Peanut butter and chocolate, or fresh-picked strawberries and whipped cream. Sometimes, the sweetest treats in life are the simplest. Few desserts showcase that better than affogato, an effortless marriage of two of Italy's finest exports, espresso and gelato.

"The milk protein binds with the tannins of the coffee and so the coffee becomes less bitter, and this rich, toasty pairing transpires," said Stephanie Reitano, who's been serving affogato for more than 15 years as owner and chef at Capogiro and Capofitto. "It's an ideal match when it comes to a taste experience."

Affogato comes from the Italian affogare, "to drown," a reference to the submerging of cold gelato in a shot or two of hot espresso. In Italy, the term extends to any form of ice cream drowned by another ingredient, whether s chocolate sauce or amarena cherries or hot cocoa.

"We already had sundaes in the U.S., so here the word is typically just reserved for an affogato cafe," Reitano said.

Affogato at Rival Bros. Coffee Bar features a scoop of Weckerly’s whole milk sweet cream ice cream topped with a double espresso for $4. It’s available year-round.
GRACE DICKINSON / STAFF
Affogato at Rival Bros. Coffee Bar features a scoop of Weckerly’s whole milk sweet cream ice cream topped with a double espresso for $4. It’s available year-round.

If you catch yourself drowning in a midday slump or a sleepy post-dinner coma, the Italian treat is quick and tasty pick-me-up at dozens of spots around Philadelphia.

Go-to places for an afternoon cup include coffee shops like Function Coffee Labs, Ultimo, and Rival Bros., as well as ice cream parlors and gelaterias, like Capofitto, Capogiro, and Franklin Fountain.

As a sweet ending to a night out, Italian restaurants — Gran Caffe L'Aquila, Pizzeria Vetri, Amis Trattoria, and Brigantessa, to name a few — are among the most likely to have it listed as menu item.

Take note, however, that it's often seasonal, especially at cafes where ice cream or gelato aren't a regular offering but sourced specifically for the summery treat.

Timing is crucial to affogato. The espresso should be poured just before serving, at which point the dessert is to be eaten immediately.
GRACE DICKINSON / STAFF
Timing is crucial to affogato. The espresso should be poured just before serving, at which point the dessert is to be eaten immediately.

Winter, spring, summer, or fall, whipping up affogatos at home is always an option, and it's easy.

Classically, it's made with one small, tightly packed scoop of vanilla, fior di latte, or hazelnut gelato paired with a double shot of espresso.

"The fat content of gelato is very low compared to ice cream. It doesn't get in the way of tasting all of the milk and sugar flavors, or mask all of those rich notes of the coffee," Reitano said. "But, honestly, if you invest in a quality ice cream, that will work, too."

If you do use ice cream, Reitano suggests allowing it to sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes, until it's easy to scoop, because ice cream is naturally colder than gelato straight out of the freezer. Don't pour the espresso directly from your espresso maker — put the double shot in a cup and then add it immediately before serving.

"The timing is everything with affogatos," Reitano said.

At Capofitto, affogato gelato flavors are endless, but owner and chef Stephanie Reitano recommends one of the classics: vanilla, fior di latte, or hazelnut.
GRACE DICKINSON / STAFF
At Capofitto, affogato gelato flavors are endless, but owner and chef Stephanie Reitano recommends one of the classics: vanilla, fior di latte, or hazelnut.

It's also crucial to chill the serving glass to avoid ending up with a watered-down, milky espresso rather than a dessert to be enjoyed by the spoonful.

No espresso-maker? Strong coffee can be substituted. Reitano recommends using a Moka pot to make an espresso substitute, but any dark roast brew will do.

Chill the cup first to prevent the ice cream or gelato from instantly melting upon serving.
GRACE DICKINSON / STAFF
Chill the cup first to prevent the ice cream or gelato from instantly melting upon serving.

At home, it's easy to get creative with ice cream flavors and toppings. Nutty options like almond pair well with coffee, and toppings like crushed cookies, whipped cream, and even booze — amaretto, Sambuca, whiskey — are common additions. However, Reitano says it's hard to beat the traditional.

"The simpler you go, the more you can taste the beauty of an affogato," Reitano said. "It's not supposed to be this gigantic sweet bomb, like a piece of birthday cake. It's just supposed to cap off the meal with a small, bittersweet note that ends things in a nice, but not overwhelming, way."