May 2012. I’m in Pasticceria Dulcissima, talking to Maurizio and Silvana, the owners. He’s in the airforce and speaks excellent English. The shop is her dream. Se c’è amore, c’è sapore is the motto: If there’s love, there’s flavour. She makes the ice-creams by hand every day, measuring and balancing all the individual ingredients. The tastes can change every time she makes them, apparently, according to the weather, the ambient temperature, or just how well she balances her measurements.
Silvana fills up a coppetta with granita and hands it over. A little girl appears from the kitchen. “What are you doing?” Silvana answers her with literal honesty. “I’m filling up a cup with granita for the signora.” She hands it over the counter and I taste it. I’ve gone for mandorla flavour. You only have to look at it to see that it’s made with real, chopped almonds rather than just almond milk. The colour isn’t as brilliant white as others that you can find, and the texture is chunkier. Taste-wise, the sweetness of the sugar comes through more as well, not overpowering but complementing the almonds. This is proper, artisan granita. I smile at Silvana and tell her it’s good. *Really* good. She beams back. “I make it fresh every day.”
As I pay, Silvana asks if I’m English. Not, ‘where are you from?’, but ‘are you English?’ I tell her I am. Her face lights up and Claudia, the chubby-faced little girl at her side, looks up with interest. Silvana starts to talk about her dream of opening an artisan gelato shop in London. Do I think there’s a market for it? How easy would it be? I don’t know anything about the business side of things, but I agree that the English would probably go for good gelato. Is London the right place, though? Maybe a smaller city? Silvana bounces ideas around while I eat my granita and act as a sounding board.
There’s a loud alarm going in the back of the shop, and a smell of baked goods wafts out. Silvana calls to Maurizio, who’s on the phone outside. He makes as if to come and turn off the oven, but Silvana waves that aside. “She’s English! Come and talk to her!” She turns back to me to explain herself. “I speak only a little English, but my husband is very good. Sit down! Make yourself comfortable!” She ushers me to a seat at the side of the tiny shop, and disappears out back.
Maurizio comes in and introduces himself. “We can talk in English if it’s easier …?” I tell him I’d rather practise my Italian. At first he’s not very forthcoming. The shop is Silvana’s dream and, although he’s proud of what she does, he’s also reticent. He looks at the difficulties. 25 years in the airforce have given him strength but also caution. He talks about their two grown-up sons. One is a photographer, who’s recently finished his training in Florence and has now moved to Newport. When I talk about growing up near Bristol his barriers start to come down. Bristol would be close to the son, and would give them the smaller city feel that he seems to prefer. Would people buy the gelato, though? And how much would they pay? He wants to nail down the practicalities before committing to anything. I wish I could help more in terms of facts and figures, but I haven’t lived in the UK for three years. He nods in understanding.
“What’s Bristol like? How many days of rain are there a year?” Maurizio’s eyes crinkle in amusement behind his glasses. “Is it by the sea? That’s good. She doesn’t like too much sun. The weather’s better here than in England, but the people …” he pulls a face. “And we’re Sicilian.” He glances sideways at me. “We’re not from Catania, though. We’re from Trapani, on the west coast. Have you been? Where did you go? By the sea? Ah yes.” He nods and smiles. “Did you eat the couscous? She makes it for us every Christmas, with lots of garlic and fish. She can cook anything. I’ve been a pilot for 25 years but she can get a job far easier than I can. Tavola calda, gelato, granita – she can do it all.”
“She trained with an old traditional gelato maker here in Catania,” Maurizio continues. “Maestro Luca Cavaziel. He doesn’t take students any more. He’s 87. It’s a precision thing.” He pinches his forefingers to his thumbs and mimes tiny balances with his fingers. “She uses this -” he grabs a miniature calculator from behind the till and laughs. “It changes every day.” When I praise the idea of having only a few, really good flavours versus 50 not-so-good ones, he shrugs. “It’s expensive. It’s good, but it’s expensive. Here the price of gelato is about €30 per kilo. Elsewhere in Catania it’s about €14 or €15. In Florence it goes up to €35, but you’re paying for being in that city.” It seems that profit margins are a big stumbling block.
Claudia, who’s been hanging about while I talk to who I’d assumed were her parents, suddenly flies out from behind the counter. “Papà!” She flings her arms around the man who’s just come into the shop. Apparently Maurizio and Silvana are just babysitters for the morning. Her father leaves again and she returns to her place at Maurizio’s side, behind the counter. “My daddy’s happy,” she informs us.
Update: I wrote this piece over two years ago, but didn’t get round to publishing it at the time. I did, however, review Dulcissima’s granita in a post for Travel Belles.
Fastforward to the present day. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Davide, who’s the photographer son in Newport mentioned in the story, and who’s now back in Catania working on the website and social media side of things for Dulcissima. He asked whether I’d be interested in collaborating on some posts wherein he provides the pictures and I write the words. I said yes. So, in due course, there’s going to be more about Dulcissima’s excellent cakes and biscuits over on my food blog. For now, however, this has been a little slice of those future posts’ history.
Photo of Silvana Ballistreri and Maestro Cavaziel © Davide Cosenza. Used with permission.