Ice cream was born in Tuscany in the 16th century - and it's still the perfect place to track down a classy cone or two today
Florence gave the world gelato in the 16th century, so it's hardly surprising that Tuscany remains the best place in Italy to hunt down a cone or two. Every town has its favourite gelateria, frequented by young and old, local and visitors alike. Even if you’re flying blind without recommendation, a couple of general rules should see you right. Look for the queue: good gelato is always popular. Check the sign outside for words like artigianale or produzione propria. In theory, these reassure you that the gelato is home-made. It’s not a cast-iron guarantee of quality, but helpful nonetheless.
Look out for signs of branding: the best stuff is individually made on site without fuss, so you won’t see a company logo flashed across the tubs. Finally, consider the colours: good gelato is made daily from fresh ingredients only. Once you get the hang of it, you can tell the difference.
Florence's Best Ice Cream
Florence, gelato’s home-town, isn’t short of choice. Vivoli, in Via Isole delle Stinche, close to Santa Croce, is usually hailed as the best in town—so confident of that accolade they don’t allow cones to impair the flavour of the cold stuff. Vivoli’s chocolate-orange is outstanding, admittedly, but for me the best in town is Gelateria dei Neri, close by on Via dei Neri. They go heavy on seasonal flavours: at the right time of year, I always stop in for fresh fig and vanilla cream.
Unfortunately, those two titans aren’t conveniently located for anyone on a quick city tour. Festival del Gelato, however, is just off the main Duomo—Uffizi drag, on Via del Corso. When you reach Orsanmichele look out for the riot of neon and 70+ flavours almost opposite.
Slurping in Siena, Pisa and San Gimignano
Park yourselves in Siena’s Campo on a summer’s night and almost everyone you see is chomping on a cone. Chances are it’s come from Brivido, on the corner of Via dei Pellegrini and Via di Città, a local institution. The gelato there is superb, but my personal favourite is a short walk up Banchi di Sopra and down into the Bruco contrada, on Via de’ Rossi. The name, Kopa Kabana, is cheesy, the displays are workmanlike compared to Brivido, and the choice is limited, but the gelato is spectacular.
Other stops on the Tuscan trail aren’t short of first-class gelato. San Gimignano isn’t the obvious place to look for multiple world gelato champions but they’re right here, bang in the centre on Piazza della Cisterna. Look for the queues out the door: you want Gelateria di Piazza, at number 4. Their saffron-based Crema di Santa Fina, named after a local saint, is a revelation.
All the best gelato joints in Pisa are (as you’d expect) well away from the mêlée at the Campo dei Miracoli. Bottega del Gelato, by the Arno in Piazza Garibaldi, is my favourite.
The evening passeggiata and a gelato go hand in hand. If you’re in town for one of Arezzo’s monthly antique fairs or Piero Della Francesca’s 'Legend of the True Cross', there’s only one place to grab your ice-cream: Cremí on Corso Italia.
And remember: a gelato a day keeps the doctor away. Or something like that.
Where to Stay Close to the Ice Cream
Florence is the centre of Tuscany's perfect gelato storm. The city's Hotel Davanzati (Via Porta Rossa 5; +39 055 286666; www.hoteldavanzati.it) has tastefully converted rooms kitted out with gadgets like flatscreen TVs and a laptop with broadband in every room, all crammed inside a Renaissance palazzo. It's also ideally located between the glamorous shops of Via Tornabuoni and the ice-cream nirvana that is Festival del Gelato. Siena has fewer really excellent hotel options in its Gothic centre. Chiostro del Carmine (Via della Diana 4; +39 0577 223885; www.chiostrodelcarmine.com) is set around a former Carmelite cloister, just inside the city gates and 10 minutes' walk from the Campo. It's an atmospheric (and reasonably priced) oasis of tranquility in what can be a hectic little city. The comfortable guest rooms at San Gimignano's Hotel La Cisterna (Piazza della Cisterna 23; +39 0577 940328; www.hotelcisterna.it) could hardly be closer to the action. Not just smack in the middle of San Gimignano's medieval central piazza, but within touching distance of Gelateria di Piazza. Ask for a piazza or valley view.