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If, at some point in the near future, you find yourself forgoing your usual lunctime sandwich in favour of a large helping of mascarpone-honey-and-walnut gelato, it will be largely due to the efforts of ice-cream maker Federico Maronati. Maronati has the rotundity and bonhomie of a storybook pastry chef, which is appropriate as he is the co-founder of Artigeniale, one of the premium gelato companies in his native Italy.

“Ice cream is not only a good mood enhancer, but it is also a food that can replace a meal,” he enthuses, gesturing at his display case, groaning with exotic flavours: alpine peaks of liquorice or semifreddo amuse-bouches of cream of caramelised figs.

“Take this,” Maronati continues, brandishing a tub of tangy lemon gelato containing fruit from the Amalfi coast, accessorised with hazelnuts from Pie-monte. “It’s organic, full of vitamins and has fewer than 200 calories per serving,” he beams munificently. “Have this in the middle of the day and it gives you enough sugars and proteins to carry on.” He takes a gulp. “The same amount of nutrients as pasta or salad,” Maronati continues, swilling it round his mouth as if it were a 1787 Château Lafite, “but you digest much faster.” He swallows, smacks his lips, and pats his stomach, in an “I-rest-my-case” kind of way.

As a vision of the future, the gelato lunch is a lot more comforting than, say, terroristic meltdown, which is only fitting for an industry that relies on the Proustian connection between a spoonful of chocolate chip and, says Maronati, “very positive memory associations with childhood, holidays, sunshine and good times.” And while it might have been a French philosopher, namely Voltaire, who opined that “ice cream is exquisite – what a pity it isn’t illegal,” it’s the Italians who have done more than anyone to imbue this humble mixture of milk, sugar and cream with the zest of the Commedia dell’arte or even the drama of grand opera. They take the credit for inventing it (something to do with Marco Polo flooring Renaissance courts in Europe with primitive versions of raspberry ripple, though everyone seems to have their own version of the creation myth), while the modern ice cream parlour was born in Milan at the start of the 1950s.

“No sooner are Italians off the breast than they are into gelato,” says Maronati. Social networks are built around the gelateria, and the palette of flavours on offer provokes fervent debate. Italians eat 9.2 litres of ice cream a year per capita (beaten only by the Antipodeans, the US, and, curiously, Finland and Sweden; in comparison, Brits consume 7.7 litres per year, and the Japanese just 0.01); there are approximately 15,000 artisan gelaterie in the country, producing 270,000 tons of ice cream every year.

The vast scale of this cottage industry is immediately apparent on entering Sigep, the “International Exhibition for the Artisan Production of Ice Cream, Pastry, Confectionery and Bakery”, sprawling across the halls of Rimini’s gargantuan Fiera exhibition centre. Now in its 28th year, the event may showcase trends in baking (a freshly fired scale-model of the Sagrada Familia was inspiring awe and incredulity in equal measure) and chocolate, but the main focus is on gelato and all its accoutrements. From the lumbering stainless-steel machines that manufacture it, to delivery systems (Isam Frigo unveiled a smart‚ Spider-Man-themed ice cream van), via promotional gewgaws.

Those lucky enough to gain admittance to this sub-zero wonderland – ice-cream parlour owners, industry representatives, a few schoolchildren careering between stands in a perpetual sugar rush – were waving their entry passes like golden tickets, though, this being Italy, the Willy Wonkas presiding over the freezers were resplendent in immaculate Neapolitan tailoring rather than velvet coats. Corleone-style sotto voce conclaves turned out to be debating whether this year’s hot cone shape will be the “conch shell or the love boat” (for the record, the “love boat” seemed to be in the ascendancy). But the mood of high seriousness is characteristic of an industry that exemplifies an Italian artisanal tradition that generally keeps the country’s streets free of the homogenous mega-chain domination that blights much of Europe.

Everything regrettable about large-scale ice cream production – ubiquitous brands, monotonous flavours, trans-fats, clogged arteries – falls under the rubric of “industrial”, a word always spoken at Sigep with a shudder of distaste. “In Italy,” says Maronati, “we eat about 50 per cent artisanal ice cream and 50 per cent industrial. In other countries it’s more like 95 per cent industrial.”

Italian gelaterie see their product as a redoubt, fending off the forces of Häagen-Dazs’ Mint Chip Dazzler and its saturated-fat ilk with nothing more than what Artigianale calls “il producto superior”. “Everyone knows gelato is the best quality,” says Sabrina Botti, marketing manager of Fugar, one of Italy’s top gelato producers. Its stand at Sigep is studded with easyJet-orange chairs bearing the legend “Gelato… il connezione emotional”. Botti talks in a throaty Sophia Loren rasp and gesticulates with perfectly-manicured hands bearing a variety of formidable rings.

“The trick is to keep people’s interest alive, to keep them coming back for more. Most people, including Italians, tend to stick to only two flavours of ice cream in their lives. And they are usually vanilla or chocolate. But you keep offering them something entirely new.”

For the gelaterie, the “new” has taken many forms. They have rebranded some of their more adventurous flavours with sexed-up names (one manufacturer named a suitably reverent combination of cream of sweet chestnuts with pine kernels and raisins in honour of the beatified stigmatic Padre Pio). And they investigated savoury ice cream long before the celebrated British chef Heston Blumenthal was wowing food critics and winning Michelin stars with “molecular gastronomy”, typified by his egg and bacon ice cream. A couple of years ago, visitors to Rimini were confronted by a manufacturer road-testing celery and carrot ice lollies; Modena has tried out a locality-appropriate balsamic vinegar flavour, and Paduan chef Massimiliano Alajmo reports insatiable demand for his gorgonzola ice cream accompanied by prune sauce.

“You can do virtually anything with gelato,” says Mauro Petrini, who runs an eponymous restaurant in Rome and describes himself as an “ice cream engineer.” He proffers a dish of cuttlefish ice cream (which can come in white or black depending on whether or not you care to add the fish’s ink) and taupe-coloured bottarga caviar ice cream. “We are just beginning to scratch the surface.”

The buzzword among mainstream exhibitors was “quality”. “This is a meaningless term in some ways,” says Fugar’s Sabrina Botti, “but what we mean is that we are improving our existing ranges and flavours by adding and adapting traditional products from different parts of Italy. For instance, we’re trying new recipes based on grappa, a typical Italian after-dinner drink. We’re going back to the roots and sourcing local products like amaretto, port and marsala.”

For others, the gelato Holy Grail remains its recasting from indulgent dessert to meal in its own right, as trumpeted Maronati. He has his many portion-sizes – from daunting sundaes to espresso-style intense semifreddo hits – to test the workability of this hypothesis, as well as some psychological tricks of the trade he has picked up over the years: steer clear of gaudy colours (“natural ingredients are hot right now); never display more than 20 flavours at a time (“people are easily confused”), and scatter fruit or spices on top of everything.

But if the way we eat ice cream is to be transformed, then so will the surroundings in which we eat it. According to Maronati, we’ll soon be tucking into our mascarpone gelato in “spazio sensoriales” like the Future Ice Cream Parlour, a giant inflatable silver igloo that forms the centrepiece of Sigep.

If Rem Koolhaas were to re-imagine the Korova Milk Bar and situate it inside a beached Zeppelin, it might look something like this; a cool blue interior where eyeballs gaze out of plastic portals at people perching on moulded polyethylene poufs or lounging on Rubik’s Cube-inspired sofa units, while wolfing down gelato decanted by silver lurex-clad attendants from the Punto Gelato Italiano.

The ice cream parlour of the future will be designed much more for lingering,” says designer Denis Santachiara. “It will not just be a place to grab a sundae and head off; it will provide additional services, such as newspapers, magazines and internet access. The design will be much more transparent and involving.”

It’s a cosy forecast – the ice cream parlour as Starbucks. Whether there are enough gelaterie to make this viable anywhere other than Italy is another question. “Ice cream is common to all food cultures and transcends class and age,” says Maronati. “So there is no reason to think that we can’t change people’s perceptions of how and when and even why we eat it.” But does he think this will really happen? “Well,” he says, eyeing his diminishing trapezoidal tray of mascarpone honey and walnut and bringing his hands together in a characteristically Italian gesture of piety and aplomb, “we certainly hope so.”

Kings of the cones

01 Fosselman’sCalifornia
This traditional soda fountain supplements its superlative ice creams with seasonal flavours like root beer.

02 La SorbetteriaBologna
The most famous gelateria in Bologna. Owner Giacomo Schiavon’s pistachio has been described as “mystical”.

03 HockingsDevon Run by the Hocking family for 70 years, the company is most famous for its creamy vanilla – only sold from a fleet of 12 vans around North Devon.

04 TrampolineMelbourne
Takes the Italian tradition of gelato-making and gives it an irreverent Aussie twist, with flavours like Peanut Nutter.

05 BerthillonParis
The grand old maid of ice cream, despite being a mere half-century old; crowds queuing for its glâces on the Ile St-Louis are now a traditional sight.

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