In Venetian traditions

Gelato is one of those words tourists do not need any translation for. Actually, if I say “ice cream”, some give me a suspicious look as if I am proposing them something which is not truly Italian. 

But in fact it’s important to pin down what we mean by “gelato all’italiana”. Ingredients need to be all genuine, fresh, natural, high quality, well chosen and mixed by an artisan in their laboratory. Not just. Any product that does not melt when the temperature is higher than zero degrees cannot be considered Italian artisanal gelato. 

No additives, nor preserving ingredients. Nor presence of air, which makes industrial ice cream look fluffy. No hydrogenated fats nor milk in powder.

Some history: is gelato an Italian invention?

Gelato was not invented by Italians, though. At the end of the Middle Age, Arabs brought sorbet to Europe and applied a major innovation: they replaced honey with sugar, which Arabs by the way invented. Sugar helped bring the mix to freezing at a higher temperature than honey, with the result the sorbet acquired a creamy and firmer texture. 

From the Arabs to Sicily and then to Naples, where in 1558 Giovanni Battista Della Porta explained how you can freeze a glass of wine. All you need is ice and… salt. In fact, if you add salt to ice, it melts with more difficulty.

Giambattista della Porta: the scientist who discovered how to preserve ice without a freezer

Recap: sugar instead of honey, ice without a freezer… what else do we need for gelato?

According to Alessandro Marzo Magno, it was in 1694 when Antonio Latini, the cook for the viceroy in Naples, replaced water with milk.

Portrait of Antonio Latini, the Italian cook who changed the history of gelato
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Portrait of Antonio Latini.
Lo scalco alla moderna
Latini, A.
Published: 1692
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Just a few years before, in 1686 in Paris, a Sicilian guy, Francesco Procopio de’ Coltelli opened the Café Le Procope and invented the “mantecatura”, i.e. the process with which you mix and whisk all the ingredients till you get gelato.

Gelato in Venice: the new trends for the aristocracy

Gelato conquered Venice, too. Of course. You find sorbet mentioned in the menus of the cafes and its success is to be linked to the booming industry of entertainment. In the 17th century Venice was the city where you would pay to enjoy opera and while casinos, cafes and theaters opened all over, new trends developed in the cuisine. Drinking chocolate or tasting sorbet during the banquets would be quite common for the aristocracy. Especially in the 18th century you enjoyed a sweet sorbet to help the stomach digest from one course to the other. Gelato instead was enjoyed at the end of the banquet.

A set for gelato in porcelain: the Querini Stampalia collection

When in Paris, the ambassador of the Venetian Republic, Alvise Querini Stampalia in 1796 bought a very elegant set of porcelain made in the manufacture Sèvres featuring some pieces just for gelato. When visiting the Querini Stampalia Foundation in Venice, do pay attention at the two “seaux à glace” or “glacières”, the ice buckets for gelato. They are made in hard paste porcelain (unlike the rest of the set which is made in soft paste porcelain): it seems this is because they were more suitable for sudden changes of temperature when they were filled in with ice.

Banquet table at Querini Stampalia Foundation, Venice

The architect Louis Le Masson was the designer. The bucket is composed of three pieces: a larger recipient for the ice, a smaller one for the sorbet or the gelato, a lid where likely more ice was placed together with spoons so they would also keep cool. Lions’ heads, brilliant colors engaging in a contrast among pink, blue, violet, light green and gold leaf, not to mention the wonderful white of the porcelain, make these pieces breathtaking.

Gelato bucket, Sèvres, France, 1796 in Querini Stampalia Foundation, Venice

Look at the cups for gelato in soft paste porcelain. They are tiny, only 7 centimeters high, and the handle helps the heat of your fingers not melt the gelato, while the freezing temperature of the gelato won’t keep your fingers too cold. Clever.

A cup for gelato and sorbet, Sèvres, France, 1796 in Querini Stampalia Foundation, Venice

A space where to store ice: ice caves in Venice

You may wonder where ice was available to prepare gelato in Venice in the summer months. In Venice you can still see a “grotto for ice” in a wonderful private garden in the northern district of Cannaregio. Inside it feels you are like in an igloo! It was likely designed in the early 19th century when the Rizzo Patarol garden was turned into a romantic, English-style park. When you visit, think of Alexander the Great who had several ice storage rooms designed for his soldiers, convinced as he was that sorbet gave energy to his army before facing a battle.

Gelato in St Mark’s square: street food for everyone!

If gelato became a more popular food and could be sold in the streets for the joy of everyone, it is only thanks to the residents of the beautiful valley called Val Zoldana, surrounded by some of the most amazing Dolomites mountains in Veneto Region. In the middle of the 19th century poverty and hunger pushed men to migrate to Vienna, Budapest and eventually Germany. These men reinvented gelato first, as they are the ones that added eggs and milk. And secondly, they reinvented themselves as street vendors selling gelato not just for the nobility. 

Enjoy this painting by Antonio Ermolao Paoletti, end of the 1800s:

Antonio Ermolao Paoletti, Selling gelato in St Mark’s square in Venice, end of the 19th century

Paoletti also painted the stage curtain at the Fenice Theatre depicting “Onfredo Giustiniani Announcing the News of the Naval Victory at Lepanto” which went destroyed in the fire in 1996, six years after Save Venice restored it (

In St Mark’s square, in Piazzetta dei Leoncini, you see the gelato seller, a box with the ceramic plates and a wooden cylindric container for gelato. Likely made in larch wood, the container holds ice and salt. Inside this wooden container there was a smaller one, in copper, where the gelato had to be mixed constantly. When spread on the sides of the copper container, the mixture of milk, eggs, sugar and more ingredients froze and became gelato.

Virna Grossi and Michelangelo Corazza well explain the history of how these migrants from the mountains of Zoldana Valley worked really hard to produce and sell gelato. In the night preparing the ice and salt, in the day time as street vendors, then finding ways to improve their business, not to mention how they competed against industrial ice cream producers. 

Gelato in Venice today: the story of Alaska by Carlo Pistacchi

There are many places where you can enjoy gelato in Venice. Traditional gelaterie are Paolin in Campo Santo Stefano and Da Nico along the Zattere. You can enjoy a wonderful course where you can learn how to make artisanal gelato at Vizio&Virtù. And do not miss Alaska. 

Alaska gelateria, a special place in Venice

Alaska is special because of the founder, Carlo Pistacchi, who, after thirty years dedicated to this gelateria, passed away in 2021, not before leaving his creature in the excellent hands of Roberto and Silvia who follow the same principles. 

Carlo had three passions in his life: his wife, gelato and music. 

No compromise. Truly artisanal, he kept production small, because making it bigger would mean he would not keep the quality high and gelato needs to be eaten as soon as it is made. 

Roberto preparing pistacchio gelato, Alaska, Venice

Gelato for Carlo was hard work, seven days a week, from Carnival till October. But always creative. Ginger, a leaf of basil as topping, celery, the best cocoa, the best pistacchio, now go and try the stracciatella of coconut with dark chocolate…!

Flavours of gelato at Alaska, Venice, June 2023

A local for locals. At the end of the season, on St Martin’s Day, he gave out gelato for free to the kids of the neighborhood. Once he left the gelateria for an hour or so and didn’t close the door… he came back and what had happened in the meanwhile? A French guy had taken over and was selling Carlo’s gelato with the help of his son.

A musical mission

Carlo’s passion for music was legendary. In his life he collected 30,000 vinyl records. This bond with music reminds me of the past, when, during the opera, there was the moment called the “aria of the sorbet”. Basically, a singer performed a piece, which was not strictly related to the opera, but gave time to the spectators to enjoy sorbet. Well, at Alaska one day Sebastian Schwarz, at that time the choir language coach for the Fenice Opera House, brought some singers of the choir of the theatre in front of Alaska to sing “Happy Birthday” to Carlo.

Carlo Pistacchi at home with his collection of vinyls, Venice

While the gelato is still here to be greatly enjoyed, I am so much looking forward to the moment when Carlo Pistacchi’s music collection will vibrate again.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

On the cover: The gondola of gelato, Venice 1940s-50s, Archivio Gianluigi Bertola, a photo from Getty Images

Alessandro Marzo Magno, Il genio del gusto, Garzanti 2015
Michelangelo Corazza e Virna Grossi, Gelato e gelatieri della Val di Zelda e Zoppè di Cadore, Arnoldo Moreno editore, 2022

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Showing 4 comments
  • GailS

    Great post Luisella! Love the ginger gelato at Alaska – so unique and so tasty.

    • I do also, so intense and it leaves your mouth with that refreshing flavor for long! It’s time to arrange an experience tour on gelato 😉

  • Jill Kerby

    I will certainly take a much closer look at the beautiful gelato bucket at the Querini Stampalia the next time I visit. Also, I’m so sorry that I never came across Alaska, the San Croce Gelateria, so close to where I as staying (near Ca Mocenigo) this past month. Still, the cherry gelato at the Campo San Giacomo del Orio – with a scoop of dark chocolate – is to die for! ☘️

    • Oh, I am sure you will pay a visit to Alaska next time you come 🙂 The Querini Stampalia museum is a precious mine, there’s always something new to observe, no kidding!