Cool Art of Gelato, A Few Scoops From Ciao Bella's Book with F.W Pearce

Summer has not officially started yet we have already been through some sweltering days.

When temperatures climb, a scoop or two of Gelato or Sorbetto might be the right medicine.

Here in the US, Ciao Bella has been one of the standard bearers in the cool art of Gelato for the past 20 years.

Founder F.W. Pearce and master flavor creator Danilo Zecchin share their hits and misses and mostly recipes in The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato & Sorbetto (Clarkson Potter, May 2010) so you can try your hand at creating your own home made treats.


I asked F.W. Pearce for a few scoops on the cool art of Gelato.

Here it is.

Q: F.W, in 1989, you were a young graduate from Cornell when you decided to buy a 'small Gelato manufacturer', was the company already named 'Ciao Bella' prior to the purchase?

Yes, the basic components of the company were in place: the name, the basic recipes (although all have been changed over the years), the suppliers, the pricing, etc...

Q: You write that your decision to get into the Gelato business came after you had an eureka moment so was it more an impulse 'trust your gut' call on your part rather than an analytical one.

Yes, I had graduated from Cornell Hotel School knowing that I did not want to open a restaurant.  I had been applying for jobs in hospitality consulting (feasibility study work) that I did not want even if I received an offer.  I was also looking at existing businesses including a wrought iron company in Buffalo and a liquor store in Sag Harbor.  When I saw the add in the NY Times, I  knew it was the right combination of manufacturing, food, selling to restaurants, location, etc.  The only analytical part of the decision was that it was a relatively small investment so I was not risking too much family capital.

Q: Even though you mention history of frozen desserts as going back to Bible times, is the story of Issac offering Abraham goat's milk mixed with snow true?

I am not a bible scholar and I have not seen the passage in the bible myself; however' it is mentioned in hundreds of publications (which I know does not make it necessarily true).

Q: Since you were new then to the 'gelato-sorbet' field, how did you decide which flavors to start with?

The business was ongoing so I made what the customers were ordering.  There was very little freezer storage in the 300 square foot shop, so I basically made flavors to order.  I inherited about 60 recipes and was trained to make about 40-50 of those during my two weeks of training.  Chefs could request custom flavors, and almost all of my early flavor creations came from these requests.  Later we scoured all of the food press for interesting flavor combinations that we thought would make good gelato and/or sorbet flavors.  These dishes would not be limited to ice cream flavors or even desserts; many times our inspiration came from the flavors being used with fish - coconut curry for example.


Q: Did you limit your line up to small batches and let customers decide on winners and losers?

Yes but our customers were NYC chefs; they were basically our R&D team.

Q: Can you share the 5 most successful flavors in the first years and the 5 worst duds?

Green Tea was our biggest selling flavor for the first few years.  The chef at Hatsuhanna taught the previous owner how to make it. We sold to most of the top Japanese restaurant in NYC.  Other than green tea and vanilla, the traditional Italian flavors were our best sellers.  Hazelnut, Pistachio, Caramel, & Coffee; this I believe was due to the Italian flavor pastes that we were importing.  It may be selective memory, but I do not remember any duds.  We always had too many flavors so many did not sell all that well, but ALL received critical praise.

Q: If you were to define gelato, would you say: same pleasure with less fat than ice-cream? What else?

Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream (it comes from the verb "to freeze") Styles of gelato vary in Italy just as ice cream styles vary in the US.  Traditionally gelato from Northern Italy (the Dolomites) had more cream than gelato from Sicily for example.  So it is hard to generalize but generally gelato has less cream than American ice cream but it is denser (less air) so the gelato tastes as rich as a high fat ice cream, but the flavors are more intense since fat tends to mask the flavor.

Q: Overall what is the mix between seasonal and year round flavors?

Most flavors are offered year round-since gelato is frozen, it does not denigrate the product if we purchase fruit when it is at its tree-ripen best and store it frozen for the entire year.  Our two most popular sorbetti (Blood Orange and Blackberry Cabernet) are examples of this.  Northwest Blackberries have a very short growing season as do the Sicilian blood oranges that we use. We purchase these once a year. Hopefully we forecast correctly which we usually do, until Oprah picked Ciao Bella Blood Orange sorbet as one of her favorite things.


Q: Is Louisiana Praline a Flavor, what makes these pralines distinct from others?

New Orleans Pralines were the inspiration for our Banana Walnut Praline flavor; however in NO they are made with pecans.  Although I am not a praline expert, I think the pralines in NO are softer and therefore more crumbly /less chewy than other pralines that I have had.

Q: The prune and Armagnac gelato recipe (page 43) reminds me of an Armagnac Tasting and Food Pairing session I had recently, any other fruit and alcoholic drinks that you feel work great besides the Fig and Port Gelato (page 61)?

Alcohol makes great gelato and my favorites do not contain fruit. (Dark Rum gelato or Maker's Mark gelato are two of my all-time favorite creations) many pairings with fruit do work well.  Rum-raisin is a classic. We tend to pair fruit and alcohol more in sorbetto: grapefruit-campari sorbetto is near perfection. Strawberry chardonnay; blackberry cabernet; cherry sake; etc.

Q: Do you see the Rosemary and Olive Oil gelato or the Coconut Lemongrass sorbet as possible garnishes for main dishes, which ones?

I am not a fan of gelato with main dishes, in fact I don't like gelato with a meal as much as I do as a snack once or twice a day - like the Italians do. We did do an interesting mignonette sorbet which was served with oysters.

Q: I noticed the Cherry Sake Sorbetto and the Red Bean Gelato (made with Adzuki beans) are those especially popular with Japanese customers as Adzuki beans are the base for many Japanese sweets?

Green Tea, Ginger and Red Bean have always been some of our biggest sellers due to our Japanese restaurant customers.

Q: Could the Festa Limonata be turned into a cocktail? If it does, which alcohol would you use?

Of course - I have done it! Vodka is a no-brainer, but rum, whiskey (bourbon), gin or tequila are more interesting.

Q: I have never made ice cream or sorbet or gelato in my life, I was under the impression that it was time consuming and difficult, how long should it take to make one batch and which mistakes should anyone giving it a try should not make?

The base takes less than an hour and the freezing process takes about an hour.  Of course the base needs to be chilled for at least four hours (or overnight).  The recipes are surprisingly easy.  If you take your time - don't increase the heat on the burner so the custard cooks faster - and use a thermometer - the recipe id almost fool-proof.  The only risk is turning the custard base into scrambled eggs.  Make sure slowly add the hot milk into the beaten eggs to avoid this.  This procedure is spelled out in the book.

Q: Are discussions on what flavors to produce heated between you an Danilo or is it a democratic process?
Are other people involved in the decision process?

Many people are involved in the flavor creation process. (My partner, the marketing manager, the sales managers, the office manager, any lucky visitors, etc)  Danilo will create 16-20 flavors  4-5 times per year. These can be from his childhood, from requests from chefs, suggestions from my partner Charlie Apt or I, or anyone at the company. These are cut down to 4-5 flavors that are released to the restaurant trade.   We vote on which flavors we like - very democratic. I think the process is hard on Danilo, but he is a gentleman and usually ends his sentences with "in my opinion" which really means:"...I am the chef that grew up around food and have a much more refined palette than the rest of you...but if you insist."


Q: To conclude, tells us your own personal favorites?

This is such a hard question - they are like my children - I love them all - though some days I might love one more than others!

  • Pistachio
  • Greek Yogurt Gelato (aka Labne)
  • Banana Caheta Cashew gelato
  • Fresh Mint gelato
  • Grapefruit Campari sorbetto

Thanks to F.W. Pearce for his time and Allison Malec at Clarkson Potter for setting up the interview.

Let a 1000 gelato home makers bloom.

(* illustrations are Lemon Poppy Gelato (page 96), Blood Orange Sorbet (page 120), Banana Gelato (page 72) that order)

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