Glowing brightly like a cool, colorful homing beacon, the modest Ciao Bella kiosk in Grand Central Station would taunt me every time I arrived in New York City, straight off of a hot and sweaty ninety-minute train ride. Every flavor always appeared to be artfully arranged in its metal pan, carefully swirled and smoothed into undulating waves of frozen dessert. The heat must have always thoroughly fried my brain by that point though, as I never looked closely enough to see that there was in fact much more than the rich dairy-based gelato that the brand is so well known for. Sorbet, a mainstream godsend for the lactose intolerant, populates those immaculate cases in nearly equal numbers.
The best news of all, though, is twofold; that just recently, Ciao Bella has decided to go au naturel and dump the corn syrup and refined sugar, and that this very sorbet can be found in the freezer cases of most mainstream grocery stores, instead of just behind ice cream shop counters.
Boasting 12 different varieties of sorbet that any vegan would delight in, choosing a limited selection to sample was a tricky task. Noted as their best selling sorbet, their Blood Orange was the one clear pick. Peachy orange in color without much apparent aroma, this was clearly not your typical orange offering. Sweet and fruity, with subtle floral notes, the citrus flavor was still bright and clear, but not at all sharp or aggressive. Mellow, well-rounded, and highly refreshing, it strikes me as a summer snack that children and adults of all ages could enjoy alike. Super smooth, without the slightest hint of ice crystals, it scoops like a dream, too.
Wanting to try a more diverse lineup, but unable to fight off my rampant cravings for tangy citrus treats, I found myself drawn back, time and again, to the beckoning pint of Lemon sorbet on the frost-encrusted supermarket shelves. Hitting all the zesty high notes I could hope for, this was one intense, vibrant lemon experience! Like the Italian ice of my childhood all grown up, the ultra-smooth texture was practically creamy, but completely weightless without the cloying richness of premium ice cream. Also perfect as a palate cleanser between a multi-course meal, this sorbet didn’t stick around long after it made it into my home.
Most alluring of all, however, is Ciao Bella’s latest sorbet creation; Their sorbet bars, available in both their flagship Blood Orange flavor and brand new to the line up, Blueberry Passion. Swirled throughout with contrasting colors of deep violet and pale orange, each bite unexpectedly consistent in flavor. A tropical, unidentifiable flavor hits me immediately, and I recognize that this must be the passion fruit element. Not as well acquainted with this primarily South American, it provided an unexpected exotic element, reminiscent of a vacation on the beach. The sweet and simple blueberry flavor kept things comforting, making for a well balanced combination of both exciting and familiar tastes.
For the avid home cook or DIY-er, fret not; Ciao Bella has even come out with a cookbook, The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto, divulging their secret formulas for every flavor in the lineup, including exotics not available in hard-pack pints. Although most intriguingly, this provides otherwise impossible opportunities to veganize Ciao Bella’s gelatos, I was still drawn to the simplicity of the sorbet section. Besides, with a chocolate sorbet with such an intense, and complex depth of flavor, I don’t think I need the gelato version at all! Scooping soft and easily straight out of the freezer, just like the store-bought options, it seemed completely consistent with the quality of their factory-made frozen desserts.
I’m grateful that the folks at Ciao Bella were kind enough to provide me with a taste of their vegan offerings. Next time, whether purchasing a single scoop from a Ciao Bella kiosk, grabbing a pint at the store for an impromptu indulgence, or crafting my own version at home, I know I’ll be in for a treat.
Reprinted with permission from The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto
3 Cups Water
1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
4 Ounces Bittersweet Chocolate (About 60% Cacao), Finely Chopped
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
1 Teaspoon Dark Rum
1/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
In a medium saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, whisking often to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 4 minutes, continuing to whisk until all the sugar is dissolved.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped chocolate; whisk until the chocolate is completely melted. Add the cocoa powder and whisk until incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Add the rum and vanilla, then pour though a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Let cool, stirring often. Once cooled, cover and refrigerate until very cold, at least 4 hours or overnight.
Churn in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze for at least 2 hours before serving.