In Piazza Della Cisterna, a long line of patrons come from all corners of the globe to taste what has been dubbed the best gelato in the world. The shop experience is a hectic one with so many flavors to choose from and not much room to diddle daddle. But the gelato does not disappoint. The prestige and reputation have been years in the making and the popularity is well deserved and sweet for Tuscan native Sergio Dondoli.
This summer I was lucky enough to visit Italy three times in the span of four months (some work, all pleasure), so I made sure that my second visit to San Gimignano could include a conversation with one of Italy’s national treasures and the gelato master himself. Here are the highlights of our hour-long conversation in his kitchen classroom. His knack for storytelling and boisterous laugh made for an enthralling conversation. After our interview, my friends and I tasted thirteen of his iconic and imaginative gelatos, taking us on a journey of flavor, freshness, and dessert decadence.
For those who aren’t familiar with you, you were once Gelato World Champion and have won numerous prizes and awards for your contribution to the dessert world. How did all the notoriety start for you?
When I first started in 1984 there was no book about gelato with all the answers, and it was hard to find a real gelateria!
I was like a pink elephant, everyone could see me!
Now, in the world of gastronomy, everyone knows my name. I’m not the only [gelato maker] in the world, but people know me on every continent. We started here in 1992 and we received the first prize in 1993. We went to one competition for chocolate gelato and we presented our chocolates and won 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.
There was a German journalist and he was surprised by how different this gelato was. I began to have a new idea to make gelato. I didn’t want to go the traditional, old way. I began to have my way and it was very different. He was the first man to write an article about me (in German) and this began the success of my shop.
What is the true mark of your gelato?
Everyone can know my gelato, even if they are blind!
You can understand every flavor in the gelato. You close your eyes, and you can feel rosemary dancing on your tongue as well as the raspberry. The first flavor and then the other comes later. This is the case for every flavor, and we have over 40 flavors and 12 trademarked ones. It’s wonderful!
You always have to work with intention, passion and a serious dedication. I’m proud of what I do. I try to do the best I can everyday.
What goes into creating a new flavor?
I create flavors with my memory. What I mean with memories are memories of the senses. When I was born I was living in the countryside and well, we have a wonderful country in Tuscany. You smell many different things. Sometimes a sense comes over me and sometimes I’m curious to translate this scent into a flavor.
Curiosity is a big reason I continue. Curiosity is a big part of the passion. I’m very curious, more than a wife! I’m curious about everything. I was always this way and always distracted because I was too curious.
Are there any flavors that you’ve tried to create that just don’t work?
Certainly, there are some flavors that don’t work with gelato. Anchovies! Ha! No. But if you eat this gelato in a restaurant with toasted bread, and a small canelle, and a dried tomato leaf…And then together, wow! It depends on the setting. Some people put some flavors together…I don’t wish to sell gelato when they put lemon and tiramisu together. I think please leave! Haha! One is a competitor to the other, I mean, please!
When I create a new flavor, I know how it should taste before I make it. I can feel the combination. 95% of the time it’s usually spot on.
What would you say makes your gelato different from the rest in Tuscany, or Italy for that matter?
Firstly, our milk is very special. NO one in Tuscan or Italy has this milk. We use raw milk from a nearby farm where I have adopted the cows to have priority to the milk. These cows are never sick, they never take antibiotics. We have happy cows. It’s not a joke. Our cows aren’t stressed and they live long, 17-20 years.
Secondly, the most important thing is freshness. When you buy ice cream at ‘home’, you buy a product that was made six months before. When you walk into my shop you get a gelato made fresh this morning. Secondly, it’s the air. We don’t pump air inside of our gelato. You have to pump air inside to have soft ice cream after many months. It’s a preservative. When they do that, they must also give color and flavor to this air. Otherwise, it tastes like nothing. Our fruit gelato begins with a minimum 50-75% of real fruit inside. 95% of our fruit is organic, frozen or fresh. 0% fat compared to store ice cream. Why do other brands add fat? Fat makes a film over the air bubble and it preserves the ice cream.
My readers want to know, what is your favorite of all the 40+ flavors?
Ah, I have to tell you three! So, the first flavor is Zabaione and Vinsanto wine. Why Zabaione? When I began to understand how to create a new recipe, my own recipe, the first idea was to create a gelato like the Zabaione my grandmother made. She would take fresh egg yolk, and with a whisk, she would mix it to let air inside, and then after it would rise, she would add Vinsanto, a Tuscan dessert wine. When I was four or five years old, she would make this for me when I was sick. I’ve tried to translate this taste to my gelato, and it’s the same. It’s incredible. It makes me remember my grandmother.
The second is the saffron queen, Crema di Santa Fina. This flavor made me popular around the world. What is Santa Fina? All these towers in San Gimignano were built with saffron money. 800 years ago, saffron was so important to our culture. Even now, we have the most expensive and maybe the best saffron in Italy. This made this town very rich and that’s how they were able to build these wonderful towers. I began thinking about, how can I make a connection to this town with a flavor? In 1997 saffron queen was born. I wasn’t thinking about the cost. It’s the most expensive spice in the world! One gram costs 40 euros. I was crazy but I wasn’t thinking about this.
It cost me a lot, but it brought me so much success. Every continent has tried my saffron cream, every king’s palace in Europe has tried my saffron cream.
And now the flavor #3: Chocolate. At the moment I have seven different chocolate flavors. Chocolate was the first flavor that made me popular. I found a technical solution to work with chocolate. It’s very difficult to work with, and it presents many problems. There is a lot of fiber inside cocoa power and fiber makes gelato hard; you have to learn how to manage the harness. I found the solution and teach it to people who take my class.
It sounds like gelato-making has been a complex culinary endeavor for you.
Yes! Gelato is a science. It’s chemistry, it’s physics. It’s more difficult than baking, I can tell you that!
How can people tell a true gelato shop from a tourist trap?
When you go to a gelato shop, you have to look at the mint flavor to see if it’s real. If this mint is green you don’t need to buy this gelato. They probably use flavor, syrup, etc. Stay away because it means it’s not so fresh.
A question I’m dying to ask….what will it be for you, cup or cone?
I prefer a cup, but I understand the cone! The purist vision is gelato in a cone. But I prefer a cup because I can try everything easily.
Lastly, what is the secret to your sweet success?
The secret is work. Work, work, work! My wife came this morning to the shop at 6am and she’ll get back at 7pm. Every day. I do the same. Every day, 7 days a week. We want to see if everything is alright, we can’t do everything okay but we try until almost, we can. The quality is an everyday fight. There are no shortcuts!
Website // Piazza Della Cisterna, 4 – 53037 SAN GIMIGNANO
Crema di Santa Fina,
Sangue di Bue
Crema de’ Pazzi
Gorgonzola and Walnuts
Ricotta and Carmignano figs
Castagnaccio and rosemary
Olives and cheese,
White chocolate and mint
Grand Marnier Cream
White chocolate and Grand Marnier
Of the 13 flavors we tried, my absolute favorite were: Champelmo (pink grapefruit & sparkling wine), Zabaione (similar to eggnog), Espresso, Mint, Rosemary Baby, Blueberries & ricotta cheese. What are your favorite gelato flavors?