Of course it had to be the cups. They arrived, perfectly pint-sized with Polpo Gelato printed on the side, but that was exactly the problem: I needed small gelato cups, not giant, "to-go" tubs. The night before the grand opening of my pop-up gelato store, I ran to Costco, bought 1,500 small cups and wrote "Polpo Gelato" in black Sharpie on every single one. Customers enjoyed their gelato, but were aghast that once it melted, the Sharpie had bled black ink onto their hands. With this unintentional marketing, my first customers had "Polpo Gelato" branded on their palms. Although things didn't go exactly as planned, that first day was exhilarating.
My relationship with gelato started the previous summer, when I signed up for a cooking program in Orvieto, Italy. Before I arrived, I imagined myself mastering the culinary arts of this gorgeous country. It turned out, the program wasn't really about cooking – it was working on a farm. After a long day of harvesting potatoes and milling grain, I noticed Luigi, the elderly grandfather and a respected gelato master, playing a game of online Texas Holdem. This was my chance! I would befriend him, and Luigi would teach me all his culinary secrets.
I wish I could say that Luigi loved me immediately, that he wanted to mentor me, saw me as the son he never had, and wanted to hand down his secret recipes. In reality, Luigi was grumpy at best. He told me he had made gelato for sixty years, but had no interest in explaining how. I was surprised when he offered me his recipe book, but the joke was on me – it was in Italian.
When I returned home, wielding a recipe book I couldn't read, I did what every person does who doesn't speak Italian: Google Translate. I translated the entire book and started experimenting. People wonder what the difference between ice cream and gelato really is. It's the air content: gelato has roughly thirty percent air, while ice cream has nearly double. But making gelato isn't as easy as it looked in Italy: the ingredients in America are dramatically different in terms of fat content and chemical composition. Gelato is a case of extremes – either it's perfect, or not. It takes both science and alchemy to get the perfect scoop.
Some New Yorkers have complained about the lack of "authentic" Italian gelato. This was my opportunity, and thus Polpo Gelato, meaning octopus gelato (after the eight daily flavors), was born. I experimented with flavors like Burnt Maple Syrup, Spicy Celery, and Ricotta Stracciatella. For my sister Marin, a type one diabetic, I crafted a chocolate peanut sorbet, optimizing sweetness as well as a low glycemic index, so she could enjoy the gelato without a blood sugar spike.
My store was open exactly one month, which was all that I could afford, as school was calling. Our customers came in great variety. First, they were hipsters and gelato nerds. After I was interviewed on Fox and ABC news, elderly ladies arrived with questions, "Honey, you're still in high school and you started this gelato place?" One woman bought gelato at 1:00pm, then returned at 6:00pm with her car and a cooler; she proceeded to purchase nearly my entire inventory. One man, sporting a fancy suit and monocle, came in daily for a free taste, only to saunter out without ever purchasing a single scoop.
Sometimes, the story of a chef isn't quite the dream: a young boy is trained by his grandmother, who could smell from its seed when a tomato would ripen, to run her renowned Trattoria in Rome. Sometimes, it's a sixteen-year-old from New York City who takes a treasury of gelato recipes from an irritable Italian man, and, with the gift of a broken freezer, a landlord who took a chance, and Google Translate, makes his gelato dreams a reality.