How to Order Gelato in Italy

Gelato in Florence - by Craig Stanfill (creative commons)

Gelato in Florence – by Craig Stanfill (creative commons)

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.

Ordering Gelato in Italy

Italy Explained: Gelato ebook

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.

  1. Pay for what you want. This means you’ll need to know ahead of time what portion size you want (how many flavors), and what delivery method (cup or cone). You might say, for example, “Una coppa con due gusti, per favore” – that’s “two flavors in a cup, please.” (There’s a glossary below, hold tight.) You don’t need to know which flavors, mind you, just how many you want to combine in one container. You’ll pay for what you’ve ordered and usually you’ll get a receipt showing what you paid for. Keep this piece of paper – it’s your ticket to gelato.
  2. Browse the flavor options. This is when it’s almost handy to have a bit of a line ahead of you, because that gives you time to peruse all the flavor options. If the shop isn’t busy, you can get a little more time by saying, “Un attimo, per favore,” which means “just a moment, please.” There’s no numerical order to when you’ll be served – the people beind the counter just serve people as they get their attention – so don’t expect there to be an orderly queue. Italians don’t form orderly queues. When you’re ready, make eye contact with a server and nod or smile to indicate that you’re ready to make your choices. If you feel you’re being ignored, you can raise your hand with the receipt in it.
  3. Select your flavors. When the server locks eyes with you, hand your receipt over the counter so they can see that you’ve paid, and tell them which flavors you’d like. If things like “cup” and “cone” aren’t indicated on that shop’s receipts, you might have to say that part again, too.

Do these marry well?

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.

May I have just a taste?

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.

Glossary for Ordering Gelato

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.

  • cono (KOH|noh) – cone (some gelato shops do not have cones); “a cone” is “un cono”
  • coppa (KOHP|pah) – cup; “a cup” is “una coppa”
  • gusto (GOO|stoh) – flavor; the plural is “gusti”
  • con panna (con PAHN|nah) – with whipped cream; you may be asked if you’d like whipped cream atop your gelato
  • si sposa bene (see SPOH|zah BEH|neh) – marries well; you might ask if one flavor “marries well” with another
  • un attimo (oon AH|tee|moh) – one moment
  • prego (PREH|goh) – literally means “you’re welcome,” but is used by servers to indicate they’re ready to take your order
  • dimmi (DEEM|mee) – tell me; used by servers to indicate they’re ready to take your order
  • per favore (per fah|VOH|reh) – please (use early and often!)
  • grazie (GRAHT|zee|eh) – thank you

5 responses to “How to Order Gelato in Italy”

  1. Victoria says:

    Hello! I’ll soon be travelling to Italy for the first time and I’m crazy about gelato. Now, I’m from Argentina and here it’s customary to be able to ask for a taste of a peculiar flavour of ice-cream before deciding if one wants it or not, especially with unusual flavours. Is that possible in Rome? And if so, how do you ask for it? Because I’m already thinking about Fatamorgana and Il Gelato di Claudio Torce and all their strange flavours and woud love to be able to actually see if I like them before ordering!

    Thanks a lot for your answer 🙂

    • Jessica says:

      That’s a great question, Victoria! I’m going to update the article, but yes – you can ask for a taste. If the place is really busy, then it’s not always appreciated if you do that, but if it’s not busy then of course you can ask. You can either say “posso assaggiare?” or “posso gustare?”

      • Victoria says:

        Thank you SO much, Jessica! Wonderful site, by the way – I’m learning a lot! x

        • Jessica says:

          Thank you, I’m glad! In case you haven’t seen them, I also have two ebooks available on Amazon – one of them is even about gelato. 😉 Click on the “STORE” link at the top of the page to see them.

  2. Francesco D'Arcangeli says:

    Hey there,
    nice guide indeed. You are right – we don’t like queues (some very big gelaterias use number tickets though) and large shops may have less patient waiting staff, for this reason I recommend trying smaller shops, better still if you hang out with some locals, they usually know the right places.

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