Living the “Dulce” Life in Buenos Aires

The month of January might not scream “ouce cream” to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, but it certainly does in the Southern Hemisphere. While I normally spend New Year’s Eve and Day huddled inside wearing sweaters and sipping hot cocoa, this year I was eating ice cream in sundresses. When my boyfriend asked me where we should spend New Years this year, I told him that Boston or Seattle would be great… but someplace warm would be even better! Here I was, thinking about visiting family in Arizona or friends in Florida. But the boyfriend had grander plans and suggested we use airline miles to fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Now, Argentina was never at the top of my travel wish list (Alaska and Sub-Saharan Africa are!). But my college roommate studied abroad in Buenos Aires, and she still raves about the city. And when my boyfriend reminded me that it would be warm in Argentina during January, I figured that this was the perfect opportunity to see the city while catching some rays. Plus, I needed to practice my Spanish – which has become dismal since my own study abroad time in Madrid, Spain. But it wasn’t until I started reading more about Buenos Aires that I got very excited.

Tango. Wine. Steak. Gelato. What more can you ask for?

Wait… Gelato?

While researching things to do and see in Buenos Aires, I learned that more than one-third of Argentina’s population is of Italian descent. Most of the immigration took place before World War I, but the Italian culture is still alive and well in Buenos Aires. For example? Unlike in most Spainish-speaking countries, “gelaterias” (Spanish for “gelato shops”) far outnumber “heladerias” (“ice cream shops”) in Buenos Aires. I was beyond excited to experience this unique part of Argentine culture for myself.

We had a fabulous four days in Buenos Aires. The weather held up beautifully, and we spent our most of our time outdoors – taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Argentina’s capital. Some of the touristy highlights of our trip included visiting La Recoleta Cemetary (final resting place of Eva Peron), walking along Puerto Madero (popular waterfront area with great people-watching), and exploring Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (world-class art museum with no admission fee!). Perhaps the best decision we made during the trip was shelling out a couple hundred dollars for the New Years Eve package at Complejo Tango. There are many tango shows to choose from in Buenos Aires, but Complejo Tango provides a full-package experience for anyone who is interested in learning and watching tango. The NYE package included a 90-minute beginner’s tango class, three-course dinner, unlimited beer and wine, professional tango show, midnight champagne toast, and – finally – a dance party with a DJ. While the boyfriend and I agreed that neither of us have a future in professional tango, we had a blast learning some steps with other tourists from around the world. It was definitely the most unique New Years Eve I’ve ever had.

Food and wine was a whole other highlight of our trip. We had steak for dinner more often than not. The Malbec wines were fantastic cost less than they do in the States. You don’t have to go far for great food in Buenos Aires. There’s a great cafe or restaurant on every block, it seems. On our first night, we found a great spot just outside our hotel (the Sheraton Libertador Hotel). We had finished dinner early in the evening (especially when you consider that most Argentines don’t eat until 10pm or so) and were in the mood for a nightcap. Il Gran Caffe is a bustling full-service cafe with plenty of seating both indoors and outdoors, situated on a busy city corner. We sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and do some people-watching. The boyfriend ordered a sweet white wine, but had my eye on something else. Walking to our table, I passed several patrons enjoying goblets of gelato. Sure enough, Il Gran Caffe offers six flavors of gelato. In the mood for chocolate, I asked our waiter for a scoop of Gianduia — a Nutella-like combination of milk chocolate and hazelnut gelato. When he told me I could pick another flavor for the second scoop, I blurted out the first flavor I saw: Amarena. It was a risky move, but I’ve never met a gelato flavor I couldn’t stomach.

The verdict? This was not a great first-time Argentine gelato experience! Il Gran Caffe’s gelato is a bit on the firmer side, as I’m sure they purchase tubs of gelato from third-party vendors and store them in their deep freezer. This was more like American store-bought ice cream than premium Italian gelato. Still, the flavors were unique and satisfied my sweet tooth. Now – what was Amarena? I tasted a sweet cream base, and a tart fruity swirl. With the boyfriend’s help, I deciphered that the fruit was sour cherry. Later, I read online that Amarena is a traditional Italian gelato flavor – just one that I haven’t tried before. The Gianduja was good, but not the best I’ve had. The milk chocolate flavor overpowered the hazelnut, and the combination was a bit too sugary-sweet for me. I did like the thin chocolate flakes, though, which are not traditionally part of the flavor. After all, how can you go wrong adding chocolate to chocolate? Still, my first gelato experience in Buenos Aires didn’t blow me away…

Not one to be discouraged, I decided that to find the best gelato in Buenos Aires – I should rely on the locals’ knowledge. So on our second night, I brought up the subject with our friendly old cab driver while he drove us to the trendy Palermo neighborhood. My Spanish is pretty rusty, but the cab driver got the gist of my request: could he please drop us off at a good gelataria? I rattled off a list of ones in Palermo that I had pulled off the internet in the hotel room. The cab driver nodded with a smile and drove on. Finally, he pulled up to the curb outside of Persicco – considered to be one of the very best gelaterias in Buenos Aires. I know Persicco has multiple locations throughout the city, but I can’t imagine any are more busy than the Palermo shop! It was almost eleven-o-clock in the evening, but Persicco was hoppin’. Unlike at Il Gran Caffe, most of the clientle seemed to be Argentine. I didn’t hear any English conversations in the crowd outside or inside the shop. This had to be a good sign, right?

Once inside, I quickly learned that not only does Persicco have gelato-making down to an art, they also have gelato-ordering down to an art. To streamline the whole process and ensure proper payment, Persicco requires you to pay at the register before approaching the bins of gelato. You order and pay for a certain size (not flavor) and are given a numbered receipt. Then, you must patiently wait for your number to appear on an electronic sign (not unlike the ones at the deli) – at which point you may approach the gelato-scoopers, hand your receipt over, and list off the flavor(s) you’d like. The hardest part of this whole process is selecting your flavors. Since my boyfriend was interested in “tasting” the gelato, I ordered a 2-scoop bowl. Persicco’s menu boasts a wide variety of flavors that are conveniently organized into groups. You have your chocolate flavors, your fruity flavors, your dulce de leche flavors… Yes, Persicco has a whole group of dulce de leche flavors – one with chocolate chips, one with brownies, etc. While it was tempting to try two dulces, I opted for more variety and ordered a scoop of traditional Dulce de Leche and another of Coco a la Crema.

Two spoons… to share.

The verdict? Oh my goodness. This is what all the gelato hype is about. Persicco’s gelato is as good as any I’ve had in Italy. The texture is spot-on; thick, creamy and feels like silk as it melts in your mouth. The flavors are intensely luxurious. The Coco a la Crema lived up to its name, perfectly blending the flavor of coconut with a traditional sweet cream base. While this gelato lacked the chewy bits of toasted coconut that I usually crave, the coconut flavor was strong and natural-tasting. But it was the Dulce de Leche scoop that had me swooning. The boyfriend and I agreed that Persicco had perfectly captured the essence of the sticky, caramelized milk-and-sugar dessert found all over South America. The gelato’s flavor was similar to a rich, dark salted caramel with an almost-burnt aftertaste that is quite addicting. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it, and it’s just another reason to add Buenos Aires to the top of your travel wish list 😉

The Stats:

Il Gran Caffe
Calle Florida 700
Buenos Aires, Argentina 1054

Persicco
Multiple locations in Buenos Aires
http://www.persicco.com