Mattia Cavalleri is the proprietor of Cremeria Santo Stefano in Bologna. It is one of the finest gelato shops in a city known for gelato of exceptional quality. I first learned of Mattia from my friend Andrea Chierici, who operates the food tour company Taste Bologna, and he was instrumental in setting up this interview as well.
In the conversation Mattia and I talk about how to make gelato well, why panettone needs 72 hours to produce, and how Bologna has been changing in the last few years.
Justin Naylor: I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t immediately fall in love with Italian gelato. What makes gelato so special?
Mattia Cavalleri: The foundation is ingredients of the highest quality. You need to choose fresh milk every day and pistachios, for example, of the highest quality. And the recipe is very important: the art of balancing temperature, fat, sugar. Gelato is very simple but very hard to make well.
JN: Even in Italy, not all gelato is of equal quality. What separates better from worse gelato in Italy?
MC: First we need to distinguish between industrial gelato and artisan gelato. Even with artisan gelato, however, there is a difference. One type starts from raw materials and makes gelato daily. Every flavor every day from raw materials. So if I make pistachio, I make it with real pistachios. Others prepare it weekly. Pistachio on Monday. Custard on Tuesday. And then we have the industrial gelato. They start from industrial preparations. So not fresh milk, but maybe powdered milk, and so on.
JN: Bologna is much better for gelato than tourist cities like Rome, Venice, or Florence. Are there industrial producers even in Bologna?
MC: Yes, chains like Venchi and Grom.
JN: What shortcuts are they taking?
MC: Quick production processes. Short shelf life. The same as for panettone. They make it now [in November] to sell at Christmas. The big industries produce it in summer to sell for Christmas and the sell-by date is maybe March! So this means more preservatives, and so on.
JN: What sorts of ingredients would I find in industrial gelato that might surprise me?
MC: Palm oil, monoglycerides, artificial colors, and so on.
JN: You see the fake color especially in pistachio, right?
MC: Yes. Real pistachio is a brownish green, not a bright neon green. Real mint gelato is white, not green.
JN: What about thickeners, such as carob flour? What else belongs in gelato besides cream, milk, sugar, and eggs?
MC: Definitely carob flour is a good natural addition.
JN: For texture, creaminess?
JN: Do you use it?
JN: What about a little bit of powdered milk, also to increase creaminess?
MC: Yes, it’s OK.
JN: One last technical question. In Rome there’s a famous natural gelateria called Fatamorgana.
MC: Yes, I know the owner.
JN: When they list their ingredients I never see carob flour, or powdered milk. It’s wonderful, but it’s not as creamy. It’s a bit icier. Yours seems creamier to me.
MC: Yes, Maria doesn’t use thickeners of any kind, which is a very good choice. However, for me a creamier gelato is better.
JN: When someone wants to learn to make gelato in Italy, how do they learn? In school? By apprenticeship?
MC: In Bologna we have the most famous school for gelato in Italy, called Carpigiani. If you go to a school in a company that produces ingredients for gelato, they teach you how to make gelato using their ingredients. Carpigiani doesn’t produce ingredients but machines, so they’re less pushy on the ingredient list. In a good school, they give you a base. But then you need masters, good tasters, to help you improve. Carpigiani is like middle school. But then you need high school and then college!
JN: So if someone wanted to learn to make gelato, would you recommend they go to that sort of school?
MC: For a total beginner, school is necessary. But then practice with a master.
JN: And that’s how you learned?
MC: Yes. School at Carpigiani. And then I learned through my passion, not directly from a master. There’s a continuous evolution and improvement of the techniques, of the balancing. What we eat isn’t the same thing that we made even six months ago. We’re always looking for new ingredients and new processes as well.
JN: Not only is your gelato of the very best quality, but your shop is the most beautiful gelato shop I’ve ever been in. Why have you decided to make your gelateria so beautiful?
MC: Thank you. Everything comes from passion. My mother has a passion and has worked with antiquities and loves the Provençal style. Her furniture at home follows the same style. The house and the shop look alike! When you work in a place that reflects your style and passion, it’s easier and more enjoyable to do the work.
JN: When did the shop open?
JN: Are your parents involved in the production?
MC: My father, yes. He and I take care of the production and my mother takes care of the furniture, the style of the shop, and the packaging.
JN: How important is the type of machine for making quality gelato?
MC: There are two types of machines. The older type that we use requires the person making the gelato to determine when it is ready. Our machines are 35 years old. The newer type of machine automatically stops when it determines the gelato is ready. The older machine requires more judgment and observation.
JN: What is the correct temperature for storing and serving gelato?
MC: About -12 degrees Celsius [10 degrees Fahrenheit].
JN: That’s really important because in the US, ice cream is stored at well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and so it’s rock hard and too cold. The flavors are blunted. In what other countries have you tasted gelato?
MC: I have visited many places for gelato in other countries, but none that’s worth remembering!
JN: What’s wrong with it?
MC: The texture is wrong, not smooth. The flavor is not fresh.
JN: In Italy, unlike the US, there’s a separation between gelato and sorbetto. Gelato is made with milk and sugar, and sorbetto with water and sugar. And in Italy, unlike the US, fruits are almost always made into sorbetti, rather than gelati. Why is this?
MC: Actually some do make gelato with fruit, but it is less common. It’s a choice of the artisan. In hot Italian summers, you are more likely to appreciate a sorbet with fruit instead of gelato with milk. This is the origin of the difference.
JN: What about eggs? Some gelato flavors in Italy are made with eggs to make it technically a custard. Other gelato flavors, like the famous fior di latte, are made without eggs. Why do some producers use eggs in some flavors and not others?
MC: Eggs produce more creaminess, which in some flavors is desirable, such as chocolate.
JN: Does most gelato contain eggs?
MC: About half and half, more or less.
JN: In your gelateria, how do you choose flavors? You have classics, of course, like fior di latte, nocciola, and pistachio, but you also have very interesting flavors unique to this shop, for example Speculoos.
MC: For Speculoos, I was inspired when I was traveling recently in France. I was given a coffee with Speculoos cookies, and I thought Why don’t we recreate it? First we had to learn to make the Speculoos cookies, and then the ice cream flavor. Another flavor, which we just finished, was inspired by a trip my parents took to Sicily. They met a pastry artisan who prepared a gelato with saffron, lemon, and almond. My parents asked permission to recreate that flavor here, and although we balanced the flavors differently, that was the inspiration.
JN: Speaking of Speculoos, a Bolognese acquaintance of mine made fun of me recently for ordering it. She said it was a flavor for girls!
MC: [Laughter] No, it’s not true! There’s no taste for women or men.
JN: Have you traveled much throughout Italy? Do you find good gelato to vary much from region to region?
MC: For me, in some places like Sicily it is sweeter, certainly. In some places, it is more creamy and smooth, in other places less so.
JN: Why is it sweeter in Sicily?
MC: Everything is sweeter in Sicily!
JN: How about other cities?
MC: In Rome, for example, at Fatamorgana as we mentioned, the gelato is less creamy.
JN: Which isn’t wrong… it’s just a different style.
MC: Exactly. It’s a preference of the artisan. Even in Bologna there is variety. Some places it is more creamy and smooth and gentle. Other places it is stronger.
JN: What are two or three gelaterie in Bologna that you really respect and that I should try?
MC: Galliera 49, just in front of Forno Brisa on Via Galliera. Also Sorbetteria Castiglione.
JN: How about Oggi, near Mercato dell’Herbe? They have interesting flavors and they also have the vertical, manual machines that you do.
MC: I’ve never been, but I will go.
JN: Besides gelato, what other products do you and your family make here and what would you like people to know about them?
MC: We also make chocolates, little chocolates, but only from October to Easter.
JN: It’s too hot in the summer?
JN: Too hot to eat or too hot to make?
JN: Tell me about how the chocolate making you do is different from others.
MC: The difference is that our production is very small. We touch every chocolate, every single praline.
JN: For someone who is reading this who would like to make chocolates, or for someone who’s reading it who would like to improve the quality of their product, what are some of the most important factors to consider in making chocolates?
MC: The same as with gelato. The same as with everything! The quality of raw materials, and the balancing of the ingredients through good taste and judgment. And the freshness of everything.
JN: You also make panettone. Most Americans don’t know anything about panettone. What should Americans know about it and how is yours different?
MC: It’s very complicated! It’s one of the most complicated products of the pastry shop.
JN: It’s for Christmas, no?
MC: Yes. It takes three days to make panettone from beginning to end. We use only natural fermentation, no commercial yeast or beer yeast. The fermentation must be very slow. Industrial panettone is made in one day.
JN: Is fermentation slow because you put it in a cold place or because you feed it with just a little bit of starter?
MC: It’s low temperature and the quantity of the mother culture.
JN: How do you know that panettone is good? What about the flavor or texture makes it superior?
MC: You cut it in half and smell it! Every time we bake, we test one panettone for quality.
JN: What should it smell like?
MC: The perfume of vanilla, flour, sugar, honey, candied fruits.
JN: And when you eat it?
MC: It absolutely ought to be moist, not dry. Good panettone should remain moist like this for a long time, 25 days.
JN: And this is because of the mother starter?
MC: Yes, along with the quality of ingredients and the cooking. Sixty percent of the quality of the final result is given by the cooking. It took us two years of practice and testing to get it right.
JN: Did you grow up in Bologna?
JN: You’re a relatively young man, but you’ve seen Bologna change quite a bit in your life, I imagine. I’m told by my friends who live here that especially in the last five yars, the rate of change is accelerating and Bologna is becoming a tourist destination.
MC: Absolutely. At the moment the change is positive. For now. The risk is that the quality level goes down as tourism increases. We’ll see how the city reacts. I hope that the focus isn’t just on food. The food of Bologna is important, but there is so much more. Maybe not so much as in Florence or Venice or Rome, but still very much to enjoy here in Bologna besides food.
JN: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to include?
MC: One thing I’d like your readers to know is that the main thing is the passion and the heart you put into what you do. This is main difference between industrial and artisan: that you take the will and effort to do things at the best level you can. The steady study. We never say that’s there’s 72 hours of work behind the panettone or that we went to bed at 5 in the morning. We never say these things, but that’s what makes the quality of our products high. On our day off we spend time thinking about and trying new flavors and new products. We’re studying marmalades. We’re studying brioche with ice cream. We remain curious. We try new things. I hope that my customers and your readers will feel the passion and heart that is the main ingredient in the gelato and other products we make.
JN: That’s wonderful, and I can’t think of a more fitting place to end. Thanks so much for all you do. Of all the gelaterie I know, yours is truly my favorite in all of Italy.
MC: Thank you.