If you've savored a post-meal swirl of gelato at your favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, chances are good that it came from Gonzalo Egozcue's petite Old Brooklyn commissary. After leaving this kitchen, the creamy concoctions work their way to the coolers at Vero in Cleveland Heights, Presti's Bakery in Little Italy, Osteria di Valerio downtown, In Forno Pizza in Avon, and dozens more eateries scattered about in between.
These days, gelato is a commonplace treat. But when Egozcue first began making it in Cleveland, it was a rare curiosity often billed as "Italian ice cream," a description that feels about as accurate as calling spaghetti "Italian ramen." One of the first pioneers to introduce it locally was Valerio Iorio, owner of Valerio's Ristorante in Little Italy. In 2002, he realized a professional dream when he opened La Gelateria in Cleveland Heights, one of the first gelaterias in the region if not the nation. When he went looking for a gelato master, Egozcue answered the call.
"My family had a gelato company in Uruguay," says Egozcue, who started stirring batches in that country as young as 13. "It's very, very big there; more than here."
While a very small handful of Italian restaurants offered gelato at the time, almost all were purchasing pre-made products from importers or American-based food service wholesalers. At La Gelateria, each batch was made the old-fashioned way using quality ingredients like whole milk, sugar, fresh fruit and nuts. Despite the learning curve, the shop was an immediate success, prompting Iorio to open a second outpost at Legacy Village two years later.
When the shops closed in 2011, Egozcue moved his operation to Old Brooklyn, where he and his wife Lilliana focus on supplying wholesale accounts under the brand name GelatoStar (216-741-9766, gelatostar.com).
In the case of gelato, proximity to the source is more important than it is with ice cream, Egozcue argues, because of the way it is made. Gelato has less fat, sugar and air than its American counterpart, all of which help extend the shelf life of conventional ice cream.
"Gelato is 50-percent lower in fat and has 20- to 50-percent less air whipped in," he explains.
The result? A denser, creamier, silkier product bursting with flavors unimpeded by fat or excessively cold temperatures, as gelato is kept and served at slightly warmer temps than ice cream. The proof is in every spoonful of Sicilian pistachio, tiramisu and stracciatella, where the intense, unadulterated flavors seem to burst into vivid life when they hit the tongue. In addition to the dairy-based gelatos, GelatoStar produces fruity sorbetti, the water-based version of gelato made from fresh, seasonal fruits, fruit extracts and sugar. Unlike granita, which is often grainy in texture, sorbetto has a velvety-smooth mouthfeel.
The rise of gelato shops here and away, even those that make their own products on site, is the result of large corporations like PreGel that sell everything a person needs to make it "from scratch." The company stocks a full line of flavorings, stabilizers and shelf-stable bases that literally require nothing but water to bring them to life. Egozcue elects to continue doing it the way he learned from his father, using real ingredients, even though it is significantly more expensive to do so.
Last year, the Egozcues opened Molto Bene (18401 Detroit Ave., 216-273-7333), a casual Italian eatery in Lakewood. Initially, the aim was to use the restaurant as a vehicle to sell more gelato, as it tends to be a seasonal product.
"The summer's too short and the year is too long, so now we are doing a restaurant," Egozcue told me in advance of the opening.
Who could predict that the attractive, 30-seat restaurant would become one of the buzziest little trattorias on the west side? Since opening 14 months ago, Molto Bene has been packed with appreciative diners who have been gobbling up pizzas, pastas, entrees and, of course, gelato. A prominently displayed cooler offers 16 flavors for dine-in and take-away enjoyment. Soon, a liquor license and patio will further enhance the experience.
At the same time, Egozcue continues to grow GelatoStar by adding new products to extend the brand's portfolio. Confections like caramel semifreddo, ready-to-serve spumoni and tartufos, attractive layered desserts, come in flavors like lemon cream, raspberry cheesecake and passion fruit. Expect to start seeing them at your favorite neighborhood Italian restaurants.