The Scoop: Ciao Bella Gelato Bar — Hello, Beautiful? More Like Hello, Delicious!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ciao Bella translates in English to “Hello, Beautiful,” and that’s just the sort of warm welcome we received upon our arrival at Ciao Bella Gelato Bar at the Embarcadero.

Our excursion to Ciao Bella was a break in tradition from The Scoop’s normal ice cream coverage. Established in 1983 in New York’s Little Italy, Ciao Bella is neither local, nor ice cream, per se. In fact, it is more widely known as “America’s Gelato,” and the company’s gelato, sorbet and frozen yogurt options can be bought as pints in many grocery stores.

However, no frozen food section I’ve seen has offered the variety, scenery and excellent customer service that you’ll find at the Ciao Bella Gelato Bar in the Ferry Building on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Fellow Scoop writer Dawn and I took advantage of a beautiful Friday afternoon to head to the Ferry Building, where we dodged tourists and nabbed some free samples of toffee and chocolate before arriving at the Ciao Bella storefront. Although the line seemed long, it moved fast, and once it was our turn, neither of us felt rushed to make our gelato selections.

About three-quarters of the offerings were gelato, which is an Italian-style ice cream that contains less butterfat and less air by volume, resulting in a treat that is often more thick, flavorful and creamy than traditional ice cream. The rest were sorbets, which contain no dairy and are often fruit flavors.

With a three-sample limit, I was able to try the Key Lime Graham and Pistachio gelatos, and the Coconut sorbet. As the kind gelato scooper advised, the Key Lime Graham is a “love it or leave it” kind of flavor, and something about the ingredient mixture gives it a more melted texture than the other flavors.

While I enjoyed the blend of tart lime balanced by the sweet graham cracker crumble and smooth cream, I couldn’t get over the texture and decided not to get a full scoop. If you do get a scoop of this flavor, make sure to ask for it on top, because it will melt faster than any of the other flavors.

On to the Pistachio gelato, which Ciao Bella nailed. It was creamy, flavorful, not dyed fake bright green and bursting with chunks of real pistachios. The Coconut sorbet was so smooth and creamy that it was hard to believe it wasn’t gelato, and even had shreds of real coconut in it.

Its pure coconut flavor will have you wondering, “Where is my rum?” (aloud, if you’re anything like us). Having decided upon Coconut sorbet and Pistachio gelato as my flavors, I went with a small, which included two generous scoops ($4.25).

With much coaching and advice from the guy behind the counter, Dawn was able to craft a “Chef’s Creation” ($5.85), which includes six flavors in a pint-sized container. Of course I couldn’t let Dawn tackle such a creation single-handedly, so we started from the top with some of the fruit-flavored sorbets.

The Raspberry was sweet, and the flavor so distilled that I needed to be jostled from my dessert coma to realize that I was eating sorbet and not an actual handful of raspberries. The Mango and Passion Fruit were more on the tart side, but both elicited the same sort of reaction — is it fruit or is it sorbet?

The purity of flavor in the Ciao Bella sorbets is absolutely unparalleled. We also got a scoop of the Lebanese Yogurt, which was included gratis by the server because he was absolutely adamant that it made an epic pairing with the Passion Fruit. The boy didn’t lie. The Lebanese Yogurt worked well to balance the tang of the Passion Fruit.

As we dug deeper, we made our way to the gelato flavors. The Valrhona Chocolate tasted like a bar of 65 percent dark chocolate. It was thick (and I mean thick) and meaty — thick, meaty, indulgent dark chocolate.

The Triple Espresso was essentially the same as having a cup of frozen Italian espresso, with little nibs of espresso beans sprinkled throughout the scoop.

The only problem with the “Chef’s Creation” is that you have to make your way through a significant amount of gelato before getting to the flavors at the bottom, which can be a bit daunting to those looking to sample a number of flavors at once. However it is a perfect size to share with a friend, and $5.85 seems like a steal for such a hearty treat for two.

Other popular flavors include Cinnamon, Matcha Green Tea, Malted Milk Ball and Cookies & Cream, but the options are extensive and certainly warrant more than a few return trips to further explore the menu.

The other allure of Ciao Bella is its location — once you get your scoops, you can take them outside to enjoy on the pier, with the bay as your backdrop.

With spring weather here and summer at our fingertips, I’d highly recommend taking advantage of a beautiful afternoon by bringing sunscreen and an empty tummy to the Ferry Building, and enjoying a delicious visit to Ciao Bella.

Ciao Bella

1 Ferry Building, Suite 8

Embarcadero, San Francisco 94111|

(415) 834-9330

Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Rating: 4.5/5