The best gelato in town from Via Delizia
Last year, I went to Pix’s Ice Cream social and called it Part 1 of a Portland ice cream survey. There hasn’t been a part 2 until now. Why? Because I went to half a dozen ice cream shops claiming they made sundaes, banana splits, and so on, places like the now defunct Scooter’s, and left largely discouraged. If Cold Stone Creamery was better than all but one or two, why bother. Basically, I decided that your best bet in Portland for ice cream is to eat Italy’s version, gelato.
With the promise of more mid-80s weather this week, I thought I would finally get off my “a” and complete a gelato report I’ve been working on for some time. There are nine gelaterias in Portland Metro that I know of and I’ve tried them all several times. Recently, I hit six of them in one day and two others a day before and a day after so that I could more accurately judge them against each other. It wasn’t until recently that I learned of a ninth and visited that (further putting this report on hold).
The main things I look for in gelatos are natural, intense, clean flavors and smooth textures. Sorbettos should be intense without being overly sweet. The texture should be neither overly gummy or icy. Prior to the head-to-head tasting, I thought the distinctions between the different local sources were subtle, but I was surprised how much variation there actually is.
Note: I know it’s supposed to be gelati and sorbetti, but I prefer the Americanization for the plural. So there.
Alotto was the first gelateria to capitalize on NW Portland’s upscale crowd. Then Mio moved in just down the block with a larger, more comfortable cafe. Alotto isn’t the best gelato in town, but there are still reasons to choose it over Mio.
Alotto’s gelato falls somewhere in the upper-middle of the survey. The main problem is the texture, which is somewhat grainy. My homemade ice creams are typically smoother and denser. They do use a spade, rather than a scoop, to serve their gelato, which purists will appreciate. And they seem to do an admirable job of serving their product at the proper temperature, never overly stiff.
Most flavors are too subtle, however. There is the occasional standout, such as their cantaloupe, which is probably the best thing from them I’ve tried. Their amarena cherry is one of their more regular standouts. But many of their standards, like the gianduja and pistachio, are just so-so, lacking depth and intensity.
Most of their flavorings are made in-house and they make their bases from scratch. They do use pre made nut flavorings, but never anything artificial. They carry up to 26 flavors at any one time, one of the better selections, despite the fact they have one of the smallest shops. In the summer they have a wide choice of seasonal fruit gelatos and sorbettos. They occasionally have interesting flavors like ginger root, honey-lavender, blood orange, and chocolate frosted yellow cake.
Small: $2.75, 2 flavors
Medium: $3.75, 3 flavors
Large: $4.50, 4 flavors
931 NW 23rd Ave
Bombe Gelato is located in Battleground, Washington — a suburb of a suburb. Even for me in Vancouver, it’s a 15 minute drive to this little commercial oasis with a multi-plex movie theater, Thai restaurant, sports bar, and gelateria.
Their gelato is made in-house from imported bases and flavorings. They have 16 flavors of gelato, ranging from the typical, such as pistachio, stracciatella, and amareno cherry, to the more unusual, like green tea. They also carry approximately the same number of ice creams, things like “cookie monster” and “yellow cake”.
Unfortunately, their gelato is at the lower-end of this survey. Fruit flavors taste candyish. Watermelon tastes like watermelon Jolly Rancher, lemon more like sweet lemonade. The pistachio leaves a powdery feeling on the tongue, one of the worst versions I’ve had. The best flavor of theirs that I’ve tried is the Donatella (chocolate-hazelnut), but even it isn’t especially good.
They seem to have more overrun in their product than most gelaterias. It lacks the density of most gelatos and higher-end ice creams. Even with all the problems, it’s probably an improvement over Cold Stone, and certainly over Baskin-Robbins. I’d just get a pint of Haagen-Daz at the grocery store, though.
Small: $2.95, 1 flavor
Medium: $3.85, 2 flavors
Large: $4.70, 2 flavors
1710 SW 9th Ave, Ste. 108
Battle Ground, WA
Kaiju, which means monster (more or less) in Japanese, referring to icons like Godzilla and Mothra, is decorated with the wares of Missing Link, the toy store next door. They’re housed in the old Scooter’s shop and have greatly improved the frozen dessert offerings on Belmont.
They are one of two gelaterias in this survey that don’t make their own ice cream. However, unlike Parisi’s, the other, they do buy local from a company called Stella Gelato in Eugene. Stella buys most of their ingredients locally, even bragging that they buy their milk and cream from a local family-run dairy. They claim to never use packaged ingredients, pulling “fresh shots of espresso for [their] coffee flavors,” for example.
While that’s not entirely unique — this is Portland after all — I was impressed after one visit. I haven’t done a true head-to-head comparison, but their textures seemed relatively smooth and flavors acceptably intense and true. The chocolate is deep and rich. The coconut-white chocolate is well-balanced and well-matched. The mango comes up short, lacking the vibrancy of the fruit. The blackberry is also a little blah, though better.
I would say that the results are at least as good as Mio and Alotto. However, my experience with Kaiju has been more limited. They only carry 12 flavors with a few Italian standards, and other accessible choices.
Small: $2.50, 2 flavors
Medium: $3.25, 2 flavors
Large: $4.25, 3 flavors
3312 SE Belmont St
Mio wasn’t the first gelateria in town. As far as I know, that was Staccato. But they have quickly grown from their Pearl District shop across from Powell’s to a mini-chain with locations in Nob Hill and Irvington. There are even cafes and restaurants throughout the metro area selling their frozen treats. This makes them the local gelato king.
Their gelatos are smooth with relatively little graininess and rare ice crystals. I suspect one way they prevent iciness, however, is by keeping their gelatos exceedingly cold. They’re often too stiff, scooped into tight balls. They benefit from a short wait to let them melt before digging in. They have a pleasant lightness that suggests a low butterfat content, more like ice milk than ice cream.
Flavors range in quality. On average, their flavors are on the bland side, even less intense than Alotto. The pistachio tastes as much of the base as it does the nut. Their chocolate is one of my least favorite, tasting like cocoa powder. The exceptions are usually their fruit flavors, which score better. Their aranas e passion (pineapple-passion) is terrific, a well-balanced and intense mixture of sweet and tart tropical flavors. The banana benefits from the creaminess of the fruit, giving it a superior texture.
While they only allow one flavor in their small, they do have one of the larger serving sizes, making them a better value than some. They claim to make their bases and flavorings. All of their locations have 20 or more flavors.
Small: $2.50, 1 flavor
Medium: $3.25, 2 flavors
Large: $4.25, 3 flavors
25 NW 11th Ave
1517 NE Brazee
838 NW Kearney
A glorious little hole in the wall amongst the gay clubs, it’s just a door or two down from Old Town Pizza. Along with Kaiju, they have the smallest selection of flavors with only 12. But it’s not the size that counts, it’s what they do with those 12. Unfortunately, the results are mixed.
Old Town Gelato claims to make their own flavorings, although admits to importing their base. But the fruit flavors taste somewhat syrupy and other flavors taste less natural than the best products in this survey. Both in flavor and texture, Old Town’s gelato seems more like traditional ice cream. In fact, it very much reminds of Ben & Jerry’s texture, moderately dense for ice cream, but still airier than most gelatos and super high-end ice creams. It has a creamier mouthfeel than average, as if it has more butterfat, but also a slightly grainy texture.
They give large portions and are slightly cheaper than the rest. But there’s nowhere to sit and not much reason to be in the neighborhood during the day unless you work over there. They have a small selection and the gelato falls in the bottom half of this survey for quality. I’ve found little reason to return except for completing this report.
Small: $2.25, 2 flavors
Medium: $3.25, 2 flavors
Large: $4.25, 2 flavors
212 NW Davis St
While most gelaterias in Portland seem aimed towards yuppies and hipsters, Parisi’s comes across more family-oriented with an inviting room and comfy, colorful booths. They serve fudge along side their 24 flavors of gelato and sorbetto.
Like Kaiju, Parisi’s doesn’t make their own gelato. Instead, they order it from an “artisan” maker in Michigan. Unfortunately, I suspect that the trip requires stabilizers that make the gelato relatively gooey (although their website claims nothing unnatural in the mix). Other than Staccato’s sorbettos, no other product has been as gooey as Parisi’s. It reminds me of Cold Stone.
Flavors, both in choices and style, are more ice cream like — coconut almond fudge, raspberry swirl, blueberry butter cookie, and so on. More standard flavors, like hazelnut, (roasted) pistachio, or coffee (Turkish Roast) are limited. I find most of the choices too gimmicky, wishing for cleaner, simpler flavors and combinations. But just on taste, most aren’t bad. I tend towards the the more straightforward choices, like the candied ginger.
The gelato is served at a nice temperature allowing them to use a spade. While I would put it in the lower half of the survey, their product is acceptable if you don’t mind its gelatinous character. And there is nothing else that far northeast in Portland.
Small: $2.50, 1 flavor
Medium: $3.25, 2 flavors
Large: $3.95, 2 flavors
4605 NE Fremont St
Portland, OR 97213
It’s appropriate that Staccato was the first gelateria in Portland: no place has more Portland character. The funky, bright room with squiggly lines and multi-colored dots matches the fun and interesting flavors of gelato on offer. The only problem is that it’s the least consistent on quality in this survey.
Like I said: interesting flavors. Their honey-lavender has been a favorite since I first started going there. They always have basics like chocolate, hazelnut, and pistachio. But the reason I return is for treats like ginger-peach, cinnamon, or prickly pear. Their Mayan chocolate has a nice back of the throat bite with plenty of deep chocolate flavor.
From the beginning, their main problem has been with iciness. In a cup of three flavors, you were almost guaranteed two of them would have chunks of crunchy water crystals. On my last two visits, they seem to have reduced this problem, but the gumminess of the gelatos has been increased. Are they using stabilizers or increasing butterfat to get rid of the iciness problem and creating a new textural problem? Is it just the serving temperature and it was too stiff to notice before? Not sure. They import their bases, while making their own flavorings. But either way, I’ve never been satisfied with the texture of Staccato’s gelato.
But the gelato is generally acceptable, and a couple flavors will be terrific, especially factoring in bonus points for creativity. The sorbettos, however, are generally terrible, the worst I’ve had. (And they make these entirely from scratch.) On multiple occasions with multiple flavors, I’ve had sorbettos at Staccato that tasted like little more than sugary gelatin. The most striking was last summer when I had a blackberry sorbetto in the height of blackberry season that was an insipid, gooey mess. Luckily this is Portland, and like every other gelateria in this survey, they are very generous with tastes. You can find something good, but taste it first. Among their sorbettos, their lemon is consistently the best, much more tart than sugary.
Small: $2.50, 2 flavors
Medium: $3.00, 3 flavors
Large: $3.50, 4 flavors
232 NE 28th Ave
Found among Tualatin’s upscale, outdoor mall, Bridgeport Village, Tutto Bene is ALWAYS busy and apparently the P.F. Chang’s crowd can never make up their minds what to order. It looks and feels like a just another chain in upscale chain hell — as if you had added a gelato case to a Starbuck’s or Peet’s Coffee. But it’s not. And if you endure the line, decent gelato is to be had.
They make their bases on-site and import their flavorings. This seems to give them a minimum level of quality. On my first visit, I thought their flavors were muted compared to the better gelaterias in Portland. But on my last visit, which was only a day apart from visiting most other shops in Portland, I was less convinced of that. If they’re behind Mio and Alotto in taste, it’s not far behind.
Flavors can tend towards the bland, but they’re still clearly a step up from the worst in this survey. However, I’ve only been to Tutto Bene three times. Some flavors are more true than others. The best items I’ve tried have been seasonal specials. Right now they have a lemon meringue pie. Last Christmas they had an excellent egg nog. They also generally have both a fat free and a sugar free option among their 18 choices, though I haven’t even tried them.
The gelato is served up with a spade at a nice temperature. Ice crystals have been rare. The texture is moderately creamy and smooth, not as dense as some. Tutto Bene may fall short of great, but what I’ve had has been good enough to keep those in deep southwest PDX from needing to make a trip up to Portland proper.
Small: $2.75, 2-3 flavors
Medium: $3.50, 2-3 flavors
Large: $4.75, 2-3 flavors
7291 SW Bridgeport Rd
You might expect a Pearl District gelateria where you can sit beneath a fake olive tree (inside) to be one step away from Rainforest Cafe, superficial and without merit. While that may be true of their plated desserts with precious flourishes of sugarwork and squirt-bottled sauces, it’s far from true of their magnificent gelato, the best in this survey.
I know the Oregonian insists that Mio and Alotto reign — at least in the fresh fruit department — but they’re wrong. And I challenge Michael Zusman to a head-to-head blind taste testing of Alotto, Mio, and Via Delizia anytime. I’ll even buy.
Via’s flavors surpass all competitors with intense, true reproductions. Their sorbettos have fabulous fruitiness without being overly sweet or candy-like. Their pistachio is probably the best in town. Their gianduja begins dark and complex and finishes nutty. Their fior is ultra-creamy, with a clean milk flavor accented with a touch of sweetness. I often go just for the coconut.
Their gelato is also consistently the least icy. In fact, I’ve often suspected them of using higher-than-average butterfat, but they insist it’s not the case. Whatever magic they work, the results are both dense and creamy, arguably the best mouthfeel of all the gelatos in town. I think the only challenge might be from Mio, which has a cleaner, more milky finish, which some may prefer.
Even more impressive, too, is that they make both their own bases and flavorings for their 24 rotating flavors, starting almost exclusively with fresh ingredients. I would expect this to result in less consistent results, but they must have someone who truly knows what they’re doing.
Prices are slightly more expensive than everywhere else and there’s a surcharge if you eat in. Keep that in mind.
Small: $3.25, 2 flavors
Medium: $4.25, 3 flavors
Large: $5.25, 4 flavors
1105 NW Marshall St.