Gelato
Burlington County Times - July 30th, 2003
The first time I tried gelato was not in Italy. It was in Germany, where as an exchange student I enrolled in a German language class. It became a weekly tradition among the students to get gelato afterwards, rain or shine. We would sit licking our scoops, a cacophony of different nationalities, and speak to one another in broken German.

One of my favorite flavors was stracciatella - or chocolate chip - and I suppose, looking back, that I was trying to replicate abroad my favorite ice cream at home.

Ice cream, of course, is comfort food. I imagine the Italians have a similar relationship to gelato.

I've come to love gelato, not as a substitute for ice cream, but because of its differences. There's a simplicity and intensity to this dessert that makes it sublime. The point of gelato is to concentrate a flavor to its essence, so that a peach gelato, for example, tastes more like a peach than the real thing.

Less air is whipped into gelato, so it's more compact than its American cousin. Althogh it's denser, gelato is also lighter in fat because it contains less cream and more milk.

Though the Philadelphia area is laden with Italian influences, good gelato is not at every corner.

Perhaps it's because people in this town have followed their own inventions, like Philadelphia-style ice cream, which has a non-custard base consisting entirely of cream and sugar.
There's also a popular gelato knock-off in the area called "gelati" (a mixture of the ever-popular water ice and ice cream), which is enjoyable on a hot summer day but shouldn't be confused with the several hundred year-old Italian dessert.
Indeed, it's possible to get downright slop that harbors the gelato name. (I'm sure that's true everywhere.) I drove into South Philadelphia one early evening on a tip that an Italian bakery had good imported gelato and instead came across a gritty, homemade mess.

So it was with understated pleasure that I discovered a new artisan gelato cafe on the corner of Sansom and South 13th Street. Capogiro serves an impressive ever-changing array of 27 flavors, homemade fresh daily. Walk in, and you'll never know what will be in the case.

Some of the flavors are classic Italian, such as cappuccino and fior di latte, a base flavor. Other flavors are pure inspiration with an American heartbeat, such as blueberry thyme and spicy peanut, with tastes just like boiled Georgia peanuts.

The gelato isn't cheap. You pay $4.25 for a small cup, up to two flavors, $5.50 for a medium, up to three flavors, and $6.75 for a large, up to four flavors.

Rationalize it this way. What you get at Capogiro is a small piece of paradise in a cup.

It's hard to decide what my favorite flavor is. The lavender gelato was near the top, with its overwhelming floral aroma and real pieces of lavender within that lent a grassy taste.

The impeccably smooth mango gelato was so simple and intense, better even than the real fruit, in which you have to contend with fibrous strings.

Another delicious flavor is the zenzero, or ginger, which sings of the spicy, refreshing taste of ginger.

I can name only one flavor that didn't delight me - figs with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar. It was too sour and the figs didn't take well to the freeze, but the cafe should get points for inventiveness.

Stephanie and Italian-born John Reitano opened Capogiro in December (of all months) with no prior experience in the gelato industry other than being consumers. It's impressive how they've managed to replicate the Italian dessert with such clarity.

Stephanie remembers gelato as the second purchase she made on her first trip to Italy (the first being coffee). They were on Capri, a small island off Naples and the "sexiest place on the planet," Stephanie said.

"John's mom was like, 'The first thing you get in Italy is a gelato.'"

They did, but it was years before the couple dove into the business of making Philadelphia couples just as happy. In the meantime, Stephanie was a stay-at-home mom of three kids and John was a physician.

She was looking for a career, he was looking for a change. They took a chance.

Stephanie started by using an Italian tabletop gelato machine in her house and pulled recipes off Italian web sites. The couple went to Italy several times to consult with Italian gelato makers on technique.

Then, with as much ingenuity as she used to start a children's clothing line from scratch after teaching herself how to sew, Stephanie plunged into the gelato business.

Why gelato?

"Because we need it here," said John, who believes this delectable dessert will gain in popularity in America just as cappuccino and other Italian specialty foods have.
They guard the downstairs kitchen from the eyes of prying strangers, even though making gelato is no real secret. Their gelato has only three basic ingredients - milk, cream and sugar.
The process of getting that dense, smooth, consistent texture, and the flavoring, is an art.

No one is allowed to take tours, and the kitchen staff signs confidentiality agreements.

"There's no magic potion. No vials," said Gilda Doganiero, the owner of Gilda's Biscotti, who's becoming a partner at Capogiro.

"But Stephanie and John have gone through this great effort of time and persistence to figure out the sequence (to gelato making)."

One thing the Reitanos can say is that quality ingredients make a big difference. They buy most of the non-tropical fruits and hormone-free milk from local farms, such as Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, PA.

Buying local has cachet among a certain base of consumers, but practicality is the real motivating force behind the decision.

"We'll take those (political correctness) points," John said. "But it's about the quality of the product."

The result is a product they believe can be enjoyed year round, with flavors changing with the seasons. Right now, Capogiro is into the summer fruits, like watermelon and pesche con panna (peach). Come back in the winter and you might find darker, nutty flavors like chestnut and walnut.

Year round, the cafe also serves pastries and tarts from Le Bec Fin and Miel.

On a more savory note, they also have light snacks such as Italian-style baguette sandwiches ($6), paired superbly with a bottle of chilled chinotto ($1.75).

The cafe is open in the morning for coffee drinks.

The business has expanded to serve 14 restaurants in the city, and there's talk about opening another shop.

"Capogiro" in Italian literally means "head turn" for something that's unusually perfect - usually in reference to women or cars, Stephanie said. Here, of course, the word refers to the gelato.

"Every Italian we tell gets a big smile and laughs," Stephanie said.

- Alison Hawkes
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