Cold Comfort (June 24, 2010)
by William R. Snyder
Used with permission from the Wall Street Journal, magazine.wsj.com/gatherer/the-specialist/cold-comfort/
It's just after sunrise at Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and Jon Snyder, guru gelato maker, is ready to start sampling his merchandise: a character-filled list that stretches to more than 200 flavors, including rose petal and cheddar cheese. Snyder has the aw-shucks persona of a 1950s sitcom character, but brewing underneath is an obsessive savant only too willing to concoct serrano pepper or avocado gelati alongside his wholesome chocolate variety.
He may cut a solitary figure tasting his gelati in the predawn hours, but Snyder's not alone in his experimental leanings. He is part of a loose network of sweet-tooth artisans that includes industry luminaries like Heather Bertinetti, the executive pastry chef at Alto, Convivio and Marea restaurants in New York City. Of late, they've taken the traditionalist's approach to making quality Italian ice cream and mixed it with fringe ingredients. Bertinetti recently whipped up a golden-beet gelato, while Snyder's been cultivating a blue cheese. Bertinetti sums up their dictum: "If it can be puréed, it can be made into a gelato flavor."
Snyder, who makes all 200-plus flavors from memory and feel, drags a small plastic spoon across a tub of ivory-white gelato. "You always have to start with vanilla," he offers. "It's an American flavor, not something you see in Europe much. And it's straightforward—this makes it perfect for gauging the consistency and texture of a gelato, the two most important factors for quality."
Snyder starts every workday by 5 a.m. On this particular morning, condensation streaks the windows while he reduces a six-pack of Guinness for a beer-infused gelato. Once the Guinness has been converted to syrup, he pours it into a stainless-steel Carpigiani ice-cream machine, along with a full pour of his milk base. The machine (new models of which cost more than $25,000) kicks into gear and starts to whir comfortingly. It takes 15 minutes before seven gallons will be ready to ship.
Moving to a lighter, floral flavor, Snyder offers me a small scoop of honey-lavender gelato. The flower's ethereal potency is lightened with the honey's sweetness and carries across the tongue with the cream. It's like eating a flower cloud.
As implied in the name, Snyder's store is as much a laboratory as it is a factory. Part of his cachet is soliciting ideas from chefs and then crafting them into frozen desserts. (The Guinness gelato was the result of a chef at a gourmet Irish eatery approaching him to create a beer ice cream.) Marc Meyer, chef and part-owner of the New York restaurants Cookshop, Hundred Acres and Five Points, is a believer in Snyder's stock. "Right away you can tell that Jon's gelato is a step above," Meyer says. "And it's not because of gimmicky, absurdist flavors. It's the playfulness and purity."
A sample of Snyder's famed olive-oil gelato coats the tongue, and the combination of vegetable and animal fats opens up the taste buds, allowing them to better absorb the base's sugar. Savory varieties are where innovators like Snyder and Bertinetti can more successfully play with the avant-garde. They're also a chance to move gelati and sorbet off the dessert menu and onto dinner plates as intermezzos or starters. "I made a tomato sorbet that was served on an olive-oil cake," Bertinetti says.
Herbs are also a popular addition. "Chocolate is great with anything, but I found it paired really well with thyme," Bertinetti says. And Snyder regularly makes both rosemary and basil gelati.
Snyder ceremoniously hands me a spoonful of dark-chocolate gelato. It's his favorite and he's had success expanding the chocolate core by adding spices, like paprika or chili peppers. The chocolate flavor is deep and energizes the senses, with the cocoa scent wafting up from the spoon, stimulating the nose as much as the mouth.
Not all gelato makers are enamored with exotic flavors. Francesco Realmuto, a Sicilian native who quit the diamond-cutting business six years ago to spawn a minichain called L'Arte del Gelato in New York, thinks gelato should stay true to its ancestry. For him, great gelato comes in Sicilian style, which means less cream, producing an icier product. His native province is revered as the bellwether for frozen milk. "We can't dilute the region's influence on process and taste," Realmuto says. He'll occasionally experiment, but for him peanut butter is an extreme flavor. "I don't think we should get too far from tradition."
The labor and quality Snyder and Realmuto invest in each tub allows them to command top-shelf prices. Containers of Snyder's chef d'oeuvre sell for about $8.25 for 18 ounces. Realmuto charges $19 per quart. "It's no secret how to make a great gelato, but to do it right costs a lot of money," he says.
Ice cream's origins are a bit murky. Though it's widely accepted that the Chinese invented the process, the Italians perfected it roughly a century after the Renaissance. (Romans had flavored alpine snow but didn't actually conduct the physical reaction of freezing dairy.)
In his "Lo scalco alla moderna" ("The Modern Steward"), published around 1692, Antonio Latini gives one of the first documented recipes for cooked milk sorbet, considered a variant on modern ice cream. When ice-cream making reached France, egg yolks were added (which is what still defines French-style ice cream).
In July, Snyder will open a 3,000-square-foot factory and cafe across from New York's famous Katz's Deli. But that's as far as he'll expand. His brother wanted to franchise an operation in Las Vegas, but Snyder refused. "There's still bad blood in the family because of it," he says.
Snyder is willing to convert almost any food item into a masterful, single-flavor gelato (he used bacon last year), but there is one he flat-out rejected: caviar. "I don't think anyone wants fish churning around in my machines.