Gelaterias—Italian-style ice-cream joints—had all but disappeared from Portland just a few years ago. The hip and trendy frozen treat of the early 2000s had been replaced by quality American-style ice-cream joints, like Cool Moon, and hipper, trendier joints like Salt & Straw. And while gelato could claim to be healthier (lower in butterfat) than American-style ice cream, the ascension of nouveau fro-yo took away even that advantage. And so gelato in Portland mostly disappeared.
Up until now.
Gelato is back in Portland, driven by true masters of gelato with high standards and a passion for quality ingredients, ready to compete with the best ice cream in Portland. We spent a few dog-day summer nights sampling and, of course, dissecting the local gelato offerings.
Here's the scoop:
3707 SE Division St., 758-1575, facebook.com/pages/Pinolo-Gelato.
Overview: Here we have a ray of Tuscan sunshine in the Southeast Division Street overdevelopment zone (disclosure: Zukin owns a restaurant about 10 blocks away). Pinolo only opened in June, but immediately took over as the best gelato in town—and the others are not even close. We agreed it compares favorably to most of the places we visited on our respective trips to Italy in May. No surprise. The equipment, many of the ingredients and even the owner—an amiable beanpole from Pisa named Sandro Paolini—are all Italian imports.
Taste: Intense, deep dark chocolate; naturally colored pistachio that tastes of fresh-roasted nuts; hazelnut as though right from the shell. Only a handful of flavors, but each is pitch-perfect. Each sorbetto is like burying your face in fresh fruit.
Texture: So dense, it might have its own gravitational field. Perfectly smooth with no discernible ice crystals.
Rating: 10 (of 10)
232 NE 28th Ave., 231-7100, staccatogelato.com.
Overview: A Kerns stalwart since 2003, Staccato offers a strong selection of 14 varieties of gelato, plus a selection of sorbetto, including seasonal specialties, in its small, brightly colored retail shop. Lesser known is its wholesale operation, meaning that the excellent gelato you get at Biwa and the Mingo restaurants, among others, such as the Sellwood cart Atlas Scoops, comes from here.
Taste: Intense, true flavors among nearly all our selections, including hazelnut and the mint in the chocolate mint variety. The basil gelato was less powerful but still pleasant. And the orange creamsicle, which tasted of freshly grated orange zest, was excellent for a nontraditional variety. We weren't fans of the pistachio. Sorbetto flavors are weaker than gelato.
Texture: Not as dense as Pinolo, but still a creamy, mostly ice-free delight.
1760 NE Dekum St., 209-2399, bassottopdx.com.
Overview: Who names a gelato shop in the heart of the historic Woodlawn neighborhood after a breed of dog, in this case the low-slung dachshund? We're sure there's a backstory, but we don't care as long as the gelato is good, which it is here. The half dozen gelato flavors, traditional and creative, were matched by an equal number of fresh fruit sorbetti. And you can score a Spielman bagel, too.
Taste: Michael fell for the black sesame, a rich, savory flavor normally associated with South Asian cuisine, but this was outstanding despite its unattractive cement color. Also exceptional: lime with a glaze of raspberry, and more orthodox fior di latte and gianduia varieties.
Texture: Moderately dense and creamy. No ice crystals.
Overview: The good news is, you can buy this excellent gelato retail. The bad news, at least for now, is that you'll have to track it down at area farmers markets. We were heartened to learn that the owner is an authentic Florentine, and even happier to discover Emilio Palici is doing his gelato right.
Taste: Good selection (six gelatos, three sorbettos), especially for a road show. Our favorite flavors were the chocolate, which was dark and fudgy, and the less traditional Italian wild berry, which is really a sweet cream flavor with a drizzle of berry syrup over the top. Fior di latte was a bit sweet for our tastes. Overall, flavor intensity was not quite up to Pinolo's ridiculously high standard.
Texture: No complaints. Density about on par with the others in this category.
8712 N Lombard St., facebook.com/affogatogelato.
Overview: Deep in the heart of St. Johns, a few doors down from some fellas smoking cigarettes, pounding PBRs and talking shit, there's this hole-in-the-wall gelato stand and coffee shop. Michael enjoyed the solo server's smartass shtick. Nick was unimpressed. Neither of us were big fans of the four gelato varieties on offer.
Taste: We were OK with the salted caramel and chocolate stracciatella flavors, less so the peach, which wasn't especially peachy.
Texture: Graininess, indicative of slow freezing, was a problem in the peach and also the cookies and cream variety. Too airy, as well.
3377 SE Division St., 971-302-6605, romancandlebaking.com.
Overview: Nothing explosive among the nearly secret selection of five gelato flavors offered here. Unlike the featured street pizza, the gelatos are hidden and scooped somewhere in the back, and they aren't advertised on any of the in-house signage. Nick found out the shop had gelato, so we tried it. Compared to Pinolo just up the street, or even any of the second-tier places, this was a waste of time and money—though the portions were enormous.
Taste: Traditional fior di latte and more creative cinnamon-almond biscotti flavors were solid if not especially intense. Chocolate-hazelnut had a light chocolate base with bits of hazelnut in the mix. We prefer our chocolate much deeper and darker.
Texture: You'd think with the resources behind this place, it could at least get the texture right. But, no, everything we tried was grainy, icy or both.
931 NW 23rd Ave., 228-1709, alottogelato.biz.
Overview: The strength at this Northwest 23rd Avenue long-timer is the fresh fruit sorbetto selection, which is to say the gelato is mostly mediocre. You can decide whether to hope for the best here, endure the Salt & Straw line across the street or abandon this quarter of town in disgust and head for greener pastures.
Taste: We enjoyed the toasted almond variety for its sweet, natural flavor, and the chocolate was fudgy and natural-tasting too. But the vanilla and "Orange Julius" flavors, among others, were muted and unimpressive. The latter tasted like diluted orange juice with powdered eggs thrown in. Not good.
Texture: Larger, sand grain-sized ice crystals ruined the texture of what we tasted. Sorbetti, oddly, were denser and less icy than the gelato.
1105 NW Marshall St., 225-9300, viadelizia.com.
Overview: Our only Pearl District candidate used to be pretty good. Now it's not, the aftermath of an ownership change a few years ago. For whatever it's worth, it offers large servings and a lot of flavors, many of them traditional, a few offbeat.
Taste: Major demerits for artificial flavors in nearly every variety we tried. The chocolate had the dusty taste of Nestlé's cocoa powder, blackberry-lemonade was long on sweet lemon, short on blackberry, and the white chocolate mocha tasted like a frozen cup of Starbucks.
Texture: The strong point, such as it is. A few icy shards, but reasonably smooth and creamy though not dense.
3650 SE Concord Road, Milwaukie, 659-1374, jgelati.com.
Apparently, word never made it this far south of town that âgelatiâ is the plural of gelato, not some Franken-freeze amalgamation of neon-hued âItalian iceâ and soft-serve frozen custard. Like a couple rubes, we schlepped all the way down 99E to the Milwaukie-Gladstone hinterlands only to discover the disappointing, gelato-less truth. That said, the Italian ices seemed naturally flavored, so we didnât one-star them on Yelp or anything.