Back in 1983, when Little Italy was still a neighborhood, Ciao Bella began scooping gelato on Mott Street, and it’s been a fixture there ever since. And just weeks ago, it celebrated 30 years in business with a free gelato party at the Old School on Mott. That’s a major milestone, so we caught up with CEO Carlos Canals to chat about his company and how the ice cream business has changed since Ciao Bella’s humble beginnings.
Canals says gelato has enjoyed an uptick in interest in recent years, and, oddly enough, he credits the the recession: “Before the recession, people would buy homes, cars, boats, whatever. Since then, people still want to have luxuries, but they’re looking for affordable luxuries. And in food, that’s more international foods, more ethnic foods, foods that are more interesting. [These] have become a way of bringing small luxuries to your life.”
So Ciao Bella remains focused on putting out quality gelato using whole ingredients like hormone-free milk (production is based in Oregon where a longer grazing season keeps cows outside where they can eat grass, not corn silage, which usually grows from Monsanto’s evil-tainted seed and is a winter staple in cooler areas), fresh Alfonso Mangoes (“One of the best tasting mangoes that you can get from Latin America and the Pacific,” Canals says).
That fruit, used in a mango sorbetto, is tough to source and is comparatively rare in the U.S., so it’s a special treat: “We just take the fruit, add a little water and sugar (to get the texture right), and you actually feel like you’re eating the mango,” Canals says.
And that clean, fresh taste lies at the heart of the company philosophy. Canals says gelato production involves “much less air and much less fat” than traditional American ice cream, resulting in rich, saturated flavor that tastes quintessentially European: “I think what attracts people to gelato is that it brings the cleanliness of the Mediterranean,” he explains, adding: “There are less ingredients on the label.”
And while ice cream is traditionally a simple frozen mix of milk, cream, sugar, and things like fruit, nuts, and chocolate, other companies have cut costs at the expense of flavor. That’s something Canals knows a lot about having worked in the higher echelons of industrial food at Kellogg’s (cereal) and Kashi (headier cereal).
“I remember eating [Kellogg’s] Corn Flakes when I was little,” Canals says. “And 30 years later, I saw that the Corn Flakes I was eating [now] had nothing to do with what I was eating when I was little …You have to be competitive and keep your margins up, and you’re reporting to the New York Stock Exchange, and you’ve got to find ways to cost-cut. And unfortunately, consumers over the last 20 years have paid that toll.”
Canals says that with ice cream, adding extra fat and air to the mix keeps costs down, but it also increases consumption: “The more fat you add, the less you feel fulfilled. So you need many more spoonfuls of ice cream to actually feel that sense of fulfillment.” Tricky. And gross. But with Ciao Bella gelato, because it’s still produced the old-fashioned way using real milk and cream and fruit, “maybe you have five spoonfuls and you feel satisfied,” says Canals. “Because the flavor intensity is much cleaner and stronger and powerful.”
We know exactly what he’s referring to. Has anyone else accidentally picked up a carton of Breyer’s (formerly my grocery-store go-to for mass-market, presumably natural ice cream) new-ish line of Frozen Dairy Dessert thinking it was ice cream only to dip into the carton and find an airy, super-sweet substance that leaves your mouth coated with oily, waxy disgustingness? I did once, and I’ll never buy Breyer’s again.
Ciao Bella, on the other hand, has maintained its original standard, even as production has grown to 600,000 pints per months, and it supplies restaurants across the country with gelato packaged in larger formats. With unorthodox flavors like raspberry Cabernet and blood orange (“We were the first to bring blood orange, and now blood orange is one of the top ten flavors of sorbet in the market,” Canals says), the gelato experience has changed as different flavor profiles (savory herbs, for example) have entered the dessert realm. Canals credits this to a more adventurous culinary wingspan and what he sees as the added value of buying a superior product: “When you’re buying something as an affordable luxury, you want something that’s interesting; you don’t want to buy a gallon of chocolate ice cream for $1.99. You want to experience different flavors and combinations.”
And even with 30 years under his belt, Canals has a new flavor in the works, a collaboration with San Francisco-based chocolate company Tcho (pronounced “choh!”). Tcho sources site-roasted, Ecuadorian cacao, which allows growers to increase local employment-hours and deliver processed cacao at a higher price. And Canals says the flavor speaks for itself: “I think we’re going to have the next revolution in chocolate. We’re getting ready to blow the minds of the chocolate world … But that’s next year.”