You'll find more detail and pictures of some of our favourite gelato flavours here.
You might not remember your first gelato, but you never forget your favourite. Perhaps it was that first hit of mango and chocolate as a kid at the beach with salty hair and sandy feet, or the brioche buns filled with velvety hazelnut gelato sold by an old man from his cart in the backstreets of Palermo.
Ask people to name their gelato favourites in Sydney and they're likely to mention Bar Italia in Leichhardt, Cremeria de Luca in Five Dock, Pompei's in Bondi and, without fail, Gelato Messina. These are gelaterie of repute. The Palumbo family opened Messina on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst in 2002, and the brand has grown at a rate they could never have imagined: 11 shops around the country and one in Las Vegas, and the hype, collaborations and, yes, those queues continue to grow. Leichhardt's Bar Italia has had a slower, steadier history. The Norton Street restaurant opened in 1952 and made its name with no-frills Italian cooking and a gelato parlour, as important to the restaurant's character as the fading posters on the walls. But there's plenty to say about the new wave of gelatiers in the city, too, each churning magic with milk and air.
In Redfern, Mark Megahey and business partner Sean O'Brien opened Ciccone & Sons last June. Although the former furniture store-turned-gelato parlour has been open less than a year, Megahey had plenty of time to refine his recipes in the 20 years he worked at Bar Italia under the guidance of the restaurant's then-gelatier Oris Scandura. "We turned it into a true gelato factory," he says.
You're more likely to find flavours such as pear and riesling or crème brûlée with Laphroaig single malt than you are straight pistachio at Ciccone & Sons. The shop's name is a playful reference to Madonna, and phasing out anything generic (whether that's ingredients or too much of any one thing) is the name of the game. The produce is new-school, too: Sungold Jersey milk from Victoria's Warrnambool, say, with Pepe Saya buttermilk and mascarpone, and coffee from Di Pacci Coffee Co in Marrickville. "We aim for minimal waste in our process, so we often help our local grocer by using fruit at the end of its best shelf life," says O'Brien. And when the cold-pressed juices from Rainy Lane in Newtown are nearing their expiry date, Ciccone snaps them up and turns them into the likes of chilli, cucumber and pineapple sorbetto. Rainy Lane is already using offcuts from Black Star Pastry's watermelons, too, so it's a collaborative operation.
The shop is modest and welcoming. A vintage cash register sits alongside cakes and biscotti made by O'Brien; the menu is scrawled on a wall-mounted roll of brown paper; and hand-stitched bunting decorates the walls. "We built the space so we would feel comfortable here and our customers would feel welcome," says Megahey. "Most of the shop fittings have been part of our home at some stage."
Ciccone & Sons supplies exclusive flavours to neighbouring bars including The Bearded Tit (a dark rum and orange flavour, for instance, to complement their Not Quite So Old Fashioned cocktail), and customers are getting involved in devising new flavours. "We had a customer who got a smoker and so he offered to smoke almonds for us," says Megahey. The result is at once peat, smoke and fire on ice. Pass the bacon.
Megahey's one-time gelato-making partner at Bar Italia, Franco Riservato, has also opened his own shop - Gelato Franco in Marrickville. With business partner Shane Pollard and the help of his mother, Donata, Riservato focuses on a denser, more Sicilian-style gelato - "the kind my family likes to make and eat", he says. While Gelato Franco has a similar low-key vibe to Ciccone & Sons, it offers a more traditional line-up of flavours.
The colour of the all-natural pistachio is surprisingly pale - but the taste is vivid. Kept raw for sweetness, the smashed purple and green nuts form waves of crunch and chewiness between feather-light folds of milky gelato. It's a similar story for the taffy-like roasted-hazelnut flavour that reveals a fresh crust of ground nuts with each bite. Gelato Franco's tiramisù flavour is a revelation: the base is made using Sicilian Marsala and a chocolate sponge that Riservato sources from Mezzapica Cakes in Leichhardt. Nothing tastes artificial - you could be eating a piece of cake at Nonna's.
Consistency, Riservato says, is about the "one store, one gelato-maker" rule. Customers can watch the gelato being made through a window to the kitchen, each flavour churned and piled into vertical Cattabriga batch-freezers. "At Bar Italia the kitchen was down the road so you couldn't see the magic," he says. "Making gelato is such a beautiful art, so I love that we can share it with people in the new store."
Another Marrickville player of note, Pagoto Gelato & Waffle House, was opened by Arthur Skouras and Chris Felemegas in February last year on the corner of Marrickville and Victoria roads. Subtlety is not the intention here. Outside, the walls are covered with a brightly painted mural, while inside, MTV blares from a flat-screen television above the display counters. Pagoto serves a Willy Wonka-esque mix of flavours piled high with toppings and sauces (Hubba Bubba; red velvet and white chocolate; burnt-caramel slice) and an extensive menu of shakes and waffles.
Among the sugar hits, many flavours draw on the owners' Greek heritage: watermelon and feta, the resin-like mastiha, and galaktoboureko among them. "At any given time we have 32 flavours," says Skouras. "We try to rotate weekly. Some specials include white chocolate ricotta and cannoli, and ouzo." The ouzo flavour is strong enough to preclude eating and driving, but the baklava is Pagoto at its best: crisp flakes of filo, nibs of crushed nuts, and a heavenly deeply honeyed base.
With a similar more-is-more approach, the cases at La Mamma del Gelato Anita are filled with towers of extravagantly topped and sauced gelato. Born in Israel and now a very successful chain, the company was founded by Anita "Mama" Avital - and the two Sydney stores (in Chippendale and, more recently, Bondi Beach) are the first to open in Australia. The brand quickly cemented its following thanks to a separate frozen yoghurt station with unlimited toppings that include everything from caramelised pecans and chocolate pearls to jelly beans. Even late on Sunday afternoons, the brasserie-styled shop at Chippendale is packed with shoppers enjoying Mecca coffee and the rich and gooey Cookieman (a vanilla base spliced with Nutella, meringue and Italian biscotti - a must-try).
The world's best is at home in Sydney, too. When John and Wendy Crowl opened Cow and the Moon café and gelataria on Enmore Road in 2011, they hadn't planned on taking out a world title - but that they did in 2014 when they won the Gelato World Tour championship in Rimini. The winning flavour, Mandorla Affogato, combines caramelised almonds and single-origin coffee in a salted-caramel sauce on a Madagascan vanilla-bean base. It lives up to its reputation, the gelato is as light as silk, and the hints of caramel perfectly chewy and bittersweet. Even 18 months after the award the queues for the affogato - as well as other flavours such as Single-Origin Latte, Passionfruit Crème and the saucy Cherrymania - still snake out the door and down Enmore Road.
There's action beyond the inner south and west, too, in the form of Coppetta on Old South Head Road in Vaucluse. Husband and wife team Michael and Deborah Cthurmer run two cafés on the strip, Bazaar Deli and Grumpy Baker, and sandwiched in between them is their hole-in-the-wall gelato shop, opened last August. The gelato style here comes off a little icy, but the flavours, most of Middle Eastern inspiration and all made on site, are well-considered nonetheless.
A sprightly watermelon and mint sorbet, speckled with green, is wonderfully refreshing, "It complements our free-spirited beachy lifestyle," says Deborah. The richer (albeit more crumbly) gingerbread packs a solid ginger hit, while other flavours include Turkish delight, toasted marshmallow, lavender honey crème brûlée, and a heady pistachio and rosewater.
RivaReno is a far bigger operation. Founded in Milan in 2005, the gelato chain arrived in Australia in February 2013 when Sydney entrepreneur Kieran Tosolini opened his Darlinghurst shop after trying the gelato in Italy. "Usually you don't associate chains with such high quality," he says. "I thought to myself, if they can replicate such amazing quality in different locations, then maybe I can bring that same taste and texture to Sydney."
Tosolini trained in Milan for a few months before opening the first RivaReno on Crown Street. Opening so close to gelato veteran Messina was a ballsy move, but Tosolini is confident enough to feature a sign in his window saying "we make it in front of everyone" (a cheeky nod, presumably, to his competition that makes it out the back).
RivaReno makes small batches (as little as 1.5 kilos at a time) and restocks as needed. Unlike many gelatarie in Sydney, there are no display cabinets at RivaReno. All 24 flavours are kept in pozzetti, the covered stainless-steel containers designed to keep gelato fresh. "The pozzetti allow us to keep the gelato at a much warmer temperature of minus nine degrees," he says, in comparison to most other gelato which is served around minus 14 to minus 17. "It makes for far more creaminess than ice."
The Cremino flavour is a perfect example. A white chocolate and hazelnut ganache dances with rich layers of gianduja sauce - it's milky and dense, but doesn't coat the mouth. The dark-green Pistachio Bronte is intensely flavoured and lush. Then there's the sheep's milk ricotta with caramelised figs - it's sweet but never cloying and, even better, you can have it served Palermo-style in a brioche bun from Fratelli Paradiso. RivaReno imports a number of ingredients to ensure the quality remains the same as in Italy, including milk from the Stura Valley's high-altitude pastures, hazelnuts from Piedmont, Bronte pistachios, and Sicilian citrus.
Despite what Tosolini considered a slow start, people are warming to RivaReno's charms and he believes they're excited to try something new. Most recently, Tosolini has created flavours for Billy Kwong in Potts Point - a Davidson plum sorbet and a macadamia-nut and a chocolate-chip gelato - and RivaReno will open its second site within the Barangaroo precinct on 1 April.
"Sydney has the perfect climate for most of the year to enjoy gelato," says Franco Riservato of Gelato Franco. With its clement weather and carefree spirit, Sydney is ripe for a gelato revolution, and this latest wave of players, traditionalists and innovators alike, is making the most of it. Get out there and get your taste.