I Scream for Gelato
Philadelphia Magazine - Best of Philly, 2003
It's a cold, hard fact: American ice cream was practically invented in Philadelphia. And when this city is done bragging about such hometown history-makers as Bassetts, the country's oldest ice cream company, it can always take a bow for water ice, another local summertime specialty. But with the recent opening of John and Stephanie Reitano's Capogiro, Philadelphia is on the brink of another chilly phenomenon - artisanal gelato.

In July 2001, the happily married Reitanos took a trip to Italy, and nothing has been the same for them since. At that time, John was a practicing psychiatrist, and Stephanie was primarily a mom to their three small children. But that was before gelato entered the picture. "In the summer of 2001, we somehow convinced my parents to watch our children and flew to Rome," says John. "I was born in Padova, a city just outside Venice, and was eager to share Italy with my wife." During the trip, Stephanie had her first gelato and was inspired by the intensity and freshness of its flavor to experience a flash-of-fate moment: "I can do this," she remembers thinking.

For years, John had been toying with the idea of opening up a real gelateria in Philadelphia, and when the couple got home, they started talking about doing just that. "But we wondered if it would fly," John says today. "Could it be done as well as in Italy? And why hadn't it been done here before?"
Stephanie, described by her husband as a "perennial do-it-yourselfer," bought a 65-pound, two-quart capacity countertop batch freezer on the Internet and got to work.
She began her education by making gelato using recipes from the Internet and quickly started to understand the differences between ice cream and gelato. What she learned all came down to F.A.T.: fat, air and temperature. "Ice cream has twice the fat of gelato, and sometimes more than twice the air. It is frozen solid and then stored and served in that state," she explains. "In the making of gelato, less fat, less air, and warmer temperatures combine to create a softer, velvety texture that allows flavors to be fully experienced - there is nothing hidden. Flavors are unadulterated and intense, and the smooth, dense gelato melts more quickly in your mouth. Gelato is more sensual."

She also discovered the importance of the technical aspect of temperature. When not strictly controlled, changes in temperature can produce ice crystals in the gelato. "Gelato gets cranky when the temperature changes, kind of like a retired Floridian," says John.

Stephanie continued to work at mastering the proper texture of gelato and creating the right intensity of flavor. She made mistakes, and, more importantly, she learned the right steps to take in order to correct those mistakes. As part of her education, she relied on feedback, giving gelato samples to all her friends, including Jean-Philippe Iberti, co-owner of the Philadelphia-based coffee company La Colombe and an early supporter of the couple's efforts. "The gelato was good, people whose opinions we respected wanted more, and we got energized," Stephanie says.

Enter Milan

Inspired and feeling confident enough to take the enxt step towards opening a gelateria, John and Stephanie returned to Italy in order to attend Milan's biennial food expo (an international food and beverage trade show) and devote themselves to research. "We turned over every rock," John says. "We spoke with everyone - every equipment manufacturer, every cone maker - about what it would take to get our business started and what was available." Most of the Italian exhibitors tried to discourage the couple from making gelato the artisan way: "It is too much work, and no one does it anymore." Instead, they suggested a program for "instant gelato," telling the couple how well gelaterias from Miami to L.A. were doing using ready-mix products: "It's easy, and the Americans love it."
They might be opening in Philadelphia, but the couple's goal was to make gelato of a quality that could be sold in Italy.
So they left Milan, traveling through the rest of the country and searching out the best gelaterias. "We never stopped asking questions, and we got a lot of conflicting answers," John says. "It was difficult to even figure out what equipment we needed." The couple went so far as to contact the former "gelato master" from one of their favorite stores, hoping to learn the art from him. In return, he asked them to rent a lab and pay a $50,000 consulation fee, to which John replied, "Non grazie."

"At the end of the day," he says, "learning to make gelato was an extraction process. Between what Stephanie taught herself with the small-batch maker and her experiments with the larger machines, she mastered the basics, filling in the gaps by making - and learning to correct - mistakes."

Produzione Artigianale

When it comes to gelato, signs posted in the windows of caffes and gelateria all over Italy state exactly what you can expect to find inside: produzione propria, nostra produzione, or produzione artigianale. The highest level - artisanal - is how John and Stephanie make Capogiro (Italian for "dizzy" or "swooning" because something is so good or beautiful) gelato: That means daily, in small batches with top-notch ingredients, strictly adhering to the Italian notion of locality.

"With one of the country's richest farming communities right in our own backyard, we can wholeheartedly embrace the Italian way of rooting our gelato in local ingredients," Stephanie says. "All winter long, our patrons requested strawberry gelato. But our flavors are determined by the seasons, and Capogiro's strawberry gelato isn't available until the fruit can be picked in Lancaster County. We also use hormone-free, grass-fed organic milk - it is local, and it is superior."

Continuing in the Italian fashion, the gelato is displayed in rectangular stainless steel bins - not in the large cylindrical tubs associated with ice cream. Since gelato isn't "hard", it shouldn't be scooped (like ice cream) and must be "packed" into your cup or cone with a spatula. Stephanie prefers to make Veneto-style gelato (milk-based, with a little added cream) that needs to be colled to a perfect temperature, and the bins leave more surface exposed, so that process is more efficient and controllable.

Because Capogiro gelato is never artificially colored, a flavor like pistachio isn't a "heightened" bright green, but rather a pale olive - misleading to the inexperienced eye. So each bin of gelato is garnished with a sampling of its ingredients, like sliced fruit or toasted nuts, in order to indicate its flavor. "Italians want to see what their gelato is made from," explains Stephanie.

Taste and Tell

"Is it pudding?"
"Is it mousse?"
"Did you ever make shrimp gelato?"

John and Stephanie understand that part of their job is to educate their customers, and these are some of the questions the Reitanos have learned to expect, even anticipate. John divides their customer base into three general groups. The first has traveled throughout Italy (or is Italian) and may come into the shop indignant at the couple's claim to be gelato producers. One woman mocked them for calling themselves "gelato artisans," but apologized after tasting their wares. "Others in this group are less skeptical," says John. "They are elated that someone is doing what we are doing in Philadelphia."

At one time, those in the next group may have had a product labeled "gelato," which can be anything from ice cream atop Italian ice to just bad gelato. "They are suspicious of us," says John. "We have to do the most educating with this type of customer." The final group knows little to nothing about gelato.

"In the beginning, we went through the whole spiel," says John. "Made fresh every day; half the fat and half the calories; less fat, less air and less cold makes flavor more intense; we use milk from grass-fed, hormone-free cows; we rely on local produce, blah, blah, blah. But what we quickly learned is that if we got the customer to taste our gelati or sorbetti, the sale was made, more often than not."

- Francine Maroukian