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  • Jennifer

Bologna, Italy: Gelato edition

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

We discovered gelato on our honeymoon to the Amalfi Coast of Italy and we were instantly smitten. Upon our return I decided to do a little research to learn why gelato is so much creamier and more dense than ice cream - and therefore so much more delicious (the answer: gelato has more milk than cream, less fat, is churned at a slower pace, and is served at a warmer temperature, to start). In my search for information, I also discovered that there is actually a place called Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. And you can go there to learn how to become a master gelatier. From that day on, I was determined to attend this magical place. Several years later, that's exactly what I did.

When I approached Joe and told him that I wanted to attend Carpigiani Gelato University for their Beginner and Intermediate gelato courses, he thought I was crazy, but he was also super supportive (after all, I'd learn how to make gelato, and he would benefit from my knowledge).

I signed up for the courses, got myself an Airbnb apartment in Bologna, made plans for Joe to meet me in Bologna after a few weeks for our own travels, and, in May, found myself on a flight to gelato school and the land of Parmigiano Reggiano (according to the sign welcoming me in the airport) and Italian high-performance sports cars (they have those in the airport, too).

After navigating my way to my apartment, I had the next day to settle in before starting school on Monday. I chose my apartment for its location along the bus line to school, but it also happened to have a huge terrace with a view up towards Santuario Madonna di San Luca (Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca), a basilica that sits 300 meters above the city atop Monte della Guardia.

You can actually climb up there via the longest portico in the world (which Joe and I did when he visited, and it is both long and steep and really not to be done on a hot day in May). Not a bad view to wake up to every morning.

On my first full day in Bologna it was raining, but the weather did nothing to dampen my desire to explore the city. I purchased my bus ticket for the line that would take me to school and took my first ride into the heart of the city.

It was a Sunday, so the city center was pretty quiet, but I was able to walk around and check out all the things Bologna is known for - the Piazza Maggiore, which is the central square, and the Basilica di San Petronio, which faces the Piazza but isn't exactly the loveliest church to look at because it was never completely finished. The lower half has colored marble stone, but the top is bare and just brown bricks.

Not much to view on the outside, but it is beautiful inside and definitely worth a visit. And, of course, the "leaning towers" of Bologna - Asinelli and Garisenda, named after prominent families. Fun fact: Bologna has more porticoes than any other city in the world, covering 38 kilometers (24 miles) in the city center, and 53 kilometers (53 miles) if you count those outside the historic city walls. Why? Because residents started building the overhangs to provide more living space. The added bonus? All of the porticoes provide much appreciated shade during the summer and keep you dry when it rains.

The University of Bologna, in continuous operation since1088, is the oldest university in the world. As I wandered the city I stopped into a local café for some hot chocolate and to get out of the rain. I found myself among students at laptops doing their work, so I pulled out a book I was carrying and joined them, reading for a bit and feeling like a student of Bologna myself. There are more than 87,000 students at the university, how had I never heard of this college before? Bologna was a great place to go to school for non-gelato learning, too!

The next day I tossed my backpack over my shoulder and walked to catch the bus to school. So exciting!! Carpigiani Gelato University is the largest international gelato school and is recognized all over the world for its programs that train chefs, pastry chefs and business owners. It was founded by Carpigiani, a company that has developed gelato technology and equipment for 75 years. In fact, the school is attached to the factory that produces all of the gelato machines, and we ate lunch every day in the employee cafeteria with the factory workers (the food was amazing).

After checking in and walking through the commercial kitchen where we'd have our hands-on learning every day, I found myself in a theater-style classroom with about 30 other students from around the world.

There were pastry and chocolate chefs from India and Chili, aspiring gelato shop owners from Brazil, Amsterdam and Singapore, and even a few curious people like me who just wanted to learn how to make gelato. One of them was from the Faroe Islands, a place I'd never even thought about before - every day was an opportunity to learn from my fellow students. We had 19 countries represented in all and several languages, it was so very cool. Our professors for our classes were gelato maestros, experienced chefs and gelato experts who were beyond talented. During my time there I learned from an Italian maestro and a Dutch maestro who managed to teach us all in English. We each received a chef jacket and apron, hats, and our textbooks. From that point on, it was all business - a combination of learning history, chemistry and cooking. And when we finally got to see the gelato we'd made come out of the machines, it was not only like we'd created magic, it was also gorgeous to watch - it made us all practically giddy!

Every day we'd have classroom instruction in the morning (which felt an awful lot like chemistry and math class), break for lunch, and then spend four hours in the kitchen. And we tasted everything. At the end of each day, we'd put our creations in the refrigerated case and... there they'd be in the morning for us to take as much as we wanted - in either cones or cups. I literally had gelato for breakfast every single day, and it was awesome. That was my daily breakfast buffet in the photo below.

We learned how to put machines together and take them apart to clean after use - and by the end of the courses it was second nature, we could break down, clean and set up a machine in minutes.

In the basic course we learned about the fundamentals (fat ratios, sugar freezing points, etc.), different methods and production cycles, milk-based and fruit-based gelatos and sorbettos, and even the business basics of opening a gelato shop, from the economics to ensure profitability to how to design the layout, thanks to an architect who specializes in retail design.

Even the bathrooms in school reminded us we were there to learn about the science, art (and enjoyment) of gelato.

In the intermediate course, we learned about balancing methods to ensure the right ratios of ingredients when creating formulations (solids, liquids, etc.), sugar analysis, flavor techniques, and we even got to create our own custom flavors from a huge variety of sweet and savory ingredients, from saffron to rose water to different chocolates. I created a hibiscus & forest fruit infused flavor that is still, today, one of my favorites.

As a chocolate addict, when it came time to experiment with different methods, types, and ratios of chocolate, and then perform blind taste tests to see what we could identify, it was like I'd arrived in the place I was meant to be my whole life - chocolate heaven.

Because Carpigiani is also home to the only museum dedicated to the history of artisan gelato, we all visited and learned about the history, culture, and technology of gelato.

While discovering how the tools and approaches to gelato making have evolved over time, we learned that architect Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with the egg cream gelato, but Francesco Redi and Lorenzo Magalotti made it famous by singing its praises and describing its ingredients. Francesco Procopio Cutò, later known as François Procope des Couteaux, sold sorbets to Parisian intellectuals in his café. It's a fun museum to visit but, to be honest, unless you are near Anzola dell’Emilia, it's about 20 minutes from central Bologna.

Outside of school I also learned a lot, both from just hanging out with such an international group of people and from living in a foreign city. One day after class we were all on the bus headed to our respective apartments at the end of the day and I noticed my bus pass didn't give me a happy beep like it did when I took the bus to school in the mornings. When I asked my friend from Amsterdam if he knew why, he had an idea: it appeared that while my bus pass worked on the way to school, on the way back I was passing through two zones, not one. Of course, I had a one zone pass. I made a mental note to get a new pass at the tabaccheria as soon as I got home. Well, not soon enough.

Because in Italy, the carabinieri (police) conduct random bus checks to make sure everyone has a validated ticket/pass. They just stop a bus, get on, close the doors, and go person to person checking tickets. The bus doesn't move and there is no escape. And, on that exact day, on that exact bus, guess what happened about five minutes after my friend told me about the two-zone issue? My bus was stopped. Police got on. And I had to pay a 60 Euro fine on the spot for having my one zone pass. Lesson learned. The hard way.

On a better "bus ride" note, one of my professors recommended a book to learn more about how the choice of dish, cutlery, and other nuances affect how people experience what they eat. Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Oxford professor Charles Spence looks at crazy statistics about food (like why people consume 35% more food when eating with one more person and why 27% of drinks bought on airplanes are tomato juice) and how things like background music, color and scent affect our dining experience. He also examines the ways chefs and restaurants can attempt to manipulate all aspects of a meal. I downloaded the book and read it every day on the bus on my way to school. It's amazing and fascinating and I highly recommend it for a fun and informative read. It's changed how I view eating and dining out, and it became the most interesting part of my morning bus rides.

But it wasn't all bus rides and shelling out Euros to repent for my transportation sins, there were lots of other fun times, too. I went running along the Reno River every day after school. I had an incredible pizzeria right around the corner from my apartment and never grew tired of a margherita pizza with rucola (arugula), and I enjoyed fresh squeezed lemonade every day thanks to the juicer I found in my apartment. I shopped like a local with my reusable nylon grocery bag filled with fresh fruits, cheese and prosciutto. And wine was so cheap!

My two best friends from college even visited and we took the train to Portofino for a beautiful and relaxing weekend on the Italian Riviera. While I was in school, they did all sorts of awesome things around the city, here's a photo they shared with me from their walking food tour, where they tasted everything from balsamic vinegars to Parma ham, cheese, and, of course, got to see how Bologna's famous tortellini and tortelloni are made. I was really envious when they told me all about it!

When I graduated, it was sad to say goodbye to everyone (we still all stay in touch on a WhatsApp group and it's been fun seeing people open shops or try new flavors in their restaurants and chocolate boutiques). But I was excited for Joe to arrive for a week for our trip through Tuscany and Umbria, places we hadn't visited before. Stay tuned next week when we'll share those adventures with you!

Bologna isn't exactly one of the first cities everyone wants to visit when they're in Italy, but it was the perfect place to put down roots for a few weeks. I was excited to go back to Bologna and Carpigiani for the advanced course, but COVID arrived, and all in-person programs were cancelled three months before I was scheduled for school. In the advanced course you learn how to incorporate alcohol into gelato (I've tried making Bailey's gelato on my own and it was really good, but I was winging it), as well as some more advanced techniques. I still hope to make it back! Until then, I'm still experimenting with flavors at home (most recently: vanilla brown sugar with cinnamon and nutmeg).

I never had time to do a food tour or learn more about the local specialties that the city is known for, like tortellini and tortelloni, as well as ham from Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. And I only had time to visit one museum, Museo di Palazzo Poggi (Poggi Palazzo Museum), a 16th-century palazzo at the University of Bologna with eclectic science exhibits and frescoes. There is so much more to do and see in Bologna besides gelato. So, there will be a next time for this interesting, if off-the-beaten-track, Italian city and (hopefully) next time I will be a much savvier rider of the Italian transportation.

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