Lemon granita sitting on a colorful tile table in Sicily.
Home » Italian Food Basics » The Difference Between Gelato, Ice Cream and Sorbet, Cremolata and Granita- A Comprehensive Guide

The Difference Between Gelato, Ice Cream and Sorbet, Cremolata and Granita- A Comprehensive Guide

Last updated on June 11th, 2023

One of the top foods to eat on repeat in Italy is gelato because it’s hard to come by at home, where ice cream reigns.

But have you wondered what the difference between gelato and ice cream is? And what about sorbetto (sorbet) or other frozen Italian treats?

In this article, I will clarify all your questions when it comes to what exactly Italian gelato is and how it compares to other frozen treats. I will define gelato, ice cream, sorbet, cremolata, granita and semifreddo, guiding you through pronunciation, how to tell the difference and why you might prefer one over the other. 

boy in front of edoardo gelateria in Florence holding his cone out at arms length.

How To Pronounce Gelato in Italian

Gelato is pronounced jeh-lah-toh in Italian

Listen to the pronunciation of gelato:

What Does Gelato Mean

Toddler eating cup of gelato against old wooden door.

Gelato means frozen in Italian but is actually first and foremost, an adjective used to describe cold things. 

Gelato as an adjective:

Mamma mia, quest’anno è gelato in montagna!
My goodness, this year it’s freezing in the mountains!

Gelato as a noun:

Questo gelato è fatto con prodotti biologici.
This gelato is made with organic ingredients. 

What Is Gelato?

Woman in sunglasses and jeans eating cone of gelato against a yellow wall.

Gelato by definition is made with a base of milk and sugar with other flavors that are churned into the base such as fruit, nuts and chocolate. 

Some specific flavors such as crema (custard flavored gelato) or malaga (rum-raisin) gelato will be made with eggs but only to add flavor, not as a method to alter the consistency.

Good, artisan gelato (meaning homemade in small batches) should be made without any added ingredients such as preservatives, colorings or stabilizers. The list of ingredients should be short and seasonal. 

The best gelaterie will be making flavors that reflect the season. For example, gelato di fragola or strawberry gelato is only made in the spring and early summer when strawberries are in season in Italy. 

Good To Know: Even fruit gelato can be milk based. It’s not necessarily dairy-free.

Famous Gelato Flavors In Italy

Close up of malaga and stracciatella gelato in a gelateria in Florence, Italy.

Italy has countless gelato flavors and they q and what the gelato maker has been inspired by. Check the board for a full list but these flavors will most likely always be available: 

  • Crema – custard flavored gelato
  • Cioccolato – chocolate
  • Nocciola – hazelnut
  • Pistacchio – pistachio
  • Fiordilatte – sweetened milk gelato
  • Amarena – swirled sour cherry gelato
close up of black flavor board with white writing indicating various gelato flavors of the day with key boxes at the bottom to determine vegan and dairy free options at Edoardo Gelateria

For a full list of Italian gelato flavors, read Italian Gelato Flavors.

The Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream

Close up of gelato in metal tins with metal spoons at a gelateria in Italy.

The main difference between gelato and ice cream is the composition. There are typically no eggs used in gelato but it’s one of the main ingredients in ice cream. Gelato is primarily made of milk but cream is the main ingredient in ice cream. Gelato has only about 4 to 8 percent milkfat while ice cream has around 14 perfect milk fat. 

Because of this, gelato freezes differently than ice cream and is served about 10-15 degrees warmer and tends to have a “looser” consistency. It thus melts much quicker. 

Fact: Gelato is kept at about 10° F (-4° C) vs ice cream which is kept between -10° and -20° F (-23° and -29° C)

Gelato is churned at a much slower speed than ice cream, incorporating less air, creating a more compact, dense and richly flavored frozen treat. Ice cream is churned much more quickly, whipping lots of air into it, making it lighter but less flavorful.

Finally, ice cream is typically made to last a longer time which is why it has a higher fat content. Gelato, on the other hand, is meant to be consumed quickly. Fresh ingredients such as seasonal fruit won’t hold up for months in the freezer.  I find that gelato left in the freezer overnight doesn’t taste as good as the day I purchase it.

Fact: The sugar content in gelato can also be lower compared to ice cream depending on the flavor because it relies on natural sugars such as fruit. 

Semifreddo or Mousse Gelato In Italy

Close up of mousse al cioccolato on display at a gelateria in Italy.

Under the umbrella category of gelato, there is one more subcategory that we can’t forget about: semifreddo or mousse gelato. This type of gelato is frozen in a different way, typically made with more sugar and air, creating a semi-frozen or mousse-like consistency. It’s much more airy and light compared to gelato.

Fact: Semifreddo means half-frozen in Italian

You can find semifreddo gelato flavors side-by-side in a separate section or to one side of the gelato case. If you are curious to try this lighter, airy version of gelato, keep your eye out for the words semifreddo or mousse written on the gelato flavor sign. 

How To Pronounce Semifreddo In Italian

Semifreddo is pronounced seh-mee-frehd-doh in Italian.

Listen to the pronunciation of semifreddo here:

What Is Sorbet? Dairy-Free Vegan Sorbetto In Italy

Close up of colorful gelato in metal bins in a gelateria in Italy.

Sorbetto or sorbet is made in the same way as gelato but with a base of water, fruit and sugar instead of milk. It’s dairy-free and vegan. For more info, read our Comprehensive Guide to Sorbetto.

Fruit in sorbet is pureed and added to the base, making for a smooth, uniformly-colored treat. Most of the time, it doesn’t have chunks of fruit. 

Dark chocolate sorbet is also a fixture in many gelateries, offering vegans and dairy-free folks an alternative to the classic fruit flavors. In this case, the dark chocolate sorbet is a bit more “icy” than the typical cioccolato fondente gelato.

Sorbetto is still slow churned like gelato but it will have a much lower fat content, if any. Some sorbets will have a higher sugar content, especially in lesser-quality gelateria to compensate for the lack of creaminess. 

Well-made, artisan sorbet does not need extra sugar but relies on the natural sugars and flavor of the seasonal fruits. If the gelateria is using seasonal fruit, the flavor will be more pronounced, removing any need for additional sugar or flavorings. 

Gelaterias in Italy will have a section of sorbetti on their flavor menu of the day which will be listed on the side or in another section on the flavor board. 

Fact: Fruit flavored gelato is not necessarily dairy-free! Fruit flavors can either be milk or water-based so be sure to ask if it doesn’t specify sorbetto.

Popular Sorbet Flavors In Italy

white board of gelato flavors with and without milk listed by category on a white board

Sorbet flavors are made based on availability and what is in season. For the best sorbets, choose what is seasonal and you won’t be disappointed. For a full list of sorbet flavors and a seasonal fruit calendar read Italian Gelato Flavors.

  • Limone – lemon
  • Fragola – strawberry 
  • Susine – plum
  • Cioccolato fondente – dark chocolate

What Does Sorbet Mean?

Sorbet comes from the Italian word sorbetto. Sorbetto can be traced back to the Turkish or Iranian word sharbat, referring to a fruit-based drink. Sharbat is rooted in the Arabic verb shariba, which means “to drink”.

How To Pronounce Sorbetto In Italian

Sorbet in Italian is sorbetto, pronounced sohr-beht-toh.

Listen to the pronunciation of sorbetto here:

What Is Cremolata?

Cremolato, often confused with its Italian friend, granita, is a frozen dessert made from pureed fruit blended together with sugar and water to make a smooth, almost creamy frozen dessert. 

The fruit mixture is frozen and blended into a smooth, frozen treat. It may also have small chunks of fruit in it. Because of this, cremolata is textured with ice crystals yet not completely smooth. 

Cremolata is served in a bowl and enjoyed with a spoon. 

Good To Know: Cremolato, like sorbetto, is vegan and gluten-free but sometimes it’s served with whipped cream so be sure to specify that you can’t eat dairy. 

How To Pronounce Cremolata In Italian

Cremolata is pronounced creh-moh-lah-tah in Italian.

Listen to the pronunciation of cremolata here:

Cremolata vs Granita vs Sorbet

Granita and mousse flavors at an Italian gelateria.

So what defines cremolata and sets it apart from granita and sorbet?

While granita, cremolata and sorbet are all dairy-free frozen treats, cremolata is characterized by the use of more frozen fruit pulp and is made without fruit juice. Cremolata uses around 80% fruit while sorbet uses much less, around 50% fruit.

Sorbet can be made with pureed fruits, fruit juice or a combination of both. Granita on the other hand, is made with fruit juice, but not limited to.

What Is Granita?

Man serving a granita at Carabè Gelateria in Florence, Italy.

Granita is made with fruit juices or other flavored liquids such as coffee, sugar and water. It’s then frozen and stirred from time to time as it freezes, giving it a grainy texture, much more so than cremolata

Fact: Granita is kept at about 39° F (4° C) vs gelato which is kept at 10° F (-4° C). 

Granita, like cremolata is served in a cup and eaten with a spoon but it’s not creamy like cremolata

Favorite Granita Flavors In Italy

  • Limone – lemon
  • Agrumi – citrus (a combination of orange, mandarin orange, grapefruit and lemon)
  • Caffè – coffee
  • Mandorla – almond
  • Fragola – strawberry

Granita is iconic of Sicily where it’s often eaten with a plain brioche or sweet roll. During the hottest months in July and August, locals even eat it for breakfast with their coffee!

We Recommend: For the absolute best granita in Florence, visit Antonio, originally from Sicily at Carabè, one of Florence’s Best Gelaterie!

In fact, granita is an Italian tradition that arrived from the Arabs when they had roots in Sicily. It was only natural to use what was available: snow from the mountains and fresh and bountiful fruit from the vast countryside. Frozen snow and shaved ice was brought down from Mount Etna and flavored with wine or fruit syrups and juices to make what we know today as granita.

Fact: While gelato is enjoyed year-round, granita and cremolata are most popular in the summer when it’s very hot in Italy.

How To Pronounce Granita in Italian

Granita is pronounced grah-nee-tah in Italian.

Listen to the pronunciation of granita here:

The Difference Between Gelato, Ice Cream and Sorbet, Cremolata and Granita FAQ

Is sorbet dairy-free and vegan?

Yes, sorbet is dairy-free and vegan made most typically with sugar, water and fruit but also with dairy-free chocolate.

Is cremolata and granita the same thing?

No, they are both frozen desserts but granita uses fruit puree and is thus, more creamy. Granita has more texture and is made with fruit juice. 

What is the difference between ice cream and gelato? 

Gelato differs from ice cream in that it:
Has less fat, about 4-8% compared to 14% milk fat.
Is made with milk instead of cream
Usually is egg-free
Is slow-churned, creating a dense, less airy treat
Is stored at a higher temperature and thus softer

Is granita fat free?

Usually granita is fat free as it’s made with water, fruit juice or other flavors such as coffee and sugar. Cremolata is also fat-free.