I love ice cream. I mean, I really love it, as much as sex, almost as much as Frank Sinatra, more than Manolos. I’ll eat anything sweet and frozen (and have): yogurty vanilla ice cream in Red Square in the dead of winter as Soviet soldiers ate their own; an exquisite prune-and-Armagnac flavor at Berthillon, on Paris’s Ile St.-Louis; Vassar Devils (hot fudge and marshmallow sundaes served on brownies) accompanied by many gin and tonics at the Alumnae House Pub during my school days in Poughkeepsie. Of all life’s little pleasures, ice cream is arguably the most universal. The ancient Chinese made it, Catherine de’ M’dici brought it with her along with the fork when she married the future king Henry II of France in 1533, and the Roman emperor Nero sent slaves up the Alps to gather snow, which they then mixed with honey, fruit, and nuts. Perhaps he ate it while he fiddled.
One recent night I’m out with a friend at the best little Italian restaurant in New York no one’s ever heard of (I’ll tell you about it another time), and as we taste some rather wonderful ice cream, a deep Mexican chocolate laced with ancho chile and chipotle, sweet and hot and not quite like anything else, he says knowingly, “I bet this is Capogiro.”
“The best gelato in the country,” he says. ” The woman who makes it is phenomenal, Stephanie Reitano.”
Yeah, yeah, I think, just another yuppie cult, this gelato thing, a too-fancy name for too-fancy ice cream. But my pal’s a savvy guy and maybe this Reitano will show me how to make some great stuff. Maybe the perfect coffee flavor, like iced espresso in solid form. Hm. Now I’m intrigued.
“So where is this gelato lady?”
“Philadelphia,” says my friend.
Philadelphia? There’s nothing good to eat in the City of Brotherly Love except those fat-ass cheesesteaks, right? In 2000 Men’s Health named it the fattest city in the country. Clearly Philadelphians know from eating, but do they know from quality gelato?
A few weeks later I’m on a 7 a.m. train from New York. By nine I’m at Capogiro Gelato Artisans on South 13th Street. (A sister shop is off Rittenhouse Square.) Breakfast is a dulce de leche gelato and spice cookie sandwich and a soft warm brioche stuffed with strawberry gelato, as good as any I’ve had in Italy.
“It’s all about the milk,” says Stephanie Reitano, who at age 38 is great-looking, with long dark hair, light gray-green eyes, and a raffish, say-anything style. “Real gelato is made just of milk, sugar, sometimes egg yolk, and whatever you need for the flavor: fruit, chocolate, nuts, spices.” For her, only milk from Amish cows in nearby Lancaster County will do; these grass-fed Bessies have never seen hormones or antibiotics. Of the Amish farmers who live as they did a century ago, no cars, no TV, Reitano says, “Great milk, bad haircuts.”
Reitano is talking milk, but I’m eating. For the moment it’s a serving of Scuro, a dark chocolate flavor that is adult, Italian, sexy, the Marcello Mastroianni of gelato. No matter how much I eat, the inside of my mouth feels somehow clean. This, Reitano explains, is because gelato has virtually no butterfat, only 7 percent compared with as much as 35 percent in premium American ice cream. The latter is also pumped full of air to make it fluffier, but not so with gelato, which explains why its flavor is more intense, its texture denser.
“I made the mix for your Espresso Noir last night,” Reitano says, peering into the fridge in Capogiro’s cramped basement kitchen. “Great gelato has to age overnight.” She shows me a pan filled with coffee- colored stuff the consistency of pancake batter. “We’ll make the gelato a bit later,” she tells me.
When Capogiro opened, in 2002, Reitano did everything herself: cleaned strawberries, caramelized hazelnuts, candied chestnuts. Now, with a small staff to help make the gelati and sorbetti fresh every morning, she can spend weekends with her Italian-born husband, John, a psychiatrist (I figure that between his being a shrink and my gelato, we can cure anything), and their three kids. “My first trip to Italy, I was in Capri. I became Italian in my heart,” says Reitano, who is actually of Russian and Welsh extraction. “I see this woman in her late fifties in a bikini, cell phone in one hand, cone of gelato in the other, teetering on stilettos. My first “American” thought is, She shouldn’t be wearing that. Then I think, Omigod, she’s beautiful.
That evening Reitano, who didn’t even like ice cream, joined her husband at a gelateria. By bedtime they’d eaten six cones between them. “The flavor, the freshness, the creaminess,” she recalls. “It was Eureka! “
Obsessed, Reitano began sampling gelati all over Italy. Sicilians used almost no eggs, she found, while Romans made a creamier version. In the end she settled on Veneto-style gelato for her operation. “I chose the Veneto because I wanted to use local products. And because the area is so similar to Pennsylvania farmland, climate, crops, dairy industries, produce it was a perfect match,” says Reitano, a dedicated locavore.
It’s in the Zeitgeist, this locavore thing. And I’m always wary of the Zeitgeist (maybe because it’s basically German for group think, and we all know where that got us). Currently the food world is in love with produce so fresh, it has dirt on it. The closer the farm (lake, ranch, river), the better, and it’s true across the country. To me it’s just another muddy zucchini. In her shops, alongside the gelati, Reitano sells cookies, candies, and jams made by local producers, usually in tiny batches, almost always daily. She claims she cannot live without Philly favorite Fisher’s soft pretzels, which she buys at the Reading Terminal Market here. A veritable supermarket of local delicacies, Reading Terminal, as much as anything else, has rescued the city from its Cheez Whiz past and ushered in a new gourmetcentric era. Now small farmers’ markets are popping up all over town and young chefs are experimenting like crazy. What’s more, Philly’s arcane liquor laws, according to Reitano, mean the city has a big BYOB culture.
“Restaurateurs can hit the ground running, making interesting food without having to worry about a bar,” she says. (Some of Reitano’s favorites: L’Oca, Kanella, Mercato, Marigold Kitchen, Bindi.)
I tell Reitano I want to meet one of these farmers she’s been telling me about, and so while my Espresso Noir ages, we head for the country.
Glenn Brendle grows it all, raspberries, blueberries, Meyer lemons, Kaffir limes, pawpaw. A big cheery man in dungarees, he greets us at his 15-acre Green Meadow Farm, near Gap, Pennsylvania, where he produces minuscule crops of exquisite greens, fruits, herbs, and even hot peppers for the spicy Mexican chocolate gelato that started me on this whole rural ride.
Brendle recalls how when he first started farming in the area in 1981, local chefs bought their asparagus from California: “Food seemed fancier if it was imported,” he says. Today Brendle will try any crop Reitano wants and even makes juice out of late-season heirloom tomatoes for her Bloody Mary sorbetto.
A self-confessed Jersey girl who grew up near the beach, Reitano says, “I never saw a sheep until I was eighteen. But the fabulous seasonal produce out here makes me crazy with ideas, for new flavors.” So far she has created 349.
Back at South 13th Street, Capogiro is busy, with people buying, gazing at, sampling, eating the 27 flavors available each day. We head back to the basement where two huge ice cream machines abut a two-burner stove and a big fridge. Storage shelves are jammed with Valrhona chocolate, Vietnamese ginger, Sicilian pistachios. (When you want the best, you can’t get it all locally, it seems.)
We put our heads in the fridge. The gelato mix is ready. “With whiskey?” Reitano asks. Naturally.
Following her instructions I mix two tablespoons of Bulliet Bourbon Frontier whiskey into the creamy mix. Then we put it all in the ice cream machine. (Reitano uses a Carpigiani contraption but for home use recommends an Italian brand called Musso.) We wait about 20 minutes. I scoop my Espresso Noir into a bowl. I dip my spoon expectantly.
It is the quintessential, no, the Platonic ideal of iced coffee, with flecks of ground beans and the hit of whiskey. If I paired it with a little of the deep chocolate Scuro, it would be perfect film noir, a Chandler private eye in the company of a blonde in a black veil. To paraphrase: “She’s dark and lovely and passionate. And very, very kind.”
“If people are gonna spend five bucks for a small serving,” says Reitano, “it better be good. It better be fabulous.”
It is, and fresh, too. To eat it is to be converted to the locavore movement from nose to tail. Just call me Fraulein Zeitgeist. It’s great for the environment and not bad for me, either. Or as the sign outside Capogiro says, good for you and cheaper than heroin.
Makes about 2 Quarts
* 2 1/2 cups whole milk
* 1/2 cup freshly dark-roasted coffee beans ground at the finest setting (Turkish)
* 3/4 cup sugar
* 5 egg yolks
* 2 tbsp bulliet bourbon frontier whiskey
1. In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine milk and coffee. Simmer for 5 minutes. Do not boil.
2. Remove from heat, cover with plastic wrap, and cool completely to steep.
3. Uncover and set over medium heat until bubbles form on edge of pan.
4. Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the sugar and egg yolks on high speed until thick and light yellow. Stop the mixer once to scrape the sides of the bowl. Turn the mixer to medium speed and slowly add the hot milk mixture. Stop short of adding the coffee grounds at the bottom of the pan (about 1/3 cup of grounds will remain).
5. Pour gelato base into a clean saucepan and set over medium heat. Stir base constantly with a wooden spoon until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon, about 8 minutes. Do not boil.
6. Fill a very large bowl with ice water. Pour the gelato base into a slightly smaller bowl and set the bowl in the ice water bath. Let the base cool for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
7. Cover the bowl; refrigerate overnight.
8. When ready to eat, stir in the whiskey. Pour the base into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions. Serve immediately.
Note: Store any leftover gelato in the fridge where it will melt. Refreeze it in the ice cream maker just before serving.