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Among shelves of Thermomix machines, containers of molecular thickeners and other trappings of modern cookery stands Carla Palumbo, known around here as “Nonna Carla”. The white sleeves of her chef jacket are spattered with dots of red as she stirs a giant pot of pasta sauce.

Meatballs surface and vanish into the sauce again. Palumbo rolled each one with her own hands this morning. Behind her, more than two dozen cooks tinker in the vast Gelato Messina kitchen, busying themselves around large milk vats, industrial-sized ovens and commercial packaging machines.

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Twice a week, Palumbo – who was born in the town of Messina on Sicily’s eastern coast in the 1940s, and who emigrated to Adelaide in 1968 – spends the day cooking a Sicilian lunch for the 35-person team.

Today it’s a gigantic batch of her beloved polpette al sugo (meatballs with sauce).

“Messina is the first town in Sicily if you come from the mainland,” Carla says of her birthplace as she continues to stir. “If you stand in Reggio Calabria at night and look toward Sicily, the twinkling lights you see are Messina.”

Gelato Messina – owned by Palumbo’s sons Nick and Danny, plus Donato Toce and Declan Lee – is a nod to the town. Everything found in its famously complex ice-creams, gelatos and cakes is made from scratch. The Messina team pasteurises milk from its own Jersey cows, makes its own dulce de leche, and bakes all the cakes, brownies, doughnuts and other confections that appear in gelato as weekly specials.

Despite the rarity of traditional Sicilian ingredients in 1960s Adelaide, Nonna Carla’s kitchen was often filled with the flavours of her childhood: pasta with broccoli, ragu-filled arancini and homemade strawberry gelato – gelato alla Messina.

In the next room, as if on cue, staff members lift a box of strawberries from the Messina farm onto the bench and begin to trim them, ready to be used in strawberry gelato. They cast frequent glances through the window, checking on the progress of Nonna Carla’s meal.

When finally the trays of dressed pasta, meatballs, sausages and involtini are arranged across the benchtop, a queue forms instantly.

Plates are filled to a soundtrack of murmured excitement and carried to the front of the building, where milk crates are arranged around makeshift tables. The team chats warmly as they devour their pasta in the sunshine, three young cooks hurriedly standing and offering their crate to Carla as she ambles outside.

She insists they keep their seats and watches as they eat. A customer wanders out of the shop and past the matriarch, holding a cup of strawberry gelato.

Above them the twinkling light globes spell out “Messina”.

Polpette al sugo
Recipe by Carla Palumbo of Gelato Messina

Serves 6
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours


½ cup full-cream milk
3 slices white bread
500g minced pork and veal
50g dry breadcrumbs
2 eggs
150g grated parmesan
1 sprig chopped parsley
1 tsp fennel seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for shallow frying (regular, not extra virgin, works best)

1 small brown or white onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
¼ cup red wine
750ml passata
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
1 sprig basil, chopped

500g dried rigatoni or other pasta
Grated parmesan to serve

In a large bowl, soak the bread in the milk. Add the mince, eggs, parmesan, parsley, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly by hand, roll into 3cm balls and leave to rest while you make the sauce.

For the sauce, place a large pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and onion and fry until soft. Add the tomato paste and red wine. Simmer until the alcohol evaporates. Add the passata and simmer gently on a low heat for 1–1.5 hours. Add salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Add the basil and remove from the heat.

Just before the sauce is ready, shallow-fry the meatballs in batches until brown and crisp. Drain on paper towel.

Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water. Combine the cooked pasta and sauce. Top with the meatballs and parmesan and serve.

This story originally appeared in Sydney print issue 28, titled "Staff Meal with Gelato Messina".