If you read the title of this article and scoffed, thinking, “Seriously, how hard can it be to get an ice cream??!?” then all I ask is that you give me a few minutes to explain why you might need a few words of explanation before stepping into a gelateria. Yes, you could get a gelato without reading this, although your process may go more smoothly if you do – and y’know what that means? Less time standing between you and your gelato.
So, do I have you for a few minutes? Excellent.
Normally, when I buy something in a restaurant, I expect to eat said item before I pay for it. Many gelato shops in Italy, however, operate more like convenience stores or take-out shops – you pay first, and then get your goodies. In a gelateria, there is often someone taking payments who is not only not the same person as the one scooping your gelato, they’re sometimes not even in the same part of the shop. The folks actually filling your order, then, would have no way of knowing if you had paid unless you did it beforehand. Plus, it keeps all that filthy lucre away from your tasty, tasty gelato.
(Yes, there are also gelaterias that are small enough or not busy enough so that the same person takes your cash and scoops your gelato. These instructions are more geared toward those busy shops in touristy cities where the patience level of the workers is – shall we say – not great.)
Here are the steps to ordering gelato in Italy.
Sometimes, I’ll have one flavor chosen that I know I want, but can’t decide on another to go with it. If the shop isn’t busy, or the server seems particularly friendly, one of my favorite things to do is ask them for flavor recommendations. In Italian, the phrase they use is that one flavor “marries well” with another, which I think is adorable. You might ask, “Cosa si sposa bene con liquirizia?” – “What goes well with licorice?” – for instance. I’ve gotten some surprising recommendations (lemon with licorice!) that often end up becoming new favorites. Try it for yourself.
Victoria left a comment asking whether it was okay to ask for a taste of a flavor before ordering it. It’s a good question, and – thankfully – the answer is yes. Generally speaking, if a shop is really busy, they don’t appreciate it if you ask for a taste – especially if you ask for multiple samples before you decide. But if the server is friendly enough or the shop isn’t super crowded, say either, “posso assaggiare?” (POH|soh ah|sah|JAR|eh) or “posso gustare?” (POH|soh goo|STAH|reh), which both mean, “may I taste?” When you get your sample, a hearty “grazie” is always a good idea.
Find out why I think “posso” is one of the most useful Italian words to know.
I’ve covered a long list of gelato flavors – what they mean and how to pronounce the Italian words – in another article, but here’s the list of vocabulary that you’ll need to actually get from zero to gelato in no time flat.