As the home of such famous creameries as Bi-Rite, Smitten, and Humphry Slocombe, San Francisco is widely celebrated an ice cream shop capital. But those with a penchant for Italian-style ice cream know that it’s a hotbed of top gelato shops, as well. Done right, gelato is arguably the superior of the two: super-creamy, extra flavorful, and less of a waistline liability. Forget cupcakes and bakery pastries; whether churned up by old-school Italian transplants or Mission gourmands, here's where to find the best gelato scoops in town.
SF’s best gelato shop options
This candy-colored North Beach shop is a popular follow-up to a pie at Tony's Pizza Napoletana around the corner. (Facing hour-plus wait times, some break down and make Naia gelato an appetizer.) The brand's co-founders, Trevor Morris and Chris Tan, learned to make gelato the old-school way, from Italian master artisans. They still make everything by hand in small batches, both to ensure freshness and to give themselves the chance to experiment with wacky flavors like cannoli, Bosc pear, Zabaione and rose. In particular, the pair is fond of collaborating with local distilleries and breweries to create boozy flavors like St. George absinthe and 21st Amendment beer.
Alberto Malvestio moved from the Northern Italian city of Treviso in 2008 to grace Berkeley with his gelato expertise. He makes a fresh batch of flavors every morning at 6am, roasting pistachios, cutting fresh fruit and churning nut butters by hand. (When business took off four years later, Simone Arpaio, a fellow Italian, joined him in the kitchen.) The pair makes a range of flavors each morning, from tried-and-true classics to tongue-tingling specialties like licorice, toasted garlic and almond with caramelized figs. Almare is also known for its exotic fruit sorbets in flavors like pear and anise, nectarine and rose wine and kumquat.
Owner Federico Murtagh honed his craft at an Argentine-style gelateria before launching his mini-empire in the Bay Area. Through he has three more locations in the East Bay, he still makes all his own gelato from scratch, by hand. The production happens at the Polk Street shop, which opened for business in 2014. Murtagh has a particular affinity for oddball flavors—you can make a suggestion on his Twitter or Instagram—resulting in playful combinations like mascarpone balsamic with chocolate chunks, black IPA with chocolate waffle cone pieces, and popcorn with chocolate and salted caramel. He's perhaps best known for his cheese-flavored gelatos, like Cowgirl Creamery fromage blanc, Bellwether farms ricotta and lemon zest, and mascarpone balsamic with chocolate chunks.
There's often a throng of kids gathered at Holy Gelato, where the shelves are lined with superhero-themed trinkets, toys and lunchboxes. The shop serves 18 gelato flavors and 12 non-dairy options in generous scoops, including combinations like Irish Morning (coffee, fudge, cookies and whiskey) and honey lavender. (Both dairy-lovers and vegans profess love for Charlie Brown's Nightmare, a rich blend of chocolate, peanut butter and cookies.) You can also opt for one of the gelato-laden drinks, like affogatos, floats and shakes.
This gelateria in the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto has a grown-up vibe. The shop is decked in white paint and steel, and the long wooden tables are lit by lanterns. Italian owners Emiliano Cecchetti and Mauro Bernocchi pride themselves on their natural, local ingredients, and the emphasis is on well-executed classics like hazelnut, vanilla, chocolate and pistachio.
For those who don't have the stamina for the snaking line at Bi-Rite Creamery, this tiny, family-owned gelateria just a block away is an excellent alternative. The Mission gelato and crepe shop is helmed by Mauro Pislor, an Italian transplant with a long history in ice cream. You'll find fruity, tart and spicy flavors here, including coconut, Nutella, blood orange, cinnamon and kiwi. (Bonus: dark chocolate and vanilla SOY gelato!) Add whipped cream, chocolate sauce and caramel for another buck. If you're feeling extra indulgent, go for one of the house specialties like the Cassata Siciliana (pistachio gelato covered in a chocolate gelato dome, candied fruit and meringue mousse) and La Copa Loca (kiwi, strawberry and vanilla gelato topped with fresh kiwi, banana, strawberry and whipped cream).
This 10-year-old shop feels more like an old-school deli than an ice cream parlor, where cured meats hang from the ceiling and walls are lined with wine. Despite the market feel, the gelato—and the sandwiches, for that matter—are legit. There are 24 flavors available, ranging from lemon cookie and white chocolate raspberry to caramel balsamic and banana heath bar. Best of all, the shop is open until midnight seven days a week, to the delight of the post-happy hour crowds.
Named after the Italian adventurer rumored to have introduced ice cream to Italy, Marco Polo has been a Sunset standby for over 30 years. It's famous for its neighborhood-pleasing hybrid: Italian-style ice cream in Asian-inspired flavors. The servers are unfailingly friendly and the samples are unlimited. The extensive flavors include lychee, green tea, sesame, mangosteen, jackfruit, red bean, green tea and the ever-divisive durian. (You'll either love it or be unable to stomach it.)
Pastry chefs Gianina Serrano and Bridget Labus have a culinary pedigree, having worked in the kitchens of five-star hotels like the St. Regis and the Four Seasons. Though their chichi dessert shop is perhaps best known for its truffles and tarts, the unsung star is the decadent gelato pop. The bite-sized treats on sticks come in flavors like Mexican hot chocolate, almond toffee and Kentucky—an indulgent blend of chocolate and bourbon. Each is hand-dipped in a vat of dark chocolate, creating a delicately crunchy outer shell.