Not long ago I stood in a small gelateria on the banks of the turgid Arno River, packed in with Florentines and international epicureans alike, all seeking shelter from the storm outside, watching the fluorescent lights of Florence reflected in the puddle-catching cobblestones.
In my hand was a petite cup of gelato, which my friend Lavinia, a native of Florence, said would be the perfect soul-salving end to an exhausting day under the Tuscan sun. Gelato – that’s just Italian for “ice cream,” right?
I was wrong. She was so, so right.
Electric limon. Rich raspberry of near-erotic tang. And chocolate – cioccolato – so dark, so earthy, it made most American cocoa-treats taste like I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter spray. With less than half the fat, twice the sugar and almost no air compared to American hard- and soft-serve ice cream, gelato is healthier and denser, at once more refreshing and more filling. I had gained a new obsession. When I returned to the States, it wasn’t long before my sweet tooth started to ache. I needed the best Buffalo had to offer, and I needed it fast, Florentine style. What I found was at turns stimulating and illuminating – all told, I wasn’t disappointed, and no gelatophile has reason to be.
Shortly after hitting the Buffalo-Niagara tarmac I set out for Gelateria Luca, at the southwestern corner of Elmwood and Potomac avenues. I heard that the tiny shop, offering “A taste of Italy on Elmwood,” offered blood-orange, and I knew I had to see for myself.
Small but filling portions encourage combination. Pomegranate-lemon is a personal favorite of mine, along with mango-raspberry and chocolate with, well, just about anything. The quality of the gelato here - always reliable, always fresh - has encouraged my friends and me to return again and again.
On a recent visit I tried four varieties for $5.40: chocolate and coconut gelato with lemon and blueberry sorbetto. (The latter is like gelato, but made from fresh fruits).
Each variety is distinctive not only in flavor but in texture. The blueberry was cool and complex, and not at all too sweet. The coconut was pleasantly grainy (a reminder that this gelato is not flavored, but made from the “real stuff”) and tasted particularly good with the chocolate, which was rich, dark and dense.
I couldn’t discern my favorite part. At first I thought it was the lemon, which, though it didn’t quite match gelato made from the toddler-sized “bread lemons” of the Amalfi coast, was an extraordinarily refreshing choice for the 80 degree day, and the most powerful flavor of the bunch. Then I tried the chocolate, made in the Italian style, which I recognized at once. This was the real stuff; the platonic ideal; the very essence of cioccolato.
Though you’ll find no strolling gypsy accordionists in the Boulevard Mall, the Incorvia family established the first Sweet Melody’s on Transit Road hoping to give the Italian practice of mixing light food and light entertainment an outlet in Western New York. The original location near the intersection of Transit Road and Millersport Highway, was rather unfriendly to the average urban flaneur and has closed. The Incorvias still use the kitchen there to whip up fresh gelato for their Boulevard kiosk and for catering events.
I visited the boulevard location and ordered a perversion of the Neapolitan: hazelnut chocolate, lello (white chocolate coconut) and amarena (cherry).
The hazelnut chocolate was a creamy treat, though I remain partial to a darker Italian cioccolato. Combined, though, the three were strikingly delicious.
Of all the gelaterias I visited, Sweet Melody’s wins the prize for culinary daring. The shop’s Facebook page references caramel sea salt, olive oil gelato and lemon-basil sorbet, to name a few. Alexis Incorvia mentioned a new Greek yogurt gelato fad, before shocking me with peanut butter bacon banana. This last was created at a customer’s request – something which, according to Incorvia, Melody’s makers are more than willing to indulge.
Of course, the boulevard location – near the food court – is a bit too noisy for the sort of singing-while-we-scoop service seen on Transit. With two new locations opening soon in Snyder and Lockport, though, Incorvia said the shop probably will return to its melodic roots.
By the time I reached Country Peddlers, the day had gone from hot to muggy, and the marbled skies threatened the sort of rain that would bring little relief. I looked up to the shop’s menu – featuring 28 flavors – and breathed a sigh of relief. I ordered a cup of pineapple and chocolate (my measuring stick for good gelato) and sat down at one of the many wrought-iron tables outside.
The chocolate was unique, more like fudge than the others, satisfying but not dark enough for my tastes. The pineapple, though, was far and away the most refreshing sorbetto I tasted during my journeys, the perfect mix of sweet and acidic snap – it transported me to a sunnier afternoon in Florence, when I had stood outside yet another gelateria, slowly indulging in a cup of kiwi-raspberry-mango, watching a bride and groom march in wedding-wear up a winding road, as a beaming, leonine father-in-law filmed on his iPad.
Chris Sullivan, manager at Country Peddlers, gave me a tour of his gelato kitchen, and explained both the science and the art of his craft. Sullivan graciously offered me samples of pomegranate (pleasantly crunchy) and cannoli (surprisingly light, a good alternative if you crave the taste but don’t want to fill up on the real thing).
Sullivan also likes experimenting. “If you think of it, you can come up with it,” he said.
Celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, Vincenzo’s sits in a quaint shop on a quaint street at the center of Orchard Park. Though the shop is earning attention in the city and surrounding suburbs, it’s best known as a favorite with locals – I came at the recommendation of my friend and OP epicure Kevin. “We get the same families, it’s funny,” said serving veteran Maggie Guzzino. She said the shop, open only in the summer, is filled with kids during the day and young families in the evening, many of them coming from kids’ baseball games at the diamonds up the street.
What stood out first was the size of the scoop. Guzzino gave me the most generous meduim-sized cup I’ve yet seen (for $4.25), enough to delay my dinner.
I ordered chocolate (of course) and dolce de leche, a caramelesque treatment of sweetened milk.
Dolce de leche lived up to its name. Aggressively sweet, this flavor leaves its taste on the back of your palate – something I appreciated when I moved on to the chocolate. I found the caramel flavor paired well with Vincenzo’s dark, fudgy chocolate – similar to the variety offered at Country Peddlers, but richer. Vincenzo’s takes the prize in that cocoa category.
But the dolce de leche was better. I scooped and swirled with enthusiasm – you simply won’t find caramel-chocolate ice cream this sweet or satisfying.