INDULGE YOURSELF Revel in the glory of summer with local gelato.
Despite all the talk about division in this country, we are living in an era where the most traditional of divisions, the one between adults and children, is disappearing. Preteens cultivate resumes, train like professional athletes, and casually discuss their sexual preferences. Meanwhile adults negotiate teenagerish careers of temporary work, play video games, go to Batman movies, and use sexuality to negotiate unresolved infantile anxieties. Gelato is the perfect dessert for times like these. Tasting it gives us a visceral experience of this convergence. The childish pleasures of ice cream seem more adult when translated through gelato's denser textures. And gelato allows grown-up subtleties of flavor to emerge even as we appreciate the nostalgic pleasures of a creamy, cool dessert.
The last year or so has brought Portland two gelato shops — Gorgeous Gelato and Gelato Fiasco, right across from each other on Fore Street in the Old Port. Both make their gelato fresh every day, on site, using traditional methods and fresh ingredients. Nonetheless, their approaches to gelato are different enough to offer two perspectives on the convergence of adulthood and childhood. With summer weather finally arriving in Maine, it's the perfect time to appreciate gelato's generational significance.
Gorgeous, currently in its second summer, seems at first glance like the more adult shop. It is run by recent immigrants from Italy — middle-aged parents from Milan (much like the folks who run Paciarino down the block). They are not veterans of the Italian gelato culture, but rather took college classes on gelato-making to facilitate a mid-career transformation. Fiasco in its first Portland summer (which has already won the Portland Phoenix readers' poll for Best Ice Cream Shop and Best Dessert Place), is run by guys in their 20s. But the Fiasco guys are the relative veterans, having opened their first shop in Brunswick when they were barely out of their teens.
These life-cycle complexities emerge in the taste and texture of the gelato itself. The essence comes down to this: Gorgeous Gelato offers a creamier, more mouth-coating gelato, while Fiasco offers something slightly denser and more flavor-intense. The reason is simple: Gorgeous uses some cream in its mix, and Fiasco relies on whole milk alone.
Each version has its distinctive pleasures. The creamier Gorgeous version is a step closer to the comforting textures of ice cream, and is a perfect base to feature the crisp sweetness of real cane sugar. So its dark chocolate gelato flavor, for example, is plenty rich, but is also sweet, with the hint of bitter cocoa flavor only emerging as the second note as it melts on your tongue. The cantaloupe gelato also lets the flavor remain subtle and trusts the sugar to do its pleasing work. The lemon is sweet-sharp and perfectly traditional — transporting my buddy back to his New Jersey childhood.
Fiasco gets a little bolder with its flavors, including sharp spices and liquors, and its particular mix leaves them relatively undiluted by creaminess and sugars. The results are striking. The ginger-cardomom sends the tangible sharpness of fresh ginger right into your sinuses, followed by a sort of chai-tea milkiness. The strawberry in several flavors was so fresh and dense you could almost taste the dirt from the field; the mango seemed a pure distillation of the fruit. Pomegranate lime offered dark grapey flavor, with a sour kick behind. In the dark-chocolate based flavors the richness threatened to overwhelm the gelato experience — but when mixed with hazelnut it mellowed nicely. The cherry-chocolate seemed truly confectionery.