I am sure that all ice cream lovers will agree with me when I say that it is our good fortune that artisanal ice cream shops are popping up all over Singapore.
But it is not so easy to stand out from the crowd.
Before gelato artisans howl in protest and point out that gelato is different from ice cream and that I am misleading readers with my title, I want to point out that other than the fact that gelato is made with a higher proportion of milk to cream, both are frozen dairy treats. It won’t be too far-fetched to say that most people in this part of the world were introduced to ice cream first due to its availability, and those who love eating ice cream will naturally love eating gelato, which is arguably more flavourful due to its lower fat content.
I didn’t really think about this until I began comparing gelati of the same flavours between two of Singapore’s most expensive gelaterias: Note di Sicilia and Alfero Gelato. Correct me if I’m wrong, but one scoop of gelato retails for $9 at Note di Sicilia and $6 at Alfero. The $3 difference might get one thinking that Alfero isn’t in the same league at all, but hey, it was crowned “Best Gelateria In Singapore” by some publication last year (I honestly forget which). Note di Sicilia was not even named runner-up but it must be superlative because the six-star Capella Singapore Hotel gets its supply of gelato from them.
My plebeian judgement of whether an ice cream is good or not is benchmarked against my childhood experience at the old Swensen’s located at the Viewing Mall at Changi Airport Terminal 1. In the olden days (i.e. 1980s), Swensen’s ice cream tasted worlds away from what they serve now. Or perhaps, everything tastes better when coated with nostalgia. While I have forgotten what flavour I used to order, I remember that my first taste of “premium” ice cream brought to mind a symphony where caramel, vanilla, bananas and maple syrup melded into a sweet, soothing melody in my mouth. It was fresh, exciting and aromatic.
I have tried to chase down this particular holy grail quality in the ice creams I’ve eaten in subsequent years. Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey is a close second in terms of tasting notes but it is too cloying and creamy to be an equal match. Then, I chance upon panna cotta-flavoured gelato at Gelatissimo at Shaw House.
Digging into it evoked a one-bite flashback, not unlike the one experienced by ruthless food critic Anton Ego in the Pixar cartoon Ratatouille. It didn’t taste the same as my Swensen’s ice cream – only better.
Ah, but my happiness was short-lived. It was a limited edition flavour. (You may argue that Haagen-Dazs came up with a panna cotta raspberry ice cream in 2011. Yes, I have tasted it and have dismissed it as a non-contender for Holy Grail position.)
Anyway, permanent flavour or not, I wouldn’t shore truckloads of it at home. Part of the enigma of the Holy Grail ice cream – oops, I mean, gelato – lies in its scarcity. Plus, the ice cream revolution hit Singapore shortly after and I got distracted by all the sea salt caramel and mao shan wang treats the new parlours had to offer.
Until a recent brunch at Capella Singapore Hotel had me wondering: There’s a gelato that’s worth $9 a scoop? Should it unseat Alfero? I had to find out.
By sheer chance, Alvin and I both happened to be in the vicinity of Alfero and Note di Sicilia respectively within the same week. We each took home two of the best available flavours to compare.
(This is not a paid or sponsored advertorial. We bought the gelato with our own money to satisfy my curiosity.)
Alvin came home with hazelnut and pistachio gelati from Note di Sicilia. The frozen treat is housed inside a curious, palm-sized “isothermal” sphere (it really is a styrofoam box in the shape of a sphere). I brought home bacio (hazelnut and chocolate) and pistachio from Alfero in a rectangular styrofoam box.
Price comparison table:
Before I sample the frozen treats, I find a glossy pamphlet inside the Note di Sicilia paper bag which informs me that their gelati is made with fresh Italian milk, and its sorbetti and granita made with Italian Spring Water. I go on their website and learn that the three-year-old company prides itself in creating gelato according to the traditional “stacca e spalma” (detach and spread) method from Syracuse in southeast Sicily. This technique is supposedly the key to achieving a silky mouth-feel.
Separately, I also learn that Sicilian gelato typically does not use eggs or cream. Starch powder is used to stabilise and thicken the confection. In Note di Sicilia’s case, it uses the flour of the carob nut (it does sound like some Final Fantasy treasure but it is a real nut with high nutritional value and is low in fat).
Note di Sicilia also uses pistachios from Bronte, Sicily, where people hold pistachio feasts and festivals in honour of the prized crop. It uses hazelnuts of the Tondo Gentile variety, from Langhe, at the foot of the Italian Alps.
Well guess what – Alfero also uses the same pistachios and hazelnuts! With the exception of local flavours, Alfero’s gelato makers also sources its ingredients from Italy, if not Europe. Alfero’s website says that it serves Italian gelato. (read: not Sicilian. Sicily is part of Italy as a nation but has its own regional and cultural identity.)
But which is more delicious? At first glance, the gelato from Note di Sicilia is denser while Alfero’s is slightly airier. Alfero’s pistachio is decidedly greener in hue while Note di Sicilia’s is more ochre. Like what its colour suggests, the latter tastes more caramel-ly, too, so much so that I ask Alvin, several times while sampling, whether he didn’t purchase caramel gelato instead. Alfero’s, in contrast, tastes robustly nutty and is unmistakably fragrant with the aroma of buttery pistachios. It is ever so slightly richer and grittier, something I appreciate in this flavour; while Note di Sicilia’s version is silky smooth.
So, Alfero’s pistachio gelato wins.
Time for the hazelnut gelato. I had sampled the hazelnut gelato at Alfero’s and rejected it in favour of the hazelnut chocolate. The pure hazelnut one tasted too flat and one-note in comparison. Note di Sicilia’s hazelnut gelato had no such issues. It carried hints of toasted sugar which perfectly complemented the richness of hazelnut and convinced my palate that this was superior to not just the hazelnut gelato I tasted at the store, but also the hazelnut chocolate gelato I had brought home.
Actually, I hear that the star flavours at Note di Sicilia are bitter chocolate and vanilla, which are re-stocked every week at the Capella Singapore Hotel. They were sold out at the Quayside Isle outlet when Alvin visited, but when we tasted them at the hotel’s brunch, they were really excellent.
I think that all these subtle differences in gelato flavours are all the more distinct to the palate as the tongue isn’t coated with fat, which tends to happen when we eat ice cream. As mentioned before, gelato is lower in fat than its American counterpart. But are these differences worth shelling out big bucks for and driving all the way to Sentosa Cove?
It really depends on whether you have a Holy Grail ice cream. Oops, I mean, gelato.
1) 21 Lorong Kilat #01-01 2) 6 Raffles Boulevard, 02-226A/B Marina Square 3) 81 Mac Pherson Lane, #01-37
Quayside Isle 31, Ocean Way #01-09