Marche and chill

Elevated gelato from visionary producers is helping put Marche on the culinary map, writes Laura Hadland


When I think of Le Marche, my first thought is of gelato. And not just any old gelato; the region is home to some of the best on the planet. I first travelled here in 2017, visiting Agugliano, a sleepy but quietly picturesque village of fewer than 5000 residents, set atop a hill just to the south of Ancona. Every June the commune transforms with surprising vibrancy, for the Gelato Artigianale Festival. The streets are filled, day and night, with thousands of people enjoying fine artisan gelato.

Gelato, you say?

This is probably the time to emphasise that ‘gelato’ is not an Italian word for ice cream. Gelato and ice cream contain similar building blocks, but they are different. To illustrate, if you’ve got eggs, flour and butter you can make a quiche. Or you could make choux pastry. Same ingredients, but different outcomes.

Gelato is made with more milk and less cream. This means it has a lower fat content, so it doesn’t need as much air to be whipped into it for that soft texture. The luxurious, silky mouthfeel is intensified by the serving temperature. Gelato is kept at -12°C, 6 degrees or more higher than ice cream. In the same way that wine opens up at higher temperatures, so gelato can offer a more complex flavour journey within a single bite.

Since gelato is churned more gently, delicate, aromatic flavours can be added that would be bruised and lost in the ice cream process. Accordingly, the full gamut of herbs and spices are at the disposal of the Maestri Gelatieri (Master Gelato Makers) when developing their recipes.

And here is the real key to the success of gelato in the Marche. Those rare few Maestri develop their own recipes, in Gelato laboratories at the back of their shops, committed to using only the very best real ingredients, sourced using Slow Food principles.

It is estimated that more than 90% of the world’s gelato is made using semi-finished ingredients, pre-mixes and industrial flavourings. This is incompatible with an artisanal product that relies on the skill, dedication and artistry of its creator. Most of the time, it is quite hard to know for sure what you’re buying. Shortcuts in the raw materials are glossed over by producers shouting about how their gelato is ‘handcrafted’ on site. So you’ve got a proper mantecatori to mix up those powders for you? As Shania Twain once so wisely said, that don’t impress me much.

The true test is taste. If you’re not sure whether you’ve even tried real gelato, take a look at the social media feeds. If a gelateria is proudly posting pictures of themselves preparing fresh fruit in the lab or going out to meet local dairy farmers and beekeepers to source their ingredients, you can have confidence they are likely to be the real deal.

The best Tiramisù gelato is not a basic dairy gelato that has been flavoured to resemble a traditional Italian dessert. It should be made from all of the same ingredients as the real thing, painstakingly sourced and assembled in a different way.

Agugliano’s Gelato Artigianale Festival

At the Gelato Artigianale Festival each year, some of the world’s top Maestri meet to display their wares. A field lab is constructed in the town’s municipal buildings and every morning the gelatieri arrive early to make gelato for the day. They each have a stall around the town supported by festival volunteers, serving specially developed recipes that embody the character of their ingredients.

Like wine, the very finest gelato tells a story about where it has come from. The truly artisanal makers do not just pay lip service to seasonality, sustainability and ethical sourcing, they actually sign up to it when they are invited to join prestigious industry groups like the Artisti del Gelato and Compagnia Gelatieri. You will never see strawberry gelato for sale in a proper gelateria in December, because strawberries aren’t in season then.

Agugliano’s festival was founded in 2009, supported by the town authorities. The creative force behind it was Paolo Brunelli, who grew up in the Marche and runs a gelateria in his family’s small hotel. Paolo is a passionate visionary, who feels his home region’s lack of gastronomic reputation has been one of the things that pushed him to reach for the stars.

Paolo Brunelli—One of Italy’s most celebrated gelatieri

I ask Paolo Brunelli which flavours epitomise the Marche for him.

“There are so many of them, some changing from season to season, while others remain evergreen,” he tells me. “Most of my recipes are inspired by the scents of my home garden—spices and aromatic herbs typical of traditional cuisine—bay leaves in one of my signature flavours during Christmas, Fior di Legno, or the peach and sage sorbetto, that is incredibly fresh and lingering.

“Then there’s the historic Agugliano flavour, dedicated to my hometown, infused with rosemary. And let’s not forget the Alchermes, a typical homemade liqueur, now back in vogue (we produce it with our own recipe), which at the counter becomes ‘Caffè dei Poeti,’ a combination of coffee and Alchermes.”

Brunelli is a trailblazer in his efforts to elevate gelato to fine dining status, to “open the doors of gastronomy to gelato” as he describes it. It was a revelation for me to taste a single quenelle of his Fior di Latte gelato, showcasing the flavours of the milk itself, at his flagship gelateria in Senigallia. Brunelli carefully positioned the gelato on a bed of rich zabaione and topped it with a flourish of grated Pecorino Romano. It brought together sweet, tangy and salty in one unforgettable experience.

Since then, the dish has evolved into a reinterpretation of carbonara. With almond gelato at the base, the zabaione and Pecorino have been joined by a sprinkle of dried bacon to add flavour and texture. 

The Luzi Family— Grassroots gelato

Brunelli’s shops are contemporary and modern. By contrast, the gelateria Makì in the small but ancient town of Fano is more rustic; homely and welcoming. But Antonio and Paola Luzi make gelato that is just as exciting.

Founded in 2006, the Luzis left successful careers in the busy financial district of Milan to follow the call of artisanal gelato back in Antonio’s quiet hometown.

“From the beginning, we took a radical approach,” Antonio tells me. “The best quality without compromise, even though at the time it was not clear what a gelato of good quality was. We first eliminated additives and semi-finished products, then focused on finding the best producers for the ingredients we wanted to use.”

This is perhaps the surprising thing about true gelato, that it is so young. Gelato has its historic roots in the Italian Renaissance, but over the centuries new developments in technology and industrial production separated the original spirit of gelato from its supply chain and its authenticity. The realisation of this and a return to the fundamentals—real ingredients and carefully crafted recipes—is still in its infancy.

Like Brunelli, Luzi is acutely aware that the Marche is not considered “the richest in the country from a gastronomic standpoint” but he emphasises the hidden gems of ingredients as well as chefs, winemakers and other food producers that they collaborate with to increase the attractiveness of the area for food lovers.

“We are convinced small businesses are the best form of economy for local communities and we try to do our part,” Luzi says.

Indeed, Makì means ‘right here’ in the local dialect, emphasising the uniqueness of their offering. Most of their customers come to town specifically to visit this understated destination gelateria.

The future of gelato

Luzi is hopeful that his town will continue to grow and attract visitors, but he is well aware of the problems that unfettered tourism can bring.

“Gelato is part of the Italian way of living and it will always be part of our diet and life. Le Marche is increasingly visited by tourists and we are happy to welcome people from around the world. But we hope it is measured growth. In other parts of Italy, we have witnessed the general quality of life worsening when localities put tourists first.”

For the global future of gelato, Luzi doesn’t hold back. He is “super positive” that “the whole world is discovering this product and its consumption will certainly continue to grow”. 

Brunelli, characteristically, has an even grander vision: “In the future, I see gelato cones being praised all over the world, just like pizza and carbonara. I see chefs, pastry chefs, and gelato makers collaborating together. I see gelato stepping out of its own realm and engaging with other worlds.”

Brunelli has even explored the interactions that gelato can have with design and music. With creatives like him at the helm, I am excited to watch this future unfold. Passion goes hand in hand with flavour in gastronomy, so I leave the last word to Paolo Brunelli.

“I have great faith in gelato. After all, it was my first true love.”

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