Food-wise, few things excite me more about Italy in summertime than the prospect of gelato. Milky and dense, this Italian delicacy feels both familiar and exotic to a palate raised on American ice cream. The difference: America’s iconic dessert is made with more cream, gelato with more milk; the latter is also served at a higher temperature.

How to find, and properly eat, Italy’s finest gelato?

Color is key to sussing out a truly artisanal gelateria.
Look first at the banana and pistachio flavors: They should be a grayish white and earthy green, respectively. No flavors should have anything approaching a neon hue.

If it’s not packed flat into the bins it’s served from, it’s not high-quality.
While those fluffy waves of gelato in the display case might look appealing, they actually signal air was pumped into the dessert simply for appearance’s sake. Like a certain presidential candidate’s hairdo, those waves are all about style, not substance.

It’s normal to have to pay for gelato before you order it.
Let the cashier know what size you want, in a “cono” or a “coppa”—the smallest version of each usually allows room for two flavors—and then bring your receipt to the counter to place your order. It’s not very common, but you can ask for a small taste.
You are not supposed to mix cream- and fruit-based flavors (though that hasn’t stopped me). And It’s okay to eat it for breakfast.
We all know by now not to order a cappuccino in Italy after noon, but no such rules apply to gelato. I’ve seen plenty of Italians make a breakfast of a sandwich of ricotta, pistachio, and Modicano chocolate gelato pressed between fresh brioche.

Gelato is more than just a snack; it’s a ritual.
It’s a ritual tied to the passeggiata in a way that no other food in this street-food-bereft culture is. Where almost anything in the U.S. can be eaten on the go, very few Italian foods can, and very few Italians want to! Gelato is one of the few exceptions, and everyone from stately grandfathers to young hipsters to toddling grandchildren can be seen walking down the street licking dripping cones or digging into cups with tiny plastic shovel-shaped spoons for the late afternoon “merenda” (snack) or after dinner on hot summer evenings.

In Rome:

Giolitti has been making gelato since the 19th century. The stracciatella (a milky base with fine chocolate shavings mixed in) is a must. Address: Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40

Gelateria del Teatro serves cake flavors that reflect the founder’s pastry-chef training, as well as inventive options such as ricotta, fico, e mandorle (ricotta, fig, and almonds). Address: Via dei Coronari, 65

Gelateria Alberto Pica is known for its fragoline (strawberry) and riso zabaione (similar to rice pudding). Address: Via della Seggiola, 12

Gelateria Carapina is a new style of gelateria, playing off of the slow-food movement with intensely flavored, creamy gelato and a limited selection based on seasonal availability. Address: Via dei Chiavari, 37

In Milan:

Il Massimo del gelato. Plenty of varieties, from spicy to gold leaf cocoa.
Address: via Ludovico Castelvetro, 18
–Try the 100% dark chocolate

Shockolat. Just plain great.
9 Via Giovanni Boccaccio
–Go for any flavor!

Gelato Giusto. Top-quality ingredients, no preservatives or food colorings, fruit flavors that vary based on the season.
Address: via San Gregorio, 17
–Try the pistachio, almond, and any flower flavor

Cioccolati Italiani.
Address: via San Raffaele, 6 (a few steps from the Duomo)
–Indulge in the melted dark chocolate cone

Finally, remember while you can find “gelato” in the USA, none (with few, few, FEW exceptions) approach the real thing.