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Picture: Sandra Jackson/The West Australian

Italians are expecting the opening of their country's first ice-cream museum, but forget any ideas that gelato is frozen in the past.

A new wave of iconoclastic gelato makers is revolutionising the scene in Rome with flavours such as gorgonzola, mushroom and lobster with vodka.

"There are no limits," says Claudio Torce as he hands over a scoop of habanero chilli-flavoured gelato at the headquarters of his ice-cream store company in the modernist EUR neighbourhood in Rome's south.

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"We're working towards a future where gelato is no longer identified purely as something fresh and sweet for summer."

Torce has become a major influence on Rome's new gelato generation since he opened his first shop in 2003.

At the launch of his eighth outlet in Rome this month, ice-cream was served with a selection of savoury antipasti: spicy salami with pear salad accompanied by scoops of gelato flavoured with celery, parmigiano and those picante habanero peppers.

Although Torce's combinations are raising eyebrows among traditionalist gelato aficionados, savoury ice-cream is hardly new.

In the new museum, due to open in Anzola Emilia, near Bologna, in the next few months, exhibits will include a recipe for black truffle gelato dating from 1808.

Established by Carpigiani, a company that makes ice-cream machines, the museum will trace the history of the cold stuff from the days when teams of runners delivered mountain snow for chilling wine at ancient Mesopotamian banquets.

The Italian architect Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with inventing modern gelato during the Renaissance by adding cream and eggs to traditional water-ices.

Gelato has been a big deal in Italy ever since, and especially this Italian summer, when temperatures have reached the high 30s.

The daily newspaper La Repubblica reported on the museum's upcoming opening under the headline "The coolest museum of all".

Italian media have also reported on a growing fashion for ice-cream for dogs - an idea that originated in the US city of Atlanta but is taking off here - and on gelato as an antidote to the economic crisis.

That's because Italians spent more than $2.3 billion on ice-cream last year. That's about $100 per family, according to a study by Confartigianato, an organisation that represents small businesses, and an increase of 2 per cent from 2010.

Demand for gelato is even healthier this year, despite Italy's slide into recession. The Italian ice-cream makers' association says sales this spring were up 7 per cent on last year.

"Ice cream doesn't cost much, but for two euros, you can get five minutes of joy, so things are going well despite the crisis," Torce says.

The attractive business prospects are generating new would-be ice-cream entrepreneurs, some of whom attend the Carpigiani Gelato University, set up in 2003 by the same people behind the museum. About 12,000 people attended its courses last year, double the previous year's number.

Many dream of emulating Guido Martinetti and Federico Grom, who were in their 20s when they started making luxury gelato using traditional methods and natural ingredients 10 years ago. Today, the Grom empire has a turnover of $36 million and more than 50 outlets in New York, Tokyo and elsewhere.

Although the best Italian ice-cream may be very good, Torce complains that only a handful of Rome's almost 2000 gelateria are filling their cornetti and copetti with top-quality gelato. But that's started to change since the influential founder of Italy's slow food movement, Carlo Petrini, denounced the sorry state of the country's ice-cream a decade ago.

Torce praises the San Crispino store, near the Trevi fountain, for launching Rome's gelato renaissance even earlier in 1995.

Among the new generation of gelato makers, Fatamorgana produces such flavours as black rice with rose buds, baklava, and fennel, honey and licorice.

Vice, another ice-cream company whose main store behind the Vatican is decorated to resemble an ice cave, uses protected-origin products such as Langhe hazelnuts and Amalfi lemons, and offers savoury aperitivos that feature olive oil gelato served with raw shrimp.

Torce serves 20 variations on chocolate, including an intense 75 per cent grand cru cocoa ice. His favourite flavour is zabaglione, made with fine Marsala riserva wine.

Despite all the bright news for their ice-cream, however, Italians were disappointed by at least one development: this year's gelato festival in Florence, which some consider the world championship, was won by a Canadian.

James Coleridge from Vancouver's Bella Gelateria scooped the top prize with a recipe for pecan and maple syrup gelato.