We have a lot of foods to thank the Italians for: pizza, prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, virtually every pasta sauce imaginable, risotto, lasagna, tiramisu — the list goes on! But the Italians have more secrets up their sleeve, and it’s time to uncover them. The latest Italian treat to add to your repertoire? The affogato, your new favorite dessert-beverage hybrid.
Like most great Italian dishes, the affogato is a lesson in simplicity. In its classic form, it is the marriage of two delicious essentials: espresso and gelato. Thus, the affogato is the perfect solution to the post-meal coffee-or-dessert dilemma or that mid-afternoon low-blood-sugar funk. The word “affogato” literally translates to “drowned” in Italian, referring to the cold gelato that is drowned by the piping hot espresso.
But while the origin of the dish’s name is clear, the origin of the dessert itself isn’t so easy to pinpoint. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists the first known use of the word affogato in the English language as 1992, and the dish seems to have gained popularity in the U.S. around this time as well. But if that was the intro of the affogato to American culture, the past five years have been a boom, with Italian-inspired restaurants and small coffee bars adding the dish to their offerings either on-menu or upon request. Even Starbucks unveiled a line of affogato-inspired drinks last summer at select Reserve coffee bars across the country, taking the trend mainstream.
At its core, though, the perfect affogato is meant to be easy and delicious, so it’s less of a recipe than a preparation. In its classic iteration, the affogato starts with a single, tightly packed scoop of vanilla or fior di latte gelato or ice cream in a chilled glass or small bowl. The goal is not for the espresso to immediately melt the gelato, but to run down the sides and pool at the bottom, so a chilled glass helps to achieve this. A two-ounce double shot of espresso (or alternatively, very strong coffee made in a French press or AeroPress) should be poured directly over the gelato and served (or eaten!) right away.
While some might consider deviating from the classic affogato sacrilege, subbing in a different kind of gelato or beverage makes for a fun twist on the original. For a savory affogato, use high-quality olive oil instead of espresso (trust us — it’s delicious). Or for a boozy version, try adding two ounces of dessert wine such as Port, PX Sherry, Marsala, or Recioto, or even your favorite amaro, such as Fernet Branca or Cardamaro. If you want to dress the affogato up, try adding a few (emphasis on few — we’re going after simplicity here) fresh or dried berries or citrus, almonds, honeycomb, or biscotti crumbles. Since there’s nowhere for subpar ingredients to hide in an affogato, make sure that regardless of your choice of preparation, the products used are top-notch.