By GWEN OREL
Look for the guy with an Italian accent, and that would be the winner at The Gelato Festival.
That was how it used to be anyway, said Michael Guerriero, owner of Gelotti in Montclair, 571 Bloomfield Ave.
But this year Guerriero won the Most Pints Sold, Grand Prize, and entrance to the Gelato Festivals Champions Round in Miami. The winner of the Champions rounds will head to the Gelato Masters in Italy in 2021.
He will be the only American-born chef in Miami. It he wins there, he can compete in the Gelato World Masters in Italy in 2021.
The Gelato Festival, Guerriero explained, began in Italy eight years ago. The Festival invited chefs to compete, and the winner with the highest score becomes the gelato champion. The Gelato Festival is tied to the Sigep dessert and gelato show held in Rimini, Italy in January, he added.
“Really, it’s bragging rights. All the other chefs are Italians, brought up arguing with each other. We’re trying to put America on the map,” the gelato-maker said. Guerriro makes the gelato as well as owns the Caldwell and Montclair shops; Sal Sigona owns the Patterson Gelotti. Guerriero’s wife Breanna makes the cookies sold at Gelotti, and everything is made on site.
Guerriero, 27, won the Grand Prize with a flavor he invented: blueberry basil. It’s dairy-free.
Other flavors Guerriero invented include toasted marshmallow (yum) and Sal’s best chocolate (yum, yum).
Competing is important to Guerriero, who wants to put American gelato on the international map. This year alone, he’s won 23 awards.
And he loves being involved in the community: Mikie Sherrill based her Caldwell canvassing operations in the store, he said.
“And she flipped Caldwell for the very first time.”
Being associated with ice cream probably did not hurt.
Guerriero began working at Gelotti in Paterson as a teenager, and took the skills he learned studying business in college to expand the chain.
He helped design the logo and social media for the stores.
Two years ago, on his 25th birthday, he opened the Montclair store.
Gelotti doesn’t just serve gelato; it also offers soft-serve, sherbet and hard ice cream.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
Though the name Gelotti suggests gelato, it actually “means nothing. It’s a proper noun,” Guerriero said.
The name is derived from the name of an Italian store. Owner Sal Sigona saw the famous 19th century ice cream shop “Giolitti’s” on a visit to Rome. There was a line down the block at two in the morning, and Sigona loved the friendly atmosphere, Guerriero said. Later, when Sigona opened his own store in 1984, he wanted to give it that name. This was how he remembered it, Guerriero said. There was no internet for him to check the spelling.
“We started with the hard ice cream, then a customer said, ‘Where’s your gelato?’” Guerriero said with a laugh. And now the shop has been making it for more than 25 years.
Customer suggestions are easy to implement. “Because we make everything by hand, we can just go back there and start working on it,” he said.
Most of what they serve is naturally gluten-free. Guerriero is careful to separate items that are nut-free, and he offers sugar-free and dairy-free items too. The different ice creams are arranged together. “You’re going to come in with a family of nine people. Grandma might be a diabetic, mom may have celiac, dad may be watching his weight — we want to be a one stop shop, everyone can find something to eat, everyone can be happy, nobody has to feel weird or awkward.” The sugar-free offerings are made with stevia, and are also good for people on a keto diet.
The Gelato Festival challenge was to make a sorbet on site. Guerriero brought blueberries in jars and basil from his garden. “We ended up winning four awards that night. We sold the most pints,” he said. “We sold over 30. I think the record for the most pints that day was 16.”
Guerriero laughs at how blueberry basil caught on; other blueberry flavors had never sold well. New Jersey is the biggest producer of blueberries per capita of all the states, and he would see blueberries at the Farmers Market and wonder, “How can we use them?” He tried plain blueberry, blueberry with crumb. “None would ever sell. One day I was in my garden, in the summertime, and I grow basil, I grow all this stuff in my house, and I thought I have a whole bunch of extra basil left over, what if I bring it into the store and throw a little in, make it sexy? People will look at it and go ‘blueberry basil, what is that?’ So I did it, and it doesn’t really taste that much different from regular blueberry, there’s just a little hint of the fragrance, it’s really just blueberry, but now it’s a best-selling flavor. It makes no sense.
That’s kind of how all our flavors come to be.”
Pumpkinolli came about because he was making cannoli gelato, went to lunch, didn’t realize that the cannoli gelato was still in the machine and began pouring the pumpkin in.
So it was pumpkin on top of cannoli. He called Sigona and said he’d created a new flavor.
“All of a sudden it starts selling, and it’s the most annoying thing in the world,” Guerriero said, laughing, because now he has to repeat the mistake, and try to remember how he did it.
Customers come in to the stores and ask if it’s pumpkinolli season time yet, he said.
In contrast, he’s had competition flavors, such as “Persian Paradise,” that don’t sell. That flavor included rosewater, saffron, pistachios and honey, an “ode to the first ice cream,” he said. Nobody wanted to buy it, he said: “They’d rather have the mistake that they like.”
Pumpkin Pie was created to go with the pumpkin pie spice craze, and every year Gelotti has to move up its release as the pumpkin pie spice release comes earlier and earlier.
Interestingly, flavorwise, one of the reasons some of the gelato competitions now take place in the states is because Italian gelato-makers are interested in some of the American flavors, Guerriero explained. “They want to grow the market, and there’s a lot of things here that the Italians really love,” he said. “A couple years ago cookies and cream gelato was the biggest thing that hit Italy. It was like The Beatles all over again.” Strawberry cheesecake and red velvet were also huge, he said.
Italians are very conservative about change to their food, so being noted as an innovator is very special. And the way gelato is made at Gelotti is authentic, he said: “We want to pay homage to what the traditions are.”
That’s why it’s so meaningful for an American to have won.
“It’s going to break down a lot of barriers,” he said. “People are going to realize they’re going to have to work harder. We’re not a Manhattan shop, we’re not a fancy shop in L.A. We’re just a little tiny cookie-cutter ice cream shop in Paterson. And Montclair.”