, toasted almond, tiramisu, strawberry and mango lassi.
Underwhelming: vanilla, orange and chocolate.

Second Stop
From Albany we made the long drive up to Saratoga Springs to try a dedicated gelateria, Eugenio’s. I personally had never been and was excited to give it a try. But honestly, it was a disappointment for all but one evaluator on the tour.

Its biggest fan, Roni, praised the “strong complex flavors, balanced well against texture, creaminess and acidity” of the chocolate-covered orange and stracciatella. Detractors like KB @ Home-Baked Happiness found her chocolate hazelnut “less creamy, more watery in texture.” This iciness was echoed by several evaluators.

Given Eugenio’s small portions and high prices, these lapses in texture and the lack of any truly knockout flavors made this an underwhelming destination. Two flavors in a small cup weigh in between 99-126 grams and cost $4.99.

The tiramisu was the best of the bunch. Nothing was necessarily bad, but most found their offerings largely unremarkable.

Arriving in Schenectady
It was even a longer drive down Route 50 to get to Schenectady. Or if it wasn’t longer, it felt longer. But at the end of the road was plenty of easy parking in the free garage behind Villa Italia. The place itself is a gorgeous, modern space that houses a very old fashioned Italian bakery. But they have a case that holds eight different flavors of gelato, of which we tried seven.

Cannoli cream captured the hearts of the evaluators with half of them getting a scoop to score. Speaking of scores, the cannoli cream got two perfect tens, and had an average score of nine. It was one of the powerhouse flavors of the day. No small part of that was the plethora of crisp cannoli shells and its rich cheesy texture. The other big hit was peanut butter which Jessica R. called, “Amazing! Tastes like a peanut butter cookie, more than straight peanut butter. Very smooth, rich, [and] just the texture I want in gelato.”

There were no stinkers in the bunch, although I found the texture of the strawberry to be a bit fluffy and the flavor to be slightly enhanced beyond the bright, tart taste of a fresh strawberry.

On top of it all, Villa Italia turned out to be the value pick of the day with small bowls weighing in between 156-186 grams for which the bakery charged just $3.25.

Walking Off Gelato to Eat More Gelato
The original plan had been to go to Ambition Bisto next. That plan got scrapped when I called to ask what flavors they had and realized they didn’t line up with any classic categories. Unbelievably, they had nothing on deck resembling nuts, chocolate or coffee gelato.

So we passed them by on Jay Street and walked a bit further up the street to Civitello’s. Yes, they aren’t known for their gelato, but when I called to ask if it was homemade, they sounded offended by the very notion that it might be brought in from elsewhere. I thought that was a strong positive sign.

Civitello’s was the first stop where some of the flavors were just bad. JessJamesJake got the worst of the worst and wrote, “Um, gross. Chocolate hazelnut was gross. Rancid hazelnuts ruined the flavor.” I tried a bite to verify her findings, and concurred.

Oddly, the regular hazelnut scored very well. Chantelle said it was better than Eugenio’s with a creamy, elastic texture. And this classic gelato texture was echoed in their excellent stracciatella, which was the best version of that flavor of any shop all day, being the only one where the ribbons of dark chocolate were crisp and delicate throughout the bowl.

Theirs is a relatively sizeable bowl. The largest portions of the day came from Civitello’s, where small cups weighed in from 162-200 grams. But that’s only a value if you happened to luck out and score two good flavors. Regrettably, the odds are against you.

Best bets: stracciatella, hazelnut and mint.
Steer clear: fruits of the forest (mixed berry), chocolate hazelnut and mango.

Savory Snack Break
Since we were across the street from Perecca’s (and given that Civitello’s had sold out of their tomato pie) I made a pit stop for a slice of something savory. In addition to the tomato pie, I got a wedge of a roasted red pepper and fontinella cheese sandwich which was amazing.

The Finish Line
Then it was off to the final stop of the day, Sage Bistro in Guilderland. I didn’t even know they had gelato, and some have reported that it’s not made in house. Regardless, their pistachio is exactly what pistachio gelato should be. Nuts. Rich and creamy nuts. Not milk with some pistachio flavoring. But a cold, smooth, and creamy expression of ground pistachios.

At the end of the day, half of the participants couldn’t resist sampling the cardamom flavor. It was the first time we had seen it all day. And after hours of eating gelato, anything different is good. Well, except for those few evaluators who felt like it was fine but nothing special.

KB @ Home-Baked Happiness, who picked this as her favorite spot, was lucky enough to get both the pistachio and their chocolate hazelnut, which she describes as:

Oh. My. God. SO GOOD! Nicely nutty and cocoa-y. Both flavors are present and good. Topping [is] a bit crunchy – think there might be ground nuts in this chocolate. Texture…is creamy and yummy.

At $4.05 for a 119-159g bowl, Sage Bistro is actually in line with Crisan on their pricing.

Best bets: pistachio and chocolate hazelnut.
Underwhelming: Amaretto, stracciatella, creamsicle, and chocolate.

Findings and Conclusions
For many people this was a difficult decision. There was a lot of love for Villa Italia, Crisan and Sage Bistro. But the numbers don’t lie. When pressed, more people, when asked if they could only go back to one spot, would choose Villa Italia.

Villa Italia had a small set of strong choices, two of which were outstanding. But Stanford Steph, who thought Villa Italia the was best gelato joint overall, still said that the best flavor of the day was the toasted almond at Crisan. And while some of Crisan’s flavors may have been a bit more muted than the rest of the pack, I still thought their strawberry did the best job of delivering the flavor of sliced strawberries and cream.

As much as I loved Villa Italia’s cannoli cream and peanut butter gelato, if I were in Schenectady looking for something cold and creamy, I might pop over to Civitello’s first to see if they had any stracciatella in the case.

Really, I would go back to any of them except Eugenio’s. And armed with some of this knowledge, you can surely improve your experience at the places where we hit some stinkers.

Remember, don’t be shy to ask for a taste.

Thank you once again to all of those amazing and dedicated eaters who joined me on this adventure and helped to make it a really fun day. If it weren’t for your participation, the tour would be a whole lot lonelier, and we wouldn’t have nearly this many data points.

It sounds weird to say when we’re in a cold snap. But stay cool this summer. Drink plenty of water. And never forget the healing powers of frozen sweetened dairy.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2013 9:33 am

    I live in Saratoga but almost never stop in Eugenio’s for gelato; I don’t think I’ve even been since they relocated to the east side of Broadway. Guess I’m not missing much. I’ll give the others a try in my travels!

  2. June 5, 2013 2:11 pm

    My major problem with Villa Italia was their lack of variety of flavors. If I was going to go get gelato, outside of this experience, I’d usually want hazelnut or chocolate-hazelnut, or maybe orange, none of which they had. The flavors they had were well done, but the selection’s too confining — I’d rather go to Sage Bistro, which not only had awesome gelato but will definitely have a flavor I want.

    The worst thing I ate all day was the orange at Crisan. Ick.

  3. Lilly permalink
    June 6, 2013 12:31 pm

    I am happy to see that Sage Bistro did ok on your tour. :-)

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