MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Italy has secured its place in the global diet with pizza, pasta, cappuccino and a more recent edition to the culinary lexicon - gelato, the Italian version of ice cream. Despite tough economic times, gelato-making is a booming business. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli visited a place where people from all over the world line up for glasses.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Carpigiani is the world's biggest gelato machine maker. It's located a short drive from Bologna. Next door are Carpigiani's Gelato University and Gelato Museum. A guide explains that gelato has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia, where mountain snow was mixed with fruit and beer for refreshment. She then points to a medieval document, the first written recipe for shrb, the Arabic word from which sherbet derives.
Creamy gelato can be dated to 16th century Florence. It was invented by an alchemist in the court of Catherine de Medici, who then introduced it to France. The museum wall is covered with quotes on the joys of gelato. The French philosopher Voltaire said it's so sublime, it's a wonder it's not illegal.
VALENTINA RIGHI: The gelato was a symbol of the power.
POGGIOLI: Valentina Righi is the vice president of the Carpigiani Foundation.
RIGHI: Only rich people or aristocrats had ice cellars in their houses, in their palaces, to store the ice during the warm season.
POGGIOLI: It wasn't until the arrival of electricity in the 19th century that frozen desserts became available to all. And modern technology has made artisanal gelato-making fully democratic. Gelato University classrooms are lined with shiny stainless steel gelato-making machines. Students wearing white smocks listen attentively to instructor Christian Bonfiglioli.
CHRISTIAN BONFIGLIOLI: We're going to start with four sorbets. You can make 6 kilograms total for each recipe.
POGGIOLI: At Carpigiani, the words ice cream are taboo. The most important difference is fat content - zero in sorbet, 8 percent in a tiramisu or chocolate gelato, compared to 20 percent fat in industrial ice cream. Gelato has a higher density than ice cream, which is pumped with air, and serving gelato at a slightly warmer temperature enhances its taste as it melts in your mouth.
Instructor Alice Vignoli travels all over the world giving courses and spreading the gelato gospel.
ALICE VIGNOLI: My grandmother do gelato, my mother do gelato, and I always live with gelato. And for me, gelato is a passion, is not only a job. When I prepare gelato, I have a smile. It's a creative job and you have the possibility to put your soul in your gelato.
POGGIOLI: Since the Gelato University was founded in 2003, nearly 7,000 students, more foreigners than Italians, have taken courses ranging from a week to become a gelato maker, to four weeks to earn the title of gelato master. And artisanal gelato, Valentina Righi says, is good business.
RIGHI: To make 1 kilogram of gelato, you spend in raw materials between 2 and 3 euro every kilogram. And you sell it in Italy minimum at 15-20 euros. So you have got minimum 75 percent of profit margin.
POGGIOLI: Some students are victims of Europe's economic crisis, like Haller Alziati, who lost his job as a manager at an Italian TV station.
HALLER ALZIATI: (Through interpreter) I'm taking the two-day full immersion course. I have six children and need to restart my life quickly.
POGGIOLI: Raynold Chan has come to improve his skills for his father's gelato shops in Hong Kong and mainland China.
RAYNOLD CHAN: He sent me over to learn more about gelato and so, hopefully, I can introduce the real gelato to the Chinese area.
POGGIOLI: Other students are at a midlife crossroads. Fifty-year-old Cezar Lima, an engineer, and his wife, a dentist, are from Brazil.
CEZAR LIMA: Me and her, we would like to do something different in the future, career change. And we would like to change our regular life, to be the owners and head the direction of our lives.
POGGIOLI: Kerri Bancke and her husband, David Rasmussen, plan to open a gelato shop in North Carolina because they're tired of being constantly on the road working for the Department of Homeland Security. And besides, they just love gelato.
KERRI BANCKE: American ice cream is very industrialized. This is more of an art than just food.
DAVID RASMUSSEN: The experience we've had eating gelato here, we'd like to share that experience because not many people get the chance to just hop on a plane and come over to Italy and try some gelato. Now you'll be able to eat that gelato - and for the people who have visited Italy, they'll be able to remember that experience by coming and eating our gelato.
POGGIOLI: We taste some of the student's class work, white coffee and bacio, chocolate, and hazelnut combined. Creamy and simply scrumptious. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.