Gelato Messina is the kind of dessert that inspires even the most defiant “I’m not an ice-cream person” to stand desperately in a long line-up on a freezing street to sample a scoop.
With its revolving cabinet of ever more creative and surprising flavours like pumpkin and ginger or peach trifle, as well as 34 permanent flavours, owner Nick Palumbo says they are about to concoct their 1000th flavour.
“When I started in 2002 my driving ambition was to get people to understand that gelato wasn’t this icy hard fake colouring and flavouring; gelato was never meant to be that way,” Mr Palumbo told The New Daily.
From origins as simple as coconut and lychee gelato, the Messina cult is rapidly expanding in Australia with a Melbourne store opening this month to astonishing success.
But owner Nick Palumbo is now setting his sights overseas, also opening in China this year and plans for New York and London.
“We aren’t a franchise, we won’t open 300 stores, but maybe 15-20, so where we do see ourselves are in markets that are kind of interesting so in Williamsburg in New York, and London – where we should be in 2015.”
In 2002 Mr Palumbo started Messina in Sydney, expanding into three stores and this year opening in China and Fitzroy, Melbourne.
The further expansion is only being held back by production capacity, with this set to move into a larger factory in October next year. Mr Palumbo said this will be followed by immediate expansion in Sydney before plans to open New York and London stores.
The day before it opened in Melbourne, TV personality Hamish Blake knocked on the door and charmed his way in to buy the store’s first scoops of gelato for his wife Zoe Foster. Her reaction was euphoric.
With just over a week in Victoria, Mr Palumbo is “rapt” with the recent expansion of Gelato Messina, which is named after his home-town in Italy.
The Fitzroy store, biggest in size, has seen lines stretching down Smith Street, making it, for the moment, also the biggest in turnover with the specials consistently selling out.
“We knew we had a bit of a profile in Melbourne but we got a bit caught off guard,” Mr Palumbo said. “We are just so rapt.”
So far, it seems Mr Palumbo’s quest to change the perception of gelato around Australia is working, giving him a cult status that rises above the usual ice cream fans.
“I think gelato is more acceptable now. We’ve managed to convince people who go out and eat and not to have dessert, to come see us,” he said.
To coincide with the new Melbourne store opening, Gelato Messina has also released a colourful book full of recipes commissioned by Hardie Grant.
The book focuses on the 34 regular flavours and a few specials.
But before worrying about the recipes being a little too technical, Mr Palumbo’s greatest fear is that it doesn’t have enough science.
“There’s so much more information [that could have gone in] but then it would have been more of a polarising text book as opposed to a fun cook book.”
Written for the regular at home cook, Mr Palumbo has kept his signature food science to “the bare minimum”, explaining the different approach to gelato using entirely fresh ingredients.
For example, one gelato chef said to make choc mint he spends time hand crushing the mint before turning it into a gelato – leaving his hands smelling minty fresh for days.
While the apple pie flavour contains real apple pies baked on the premises.
For those fans of foodie science, there’s still hope on the publishing horizon with Mr Palumbo saying he would love to write a “text book” outlining the science-based approach to his gelato.
This has spawned the gelato cakes which include the infamous Dr Evil’s Magic Mushroom and the Black Forest which recently featured on Master Chef, as well as intricate “monoporziones”.
It’s these cakes which have attracted talented chefs, including one from rival patisserie Zumbo, with Mr Palumbo teaching them to use their pastry skills at minus 15 degrees.
“What that allowed was for the first time to employ chefs to join us to do some interesting things, because pastry chefs of that calibre gelato making only goes so far, a month and then now its like what do I do next.”
Unfortunately an expansion of Sydney’s monoporzione store is not on the cards. It will remain the creative heart of the business, but is not affordable to roll out everywhere.
In the gelato laboratory the chefs also create new flavours every week like pumpkin and ginger and a dessert risotto flavour.
“Rice is the hardest thing to get right because it just wants to go rock hard, so its finding the right cooking, the right amount of sugar to keep it nice and soft.”
There’s just one ingredient they haven’t managed to turn soft and creamy.
“We still haven’t worked out how to keep sago nice and soft and spongy in a minus 15 degree environment,” Mr Palumbo said.
“We come to it we give it a go, then we give up, then we come back to it three months later give it a go, then give up – sago is one of the last things we’ve got left to find out how to make soft in the cabinet.”
But, like London and New York, one feels it’s only a matter of time before Mr Palumbo has sago in his freezer.
Gelato Messina: The Recipes is out now.