I wonder if Italians have a saying that is equivalent to “We all scream for ice cream.” If not, they might need to come up with one to describe the little piece of Italy that arrived in New Haven three months ago. Ciao Bella, which already has popular establishments in the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Grand Central Station in New York City, adds delicious and imaginative gelati and sorbetti to our very own Wall Street.
A prominently displayed placard in Ciao Bella explains the differences between American ice cream and Italian gelato. Ciao Bella’s gelato contains 20 percent air by volume, compared to 60 percent in most American brands, and contains only 12 percent butterfat versus 16 percent in typical ice cream. Because authentic gelato is made by hand in small batches, it should boast a smoother, creamier consistency with a dense texture and intense flavor.
Ciao Bella’s variety of flavors made me giddy. From tried-and-true classics like hazelnut, dulce de leche and coffee to new-age creations like banana walnut praline, blackberry cabernet and chocolate jalapeno, Ciao Bella offers something for the purist, the novice, and the risk-taker. Although many of the more exotic flavors were only available in pre-packed pints ($4.50) and quarts ($10), the seventeen gelati and six sorbetti flavors glistening in front of me were enough to melt any disappointment. The fresh gelato is available in two sizes, with two scoops for $3.75, and three for $4.25.
In order to offer the most accurate and thorough review of Ciao Bella as possible, I bravely tasted ten different kinds of ice cream — eight gelato flavors (zabaglione, green tea, pistachio, Tahitian vanilla, chocolate, apple caramel crisp, hazelnut and tiramisu) and two sorbet flavors (strawberry and blood orange). Zabaglione and tiramisu tie for the top gelato prize. Both zabaglione and tiramisu are Italian desserts that contain sweet liqueur. The gelato versions of both of them left potent, sweet impressions on my tastebuds without being cloying. As for sorbetto, the blood orange was phenomenal. Looking as electric orange as a punk rocker yet tasting as complex as merlot, blood orange sorbetto is the intellectual that can still kick your ass. A sample lick of apple caramel crisp manifested my first taste of apple pie while the strawberry sorbetto packed some serious summertime kick. Tahitian vanilla (despite the intriguing name), green tea, pistachio and hazelnut formed the middle of the pack; while bad gelato probably doesn’t exist, those options were standard and unsurprising. In an unusual upset, chocolate didn’t live up to its fancy label. While it tasted as powerful as the high-grade Scharffen-Berger brand of chocolate used to make it, the chocolate’s texture was chewy, like a melted brownie. You can’t get more oxymoronic than chewy gelato.
While giving my sweet tooth some time to recover, I noticed the savory menu. In addition to the ice cream, Ciao Bella also sells panini and crepes. Alas, the Porto-Bellisimo panini ($7.25) suffered from a similar problem as the chocolate gelato, receiving “yum” for taste and “meh” for its texture. The whole gang was in the panini: bold portobello mushrooms mingled with roasted red pepper, which stuck like glue to the ubiquitous goat cheese, which coupled with shy mozzarella. Unfortunately, overzealous balsamic marinade weighed down the party and the house of toasted focaccia soggied early, leaving no crunch behind.
The delightful Ciao Bella gelato deserves to be vended from a more welcoming atmosphere. Although the interior of Ciao Bella is brightly colored and filled with charming touches like shelves of jam and magazines imported from Italy, chairs are noticeably absent. Not only does the lack of seating relegate customers to eating on-the-go, it also goes against the relaxing European cafe experience that gelato is supposed to represent. At about four bucks a pop (the scoops are tiny and so are the cups), Ciao Bella is a more expensive alternative to Ashley’s and Tasti D-Lite, but it’s perfect for a little taste of Italy — without the $500 plane ticket.