I’m sitting looking into the tubs.
This is one of those foods, I’m thinking, where the visual representation has very little to do with the taste. In front of me is an ordinary looking mass of light brown gelato; a bit non-descript, really. Unenticing.
Except that I’ve just tasted it.
Which changes everything.
Gelato Messina’s Hazelnut.
Could this possibly be the best gelato in the world?
Originally opened in Sydney by Nick Palumbo in 2002 (which he now co-owns with Donato Toce, Declan Lee and Danny Palumbo), Gelato Messina was named after the Palumbo brothers’ place of heritage – Messina, Italy. Returning to Italy in his youth, Palumbo learned to make gelato, intrigued most of all by the science behind the process, particularly how you can take such pure ingredients and transform them into a completely different taste experience.
While Gelato Messina may have had rocky beginnings, suffice to say that in the past few years it has developed cult status for the purity of its flavours and the craziness of its cakes.
We’re in their first Queensland store, located on Marine Parade opposite Coolangatta Beach. To teach us a little about the family-owned business that has taken Australia by storm, one of Messina’s four partners, Executive Chef Donato Toce, fills us in on the details.
What started as a single store in Darlinghurst is now a family business of ten stores, Donato tells us. Yet, nothing is left to chance. About seven tons of product is shipped out from a central distribution point in Sydney each day in a liquid form to be finished in each store. This maintains consistency of product. As he talks, we taste flavours – small cupfuls of some of the brand’s most popular gelato.
We’re won over, first of all, by the purity of flavour. Taste is in fact the key to this iconic brand whose silky artisan gelato has taken Sydney and Melbourne by storm, with around forty signature flavours and 4,500 specials that rotate through the stores, five a week. Flavours include salted caramel and white chocolate, milk chocolate with choc peanut fudge, tiramisu, and pistachio, as well as a ‘specials board’ that includes six new flavours every week, each one handmade from sought out raw ingredients to its own unique recipe.
Then there’s the care and attention to detail – the fine-tuning. From the meticulous roasting and endless grind of DOP certified hand-picked pistachios from Piedmont in the foothills of Mt Etna, to the baking of their own apple pies for the apple pie gelato, or to the sweet smell of stewed spiced rhubarb, absolutely everything is made in-house. Most of the fruit is Australian grown; mangoes from the Northern Territory, and blood oranges from Griffith. By using real ingredients, there’s a full-bodied texture and flavour in the gelato. The dairy flavours have low fat content and the sorbets are completely fat free, dairy free and full of fruit.
And let’s not forget the temperature. Cooled down in stages to reach a core temperature of minus 20 degrees, the longevity of gelato (maintaining the gelato’s structure) is a complete balancing act between sugar content, temperature and longevity. There’s a lot of science in both the butter fat and sugar content and the temperature controlled process, the possibility of culinary disaster never far away.
Of course temperature has been an ongoing challenge in the group’s decision to open a Queensland store in collaboration with partner Oliver Findlay. Teething problems with power supply in the new building and fluctuating beachfront temperatures led to the loss of a day’s ice cream, a trial that could have easily dampened enthusiasm.
Not for this lot. Instead, they marked the launch with a new flavour: “COOL-in-GATTA” featuring mango sorbet swirled with vanilla gelato and macadamia crunch in celebration of the Queensland summer.
Donato and Ollie point across the road at the glistening surf, smile and express sentiments similar to Nick’s comments about the move north: “We’re overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We’ve been waiting for the perfect beachside location that complements our product and creates the ideal atmosphere for our customers and visitors; the perfect balance of chill, childishness and charm.”
No doubt Gelato Messina’s charming quirkiness is also a huge factor in their success. Best reflected in their sense of creative fun shown off in products (such as cakes and special event creations) as well as in their use of social media, their random concepts have driven the company to cult status. It’s gone beyond the personalised murals made especially for each store by Jeremyville and their crazy cakes we watch being made through the window beside us, to customer interaction and the fielding of ‘out of the box’ ideas.
Through social media, there’s ‘power to the people’, with customers regularly submitting suggestions for new flavours. And then there’s the guys’ random generation of marketing ideas, such as their ‘one off’ collaboration with Uber in capital cities – insanely manic! For one day only, new Uber users had a tub of Gelato Messina gelato of their choice delivered for free by using a promotion code.
They always bring something out of the box to corporate and event catering, such as 250,000 gelato-filled cookies, or their sundaes in a can to cater for the launch of Sydney’s Night Noodle Markets, which now sport an Asian ‘David Bao-wy’: a deep fried gua bao filled with salted coconut sorbet, dipped in chocolate mango ganache and rolled in crushed cashews and a ‘Maximum Wealth Bar’ – a gelato gold bullion bar, of course!
“For us the focus has always been on quality and innovation. We want to give our customers a complete experience. It’s not just about gelato or about a flavour they’ve never tried before. It’s the whole package… We try to do everything well so that when a customer leaves the store they feel a lot happier than when they walked in,” says Nick.
“We love what they do,” Donato tells us, his face shining with passion, “but we’re also trying to improve all the time. We read all the social media comments, and we look at every criticism and try to work out why and what to do about it. Our success is still amazing to us. The first time we saw a line-up of people outside a store, we didn’t believe it. We count it as a blessing every day.”
I look again at the unassuming tub of light brown product. With milk for the chocolate sourced from a specific region in Central Victoria (the recipe altered as needed to accommodate seasonal variation in the milk), and hazelnuts from the same region of Italy that Ferrero buy theirs, there’s so much care and attention given to this hazelnut gelato, pumped full of white chocolate, hazelnut fudge, milk choc chips and cream filled wafers, that it was bound to succeed. It couldn’t but!
No wonder it’s crazy delicious! Lick your way to heaven!
Shop 33 The Strand, 72 – 80 Marine Parade, Coolangatta Ph: 07 5536 5488
Open daily 11am – 9pm/9.30pm Fri, Sat