“Passaparola” is the Italian term for “word of mouth”. It’s pleasing to say, almost onomatopoeic in the way that it sounds like a travelling whisper. It’s also the preferred communications strategy of Antonino Lo Iacono of Gelatony, the gelateria in Summer Hill where entry is via a back gate in a corner of a car park. It’s a remarkably understated approach in a city where gelato is fast becoming synonymous with queues.
In March, Lo Iacono competed in the Asia Pacific round of the Gelato World Tour. His fig-marmalade gelato with dark chocolate and lemon zest received special mention for technical excellence. For those who don’t inhabit the 2130 postcode, it might have seemed like it came out of nowhere. But as Lo Iacono says, “Behind this gelato is 30 years of experience.”
Lo Iacono learned to make gelato from his father in Sicily. He later moved to Rome where he had his own gelato bar until he packed up the family and moved to Australia. In Sydney he started Gelateria Caffe 2000 in Rozelle, quietly earning a following among locals for 12 years until he retired. “Retirement” lasted about a year. When nephews Nicola Piteo and Valerio Rossi bought Da Vinci restaurant in Summer Hill, they decided to bring Uncle Tonino out of retirement, fixing up the back area as a serviceable gelato bar.
That technical ability that impressed the judges stems from studying the chemical composition of gelato. It’s surprisingly common for gelaterias to use a pre-mixed base. But Lo Iacono makes his own from fresh milk and cream and a balance of three sugars. The result is fior di latte, a milk gelato that can then be built upon further. As Piteo explains, “When you have a good fior di latte you make everything on fior di latte.” Importantly, it is also good enough to stand up on its own. “We don’t have vanilla,” Piteo explains. “If you go to Italy no one has vanilla, they all have fior di latte.” The way they see it, there’s no need to mask the flavour of fresh milk and cream.
Beyond that, many of Gelatony’s gelatos champion a single flavour. Fruit flavours follow the seasons, with Lo Iacono making a jam first from the fresh fruit. Making its own base means Gelatony can temper the conditions perfectly to that one ingredient. As Piteo explains, “To keep the same texture for all the flavours you need to do something different. With hazelnut you need to be more cautious about fat because hazelnut is already [high in] fat. Lemon is difficult because every single lemon has different PH.”
In winter, when seasonal fruit is less abundant, Gelatony is more likely to explore flavour combinations. Often these are traditional Italian desserts in gelato form, such as Zuppa Inglese which marries a custard gelato with sponge cake in Italy's homage to the trifle, or Cassata Siciliana, a ricotta gelato with candied fruit. “People around a certain age – around 40 – come here and say, ‘Wow you have Cassata Siciliana!’ No one does it anymore,” Piteo says. That nostalgia extends to the neighbourly feel of the place. On the wall a charming mural of ice cream cones painted by Summer Hill public school positions it in its community, far from the bright lights and long queues in the city.
It’s almost impossible to talk about gelato in Sydney right now without acknowledging the “Messina effect”. Though Lo Iacono has many more years experience under his belt, Piteo admits, “Messina kind of opened the market. The mentality of the gelato.” He envisions a market developing here like there is back home. “In Italy, I used to go to a gelateria in particular for [one] flavour and then maybe the day after [to] another because I like the sorbet there,” Piteo says. If there is room for everyone to have their place, Lo Iacono is steadfast about where Gelatony’s is. “I want to do traditional gelato, real gelato.” He shrugs, “Doesn't matter the marketing, my focus is the product. Because if you understand the quality, you’ll come back.” And, presumably, tell a friend.