Have you ever heard the fairytale about the girl who was proposed to in Gelato Messina? Her name was Monique and as a regular, she’d often joked with the guys behind the counter about them making a banoffee pie flavour and naming it ‘Monoffee Pie’ (which they later did). Well, as the story goes, one night, her beau took her in for ice cream after dinner and ushered her over to the cabinet to suggest a flavour. She looked down only to find that the label read: “Monoffee Pie, will you marry me?” A sweet, dream proposal. And the Monoffee Pie flavour is still a hit today.
A long way from plain old vanilla, this is just one of many of the adventurous flavours that the Gelato Messina boys create in their magical lab. Gone are the days of the pink, white and brown of Neapolitan; now cones and cups are filled with creamy flavours that are at once sweet, salty, sour and even spicy. They are sometimes lumpy and gritty and other times soft and smooth, but almost always an exciting flavour bomb in each scoop.
Taking a seat in front of the cabinet to chat with part owner Declan Lee and his head gelato chef Donato Toce, it soon becomes apparent that nothing about these chilled masterpieces is run-of-the-mill. At Messina, there are 35 standard flavours and five additional specials per week, which – in over 10 years of churning – means they’ve created more than 500 different variations of gelato. “Some are old favourites that we’ve done for years,” says Toce. “But we tweak them.”
Indeed, the process behind Messina’s flavour conception might be likened to a gelato summit. “Ideas can come even from anywhere,” says Lee.
“A dessert, another chef, and our customers…everyone comes up with them,” adds Toce. “Then there’s a process we have to take to work out the recipe to make sure it’s going to be okay by the time it makes it to the cabinet.” This process takes the form of batch testing, where they make two to three kilograms to trial the flavour, which can take as little as three to four hours. They’ve got it down to a fine art.
Flavours can include anything from your standard chocolate, pistachio and hazelnut, to more interesting combinations like passionfruit cheesecake, cherry ripe, liquorice with white chocolate, and yoghurt gelato with peanut butter cookies and choc chips (known as the ‘How Now Brown Cow’).
“Every week we come up with an entirely new one,” says Toce, revealing this week’s special to be a marzipan custard with puff pastry and cherry jam, all made in-house.
They’ve also done some weird stuff, like sweet corn and palm sugar (which may make a reappearance) and sage and burnt butter (which apparently sells like hot cakes) and for Christmas last year they created a somewhat out there turkey and stuffing flavour. “‘Stuff the Turkey’, it was called…” grins Toce. “It was apple and sage gelato with brioche and walnut through it. And when you tasted it, it tasted like chicken stuffing but sweet. It wasn’t a big seller, but it was good!”
There have been plenty more idiosyncratic flavours. “We did one recently called ‘Nacho Libre’,” says Lee of a South American-inspired flavour featuring avocado gelato with corn chips and tomato salsa. While avocado gelato is quite commonplace in South American, the additions of corn chips and tomato salsa most certainly are not.
Meaty gelato gets bit of play at Messina too. Think peanut butter gelato with bacon banana cookies, or ‘Porky’s Revenge’ – maple syrup gelato with pancakes and bacon jelly. “But [sweet creamy meat] does throw people off,” says Toce.
Each week at Messina, patrons eat their way through over 10,000 tasters, sampling various flavours before they make their final choice. And though chocolate and lemon sorbet might be your go-to at any standard gelataria, the best seller at Messina is salted caramel (customers drain almost 600 kilograms of the stuff every week).
Sure, they’ve had failures too (“like tomato sorbet…and balsamic gelato”), but come rain, sun or cold wintery night, there’ll be a queue out the door at Messina’s Darlinghurst depot. So like Monoffee Pie, the proposal of another Messina just blocks away in Surry Hills was met with a smile - matrimony of the sweetest kind.