Taste-makers : Bay Area ice cream artisans in hot pursuit of frozen perfection

By Catherine Nash, Contributor

The Old Country way

Curtis Chin takes his gelato very seriously. Before opening Gelato Milano last December, the former partner in Mondo Gelato (now Gelateria Naia) flew to Milan in search of an artisan to help him re-create authentic, Italian-style ice cream at home. He left with not one, but two artisans in his employ.

"We wanted to transport people so they get a taste of Milan," says Chin.

By we, Chin is referring to Giordano Mauri and his son Marcello. Giordano lives just outside Milan and has been making gelato for more than 30 years. Two months ago, he sent Marcello to Berkeley to work in the shop's gelato laboratory full-time.

Gelato contains 4-8 percent butterfat, and very little air is incorporated when it is made, resulting in a dense, intensely flavored ice cream. Virtually all commercial gelato starts as a powdered base of milk and sugar. Cream, milk and more sugar are added to make fior di latte, a pure gelato that tastes like sweet milk. Depending on the flavor, fruits, nuts, chocolate or vanilla is added next.

Giordano's first task was to create a base to complement the Berkeley Farms milk and cream that Chin uses. The base is made in Italy, and Chin imports it along with ingredients such as chocolate, pistachios, and candied cherries.

Gelato Milano serves gelato and sorbetto in traditional Italian flavors, which Chin calls by their Italian names, insisting that certain subtle differences cannot be translated. Take (chocolate) hazelnut: Marcello makes five variations including gianduja, with chocolate and roasted hazelnuts, and croccante, made with candied hazelnuts.

"Hazelnut is the most important flavor for gelato," Chin says. "You can tell if it is 100 percent or not."

After closing up at night, Chin grabs dinner before setting off for Oakland's fruit market. He arrives when it opens at 2 a.m. to hand pick grapefruits, lemons and ripe mangoes himself.

Chin's commitment to gelato is echoed in the shop's design. Sleek tables and Philippe Starck-designed stools sit on poured concrete floors. Nothing but white paint adorns the walls, making the vibrant shades of gelato the shop's only decoration.

"This is a gelato boutique. If the gelato tastes good, you don't need pictures," he says.

Gelato Milano's Italian fans are proof positive. Says Giorgio Enea from Milan, "It's the closest to Italian gelato you can get."

Excerpt from article published in the Oakland Tribune, Food section, July 26, 2006