As is well known, artisan gelato is very popular among consumers, both Italians and foreigners, who flock to our gelato parlours in the summer season and beyond. Outlets such as cafés and restaurants usually sell gelato manufactured by third parties, often industrial suppliers. This does not always make it feasible to get a tailor-made, unique product, introducing minor variations even on a daily or weekly basis. This is clearly a disadvantage in terms of identity for the point of sale, making it hard to make the best possible use of the opportunities afforded by the demand for this popular dessert.
Making one's own gelato takes expertise and investment, even at a modest scale, but this has to turn a profit over a relatively short period of time. It goes without saying that a gelato made in one’s own laboratory costs four to five times less than a bought-in product, but, even more importantly, the freshness that comes with in-house production stands out in terms of flavour, creaminess and hence overall pleasure.
Likewise, ingredients and equipment have to be chosen using properly-defined criteria, ranging from the gelato craftsman’s experience, to the amount of time we can afford to spend on production, to the level of sophistication we are looking to achieve. A restaurant patron will generally expect high quality and little variety, while a café patron will have greater expectations with regard to variety, especially when it comes to how it is served.
At a restaurant, alongside coffee, dessert is the concluding step in the customer’s dining experience and thus sticks in their mind (and in their mouth) as an all-important final memory. Getting the range wrong, as unfortunately very often happens, by offering a product that has little appeal and does not live up to the rest of the dining experience, can undermine all the efforts made in the kitchen.
Offering gelato in a professional catering establishment takes up relatively little space and investment compared to a hand-crafted gelato parlour, as the finished product is only a small part of the range and not the main focus. Gelato can, however, be important for the overall image of the restaurant, helping to shape a customised and more creative menu. One example might be to combine gastronomic (or gourmet) gelato flavours with hot dishes, by making use of specific gelato ingredients mixed with typical restaurant products (spices, vegetables, cheeses, and sometimes even fish and meat) that not only arouse interest but also create an innovative and unique taste experience.
The equipment should be chosen according to how many tubs are expected to be consumed per day. If consumption is limited to just a few tubs (about 4 kg) or to a few kg of gelato (3-4 kg in total, perhaps made up of different flavours). In the first case, the most advisable choice for a restaurant is to purchase a so-called "combo machine", i.e. one that combines a pasteurizing machine (usually 5-8 litres) and a single-cylinder batch freezer into one vertical machine. This equipment will take up little more than a square metre. It can either be water-cooled or, more simply, air-cooled – either way it will need a 380V socket.
A small pasteurizing machine makes it possible to optimise certain flavours to their full potential by heating the ingredients. For this type of equipment, the gelato base needs to be a medium to high grammage (100-150 grams per litre of milk) for a dairy gelato and 50-100 grams for a fruit gelato. In the case of gourmet gelato (i.e. not sweet), higher grammage bases are to be preferred due to the specificity of the ingredients required.
When production and time availability are relatively limited, consider using even semi-finished products in powder or paste form, as they are easier to use, quicker to make, and in any case make it simpler for you to customise the end result without running the risk of making mistakes. However, when gelato production is small, as in the second case above, this type of ingredient is highly recommended. In such circumstances, even the equipment can/should be limited to bench-top machines, without the need for a pasteurizing machine. Bench-tops are 220V machines that take up around 50x60cm and are placed on top of a kitchen counter, and being air-cooled they are easy to find a place for. If you aren’t using a pasteurizing machine, if you prefer not to heat the mixture on a hob and then cool it down in a blast chiller, it is a good idea to use cold-soluble ingredients, such as complete gelato bases. Low-grammage hot-process bases are unsuitable.
Once you have extracted the gelato, in either case, it can be cooled in the restaurant blast chiller and then stored, properly covered and protected, in the most suitable freezer available. The gelato can simply be covered with a sheet of food-grade paper and – if desired – wrapped in PVC film.
The product can either be served on a plate or bowl, with portions being served up in the kitchen or else at the table. A second option might involve using special insulated trolleys, which are not particularly expensive and which make sure that the product stays at the same temperature throughout restaurant opening hours.
As can be seen from this brief analysis, the investment in equipment for a restaurant wishing to produce its own gelato is relatively minor, as only one machine will be needed, that will churn the liquid mixture until it turns solid. The rest of the equipment is generally already in place. If production is limited, but the restaurant wishes to add a touch of colour to their menus with a fresh gelato, a bench-top machine will do the trick, whereas larger restaurants will be more interested in a combo machine.
A combo requires an investment that is about four times higher than a bench-top, starting at around 10,000 euros at the smaller end of the range. The second-hand market can be a source of extremely good-value solutions for an establishment such as a restaurant that is not going to be making very intensive use of the equipment, at least compared with a specialist gelato parlour. Apart from the few specific ingredients needed for making gelato (two bases and a few pastes), the other main ingredients – such as milk, cream, sugar and occasionally powdered milk – are commonplace in a restaurant. We recommend medium- to heavy-weight bases so as to reduce the need to source too many specific raw materials that will only be used for gelato production.
Another calculation that needs to be carried out is how much electricity will be needed, given that the peak usage by a batch freezer can reach 6-8 kW, while it can use up to 400 litres of water an hour (though there is also more eco-friendly equipment around today).
Guide by Fabrizio Osti