Gelato as we know it today has been around for about 500 years. Literally the past participle of the verb gelare [to chill, to freeze], gelato means chilled or frozen as an adjective, but has no exact English translation as a noun.
Most dictionaries will translate the noun gelato as ice cream, but that’s like translating pizza as flatbread – close but no cigar. Recipe-wise, gelato contains less fat, has less air whipped into it, and is served at a higher temperature than ice cream. The ingredients and production process of both products may be similar, but the difference is all in the details.
There are no limits to the flavors and additions a gelatiere [gelato maker] can add to gelato. The base recipe calls for il latte [milk], lo zucchero [sugar], la panna [cream], and some sort of stabilizer.
Gelato is often sold side by side with il sorbetto, which is easily translated into English as sorbet. The main difference gelato and sorbetto is that the former uses milk and the latter does not. However gelato senza latte [milk-free gelato] is not the same thing as sorbetto – the former will use a creamy substitute such as soy milk to replace il latte, while sorbetto is usually based on fruit juice or fruit puree and ice.