Sandra and I sit outside the Piccolina on Glenferrie Road in the warm sun, the bells from the passing trams compete with the really great music Sandra has on inside. I knew we would talk about gelato. I hadn’t really thought about us talking about the importance of family connections and persisting with tradition, but I really loved that we did. Then I bought a scoop of salted caramel gelato and it was bliss all round.
What a lovely day! The perfect day for ice cream. It is really coming into your season now.
“It’s a good time of year, although we’ve found that people love gelato all year round. Of course, when it’s warm, people are out and about and wanting ice cream.”
We were just at Meredith Music Festival and my boyfriend was lamenting the lack of ice cream there. It was hot and ice cream would have been perfect. Sandra was a graphic designer and then went and did a course in gelato making in Italy. That’s amazing.
“I grew up making gelato, so I already had a background in it and knew the processes. I decided to open the store and wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing and had all the proper skills. It’s a really technical process and you need to know what you’re doing. You can’t just throw it together and hope it will work out. I went overseas and did a lot of study and I’m still studying today. You never stop learning no matter what you are doing. We have amazing mentors overseas who help us and teach us. We are constantly trying to learn and improve and better our skills in everything we do.”
What are the tricky bits to gelato making?
“It’s because we don’t make any pre-mixes or pastes or anything like that…when you use those sorts of products all the guesswork is taken out for you, so you can’t make a mistake because you are following a formula: here’s the mix and here’s what you add to it and here are the flavourings and you mix it up and put it in the gelato machine and out comes your gelato.”
“What we are doing is completely different. It’s about understanding the raw ingredients and balancing the sugars and the dry ingredients with the flavours we are adding. Flavours with natural sources like nuts, fruit, chocolate and eggs that give the gelato the flavour. The thing that is hard about it, is getting the balance right. That takes years and years and years of practice and years of study; lots of trial and error.”
It’s quite a science, isn’t it?
“Absolutely. If you have too much sugar, the gelato is really sweet, but it is also really soft. If you have too much water, it’s really hard. If you’re using seasonal fruits, the fructose level in fruit can change from batch to batch, season to season, so you need to know those sugar levels to be able to balance it out and get a consistent result every single time. Dealing with a natural product and a natural way of making gelato, it’s that consistency that’s challenging because it changes all the time. You’re not dealing with an industrialised product that has the guesswork taken out.”
Having had gelato as a passion growing up and making it with your Dad and now it’s your business, has that changed the way you now see making gelato?
“It’s totally different. You can never take away the memories from growing up. We have the Gelataria and we could take gelato at Christmas, but Dad still gets behind the machine and makes the gelato for Christmas and that’s his thing. It’s really cool.”
“Having the business hasn’t destroyed the passion but we’ve had to put in processes. It’s not the same as making it at home. You have to have that consistency. There’s not as much room for error. When you’re doing something on a much smaller scale, you don’t see the issues or mistakes because you’re making a litre and consuming a litre quickly. Whereas this is hundreds of litres and you can’t make mistakes, so even though it’s the same philosophy, we’ve had to be more technical about it and create the processes to make sure that it’s consistent across all our stores.There has to be consistency and the product has to be the best it can be. I definitely haven’t lost the passion, but it has shifted from a love of doing it at home – which is still there because I have the good memories – but now I’m passionate about the brand and making sure that the customer experience when they come into the store is really great. It’s not just about really good product, it’s about a really great environment to enjoy the gelatos.”
You always have really great music.
“That’s it; great music and seeing the kitchen…it’s about the whole picture now and not just about the gelato itself.”
“What we are doing is completely different...The thing that is hard about it is getting the balance right. That takes years and years and years of practice and years of study; lots of trial and error.”
You have a team of pastry chefs, don’t you? They would come with their own ideas and experience, but they would have to follow your process, wouldn’t they?
“Any gelataria has a set of flavours that don’t change. We’re always going to have pistachio and chocolate and strawberry. Our whole philosophy is traditional gelato that has been there for 100’s of years and it’s not going to change. We spend so much time on each individual flavour, we don’t want to change it and do something crazy with it. The pistachio is on the menu and it’s the best it can be.It’s special because of what we do to the ingredients to make it taste the way that it does. We don’t want to change it, so in terms of our recipes and those core flavours, there is no room to move and that’s what it is. We have studied for years to get it right for how we want to present it to the customer. That doesn’t change but there is definitely room for creativity in the rolling specials we have and in terms of ideas we have for gelato cakes, which is a big part of what we do. There’s a big patisserie element in the cakes. They have to have a lot of skill in that. We’re working towards an Australia Day special at the moment, so that’s really fun and all the chefs have been able to put their ideas in and we are doing testing at the moment.”
“There’s a lot of room for creativity but then there are also the core 18 flavours that don’t change.”
You have three stores now, so would St Kilda favour a certain flavour or genre preference compared to Hawthorn or Collingwood, for example.
“It’s funny, I think in Collingwood, we have a lot of people who really love vegan styles. We did a vegan takeover in Collingwood that went incredibly well. That was interesting. In summer, during the hot days we’ve already had, the sorbets have really flown out the door in St Kilda and the granita has been really successful there. Hawthorn just generally love everything. It really depends. It can depend on the weather as well. In summer the sorbets in all three stores, just fly out the door because we want those refreshing, fruity, light flavours.”
What flavour does your Dad make at Christmas?
“He is very traditional. He makes an egg-based, yellow based gelato using egg yolk, cream and milk. It’s a really traditional Italian flavour. He always makes rum and raisin and it is really the best. His strawberry is really good and the chocolate, orange…I love orange, so he always makes that for me. It’s a really nice thing that he has kept doing. Dad’s in charge of the gelato.”
And what does he think of your gelato?
“He loves it. He’s just super proud. My parents are in business. They’ve been in business forever and that is probably what has encouraged me and given me the guts to do this and really go for it in the way that I have. They have always been encouraging with anything we have wanted to do. They have always said, go for it, what’s the worst that could happen? Do the best that you can and have fun doing it.”
It’s a beautiful connection to have. It’s nice in this day and age to be reminded of tradition and to be reminded of family connection and that there is a place for that still. It’s really lovely.
“Mum and Dad and my siblings and family in general have been really supportive. I am always talking to them, especially Dad, about the business side of things, because he is a businessman at the end of the day. People think of this old Italian man making gelato, and it’s completely the opposite. I mean…he is, but he’s an incredible businessman and now I can really appreciate what he has to teach me. As I said, it has gone beyond the gelato; the business is so interesting and so motivating. To be able to have someone like Dad with all the experience he has, to be able to ring him and ask about an issue or a potential lease and ask him what he would do, how he would handle it. He is a great sounding board and I know he will give me the right advice because he has the runs on the board. It is so reassuring having that support.”
What’s your favourite flavour?
“It changes. I always go back to Better Than Nutella, as a chocolate fan. I’m a typical go-with-the-seasons person and I love all the watermelon flavours we have, the fruity flavours. When it’s hot I just want sorbet.”
That’s seasonal eating at its finest.
“Then I really love the specials as well. But I do always go back to the Nutella flavour. And I love coffee at the moment…coffee with our Nutella topping. It’s really yummy. So…pretty much everything really! You can’t really go wrong.”
Piccolina Gelateria is located at 802 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn