While a slice of tiramisu or a cream-filled cannoli is always a treat, the best Italian summer dessert is unquestionably the affogato. Formed by the simple yet delicious marriage of espresso and gelato or ice cream, the affogato is a perfect pick-me-up on a hot afternoon or after a heavy dinner.
It’s also a combination that is delightful yet unsurprising for the Italians, who first brought us gelato during the 16th century. The initial machine for making espresso was also built by an Italian, Angelo Moriondo of Turin, who had it patented in 1884. Despite a long history of perfecting and consuming both ingredients, the exact origins of the affogato are unknown. What we do know is that it’s name translates literally into “drowned” or “poached” in Italian, referring to the scoops of frozen confection that become drowned in hot espresso.
Over the last few years, the hybrid beverage-dessert has finally gained some well-deserved popularity, and cafes and restaurants in the U.S. have begun to recognize its genius—adding both classic and inventive interpretations to their menus.
“If you think about a lot of our favorite espresso beverages: the cappuccino, the latte—the mixture between sweet milk and coffee is a tale as old as time,” says Grant MacHamer, the director of education at Sightglass Coffee, a small production roastery in the heart of San Francisco that added a dedicated affogato bar in 2015. “So to mix that with gelato or with a really lovely ice cream is actually a very classic way of doing things.”
While the classic affogato calls upon the use of fior di latte (“flower of milk” in Italian) gelato or vanilla ice cream, MacHamer says they love playing around with different flavors at Sightglass.
For instance, coffee ice cream can be used to both amp up and contrast the chocolate flavors of certain espresso beans, and more unusual ice cream flavors like olive oil helped to make the dish slightly more savory.
“The nice thing about an affogato is that it’s buttery in a totally unique way,” says MacHamer. “You get the bitterness from the espresso and the creamy sweetness from ice cream—often vanilla but you can play around with it and have fun, finding contrasting flavors.”
Those looking for a summer spin on the dessert can turn to fruit-flavored ice cream or gelato like coconut, mango, pineapple, and strawberry to play up similar notes in their chosen espresso. For a true fruit-forward pairing, MacHamer suggests seeking out Kenyan beans, which he says have “a really interesting tropical fruit note to them. I get a lot of mango, a lot of papaya, and also a couple savory notes that add an umami for a nice little counterbalance.”
“The nice thing about an affogato is that it’s buttery in a totally unique way—you get the bitterness from the espresso and the creamy sweetness from ice cream.”
Vegans can even enjoy the dish by opting for a dairy alternative ice cream, using ingredients like coconut, oat, or cashew milk. To play on the lighter cream in nut milk-based ice creams, try finding an espresso with heavier, sweeter notes like caramel and chocolate.
Even while experimenting with flavor, the ideal affogato still only requires two main ingredients: gelato or ice cream and hot espresso. With that simplicity in mind, the affogato is as good as the sum of each of its individual parts, so the first consideration when crafting one at home is to pick the highest quality of each ingredient you can find.
Once home with your top-notch beans and ice cream, the preparation depends on the tools you have in your kitchen. A manual or automatic espresso machine is preferred, but a nice alternative is a stovetop espresso maker like the classic Bialetti moka pot.
If you don’t plan on making your espresso at home, MacHamer suggests grabbing a double shot of espresso from your favorite coffee shop with a dash of milk or water added. Otherwise, the espresso will break down very quickly and turn into “a shell of its former self.”
For optimal taste, make sure to use filtered water, then pull about an ounce or two of espresso, depending on your preference. The classic recipe calls for a single ounce but a more bitter version might call for a double shot.
For even more contrasting texture, try some toppings such as crushed hazelnuts or almonds, cacao nibs, chocolate shreds or crumbled cookies, or serve it with a side of biscotti.
To get boozy with it, you can try the traditional Italian alcoholic variation of the dessert—known as the affogato corretto. To prepare it, use a slimmer glass and pop in only one scoop of ice cream, one shot of espresso, and a shot of your liqueur of choice. For a classic corretto, use the Italian grape-based pomace brandy grappa. Add nuttiness with Frangelico, creaminess with Baileys, or even more of a coffee kick with Mr. Black Cold Brew.
Be sure to use chilled glasses to prevent your affogato from immediately melting. Pack two dense scoops into each of your chilled glasses, then pull or immediately pour your piping hot espresso directly over the ice cream, and get ready to consume.
“It’s very simple, but there’s something about the heat of the espresso and how it melts the ice cream, but not completely,” MacHamer says. “So you get these layers mixing together and it just ends up being perfect.”