When Family-Owned Gelato Shops in Italy Almost Went Extinct
The signature chocolate sour cherry gelato at Vivoli, the oldest gelato shop in Florence, Italy, is made with an abbondanza of fruit, declares Silvana Vivoli. As the institution’s third-generation gelato maker, Vivoli specializes in making a distinctive stracciatella (whose secret, she reveals, is a hint of added cream) and the mandarino, which delivers a tang of citrus to the tongue. Every morning, Vivoli whips up the desserts in her shop’s kitchen, all the while remembering her father Piero’s lessons: That good gelato requires time, effort, quality ingredients, and a personal touch.
But what if gelato came in the same flavors, and without an abbondanza of anything? That almost happened just after the Second World War, when a new product, Mottarello, arrived. As the very first industrial ice cream in Italy, Mottarello wasn’t there to coexist with artisanal gelato. It attempted to replace gelato altogether—and almost succeeded. “The idea,” Vivoli says, “was to kill artisanal gelato.” As Luciana Polliotti, curator of the Carpigiani Gelato Museum in Bologna, Italy, puts it: “These were important years because it was like David versus Goliath, and David won.”
Although gelato had been invented several hundred years before the 1950s, it was originally just served for wealthy folks at banquets. Gelato didn’t become widely available to the public until the end of the 19th century. Most of these gelato shops operated as small family businesses well into the 20th century, but it became tougher to make a living hawking the dessert during the Second World War. (Once, the Vivoli family had to buy sugar on the black market, and ended up with a very expensive barrel of sand instead.) Post-war conditions for gelato shops weren’t much better, Polliotti explains, because Italians were so strapped for cash.
Throughout the 1950s, industrial ice cream—already all the rage in the U.S.—also had ambitious plans to corner the market in Italy. Polliotti says that during this tense time, sales reps approached artisanal gelato makers with a proposition: We’ll pay you to stop producing gelato and become our retailers. When they refused, non-industrial gelato suddenly—and suspiciously—began generating bad press.
By the summer of 1953, widespread claims that artisanal gelato was hazardous to one’s health were impossible to miss. According to a compilation from the historical archive of Gelato Artigianale Magazine/Levati Editori, a bevy of articles from the time emphasized that people kept getting food poisoning from gelato. “41 intoxicated near Siena by spoiled gelato,” blared one headline in Corriere della Sera (though the story notes that it just “seems” as though gelato was the cause). The same paper soon reported on a grandmother and granddaughter who both became ill after eating gelato, though they were expected to recover quickly. The very next day, Corriere della Serra broke news that 500 people had contracted food poisoning in Tivoli—an event that was blamed not on the food, but rather on the people who had handled it.
There must have been some bad gelato out there at the time—especially as this happened before many food safety innovations and regulations were ubiquitous. Yet what stood out was the singular focus on a specific food, says Polliotti. “Any kind of sanitary problem that burst out was attributed to artisanal gelato,” she explains. (That didn’t stop Audrey Hepburn from enjoying a gelato cone in 1953’s Roman Holiday, which Polliotti says “contradicted dozens of articles with one scene.”)
She also notes that the majority of damning articles appeared in Corriere della Sera and Il Sole 24 Ore, two papers from Milan. It's worth noting that the city is also the birthplace of Motta, the company behind Mottarello.
The Motta ice cream brand has since changed hands multiple times, so it’s hard to know if executives had a hand in perpetuating this negative coverage. But there’s no doubt that they took advantage of it. “As you can imagine, there will always be a friction between artisanal and industrial gelato,” says Gustavo Stante, the Italian marketing manager for Froneri (which took over the brand in 2016). What Motta realized at the time, he explains, is that there was a need for something “more innovative and interesting” for customers, and designed its ads to convey how different these products were.
One way Motta did that was by featuring doctors, clad in white coats and stethoscopes, in their advertisements. Historian Maria Chiara Liguori, who analyzed this imagery for a 2015 article in the Advertising & Society Review, noted that “instead of focusing on the taste, they kept repeating how healthy it was. One such advertisement depicts a young girl getting a check-up. Her mouth is open, with her tongue out, and a pediatrician is offering her a gelato on a stick. The accompanying text invites all doctors to visit Motta’s ice cream production plants in Milan and Naples, and take samples with them to study. The not-so-subtle message? Industrial gelato is hygienic, even healthy—unlike what artisans produce.
Another advertisement even boasted that Motta gelato is more nutritious than chicken, fish, or eggs. In that case, Liguori believes it wasn’t a slight against artisanal gelato, but rather an appeal to poorer families. “It’s a comparison I saw in many products of the time: Don’t worry if you can’t buy meat. This is the same thing,” she says. Italians are well known for being unreceptive to change, particularly when it comes to food traditions, Liguori notes. But these techniques did the trick. Artisanal gelato sales plummeted, forcing many shops to close. Several generations of families lost their livelihood, too. “It was a national tragedy,” Polliotti says.
It could have been permanent, if it weren’t for the efforts of a few key defenders. One of those people was Angelo Grasso, the owner of a big gelato shop in the heart of Milan; Polliotti describes him as a visionary. After Grasso meet Carlo Alberto Ragazzi, Milan’s chief medical officer and an internationally renowned hygienist, at a seminar in 1953, the pair teamed up to save artisanal gelato. According to Polliotti, Ragazzi was persuaded to join the effort because “he realized that an entire economic category would have been unjustly swept away.”
Gelato makers soon convened in local, regional, and—eventually—national meetings, developing a united strategy to fight back. If the concern was that gelato wasn’t hygienic, they would make sure it was as safe as possible. So they launched professional courses for gelato-makers, in an effort to ensure that best practices were in place. They encouraged meetings with health officials, and demanded testing to prove that the public had nothing to fear from eating their gelato. As Polliotti notes, they even targeted the source of the bad press directly by creating a competition for journalists writing about the nutritional aspects of artisanal gelato. Gelato makers also wore lapel pins declaring their membership in the Committee for the Defense and Promotion of Artisan Gelato. To this day, the Carpigiani Gelato Museum has a display case filled with the 1950s- and 1960s-era pins, which depict images of cones and desserts.
The industry got a boost from rapidly-improving technology, too. Companies such as Carpigiani made machines that made it not only easier and faster to produce gelato, but also possible to introduce more safety controls. Their efforts not only resulted in recovering sales, but better gelato, too. Donata Panciera, a third-generation gelato maker whose family has operated shops in Italy and abroad, remembers just how important a reputation for cleanliness meant for their business. Her family installed the most up-to-date equipment available, and communicated that to customers. They kept busy, even during gelato’s darkest days. “We worked all the time,” says Panciera, reflecting on her childhood during the 1950s.
Although Vivoli wasn’t born until after the crisis had passed, it’s something she takes lessons from even today. She says her father told her all about collaborating with colleagues from other cities to explain to the public what artisanal gelato is, and what makes it special. This has remained all too relevant lately, because so many shops that claim to be serving the real deal are just churning out pre-prepared mixes. So it’s still up to her—and other gelato makers of her generation—to keep the abbondanza alive. “A fight once in a while,” Vivoli says, “It’s good.”
Heather grows in abundance on the Scottish moorlands. And each year in early September, when Calluna vulgaris is in bloom, many Scottish beekeepers take their bees north to the heather fields. It’s a short window of opportunity, with the purple-colored bloom lasting for just a few weeks, but it’s the only time to produce a Scottish delicacy: heather honey.
Producing heather honey is no simple task. Normally inactive at this time of year, the bees must be spurred on for the September harvest. As if this weren't problematic enough, heather honey is also nearly solid in the hive. Technically, it's thixotropic, meaning it's thick when static but becomes less viscous and starts to flow when stirred or shaken. As a result, farmers often have to scrape heather honey out of the hive and press it through a sieve. Some even use a machine with a honeycomb pattern of needles that agitates the stiff honey in the comb.
The reward for all this extra effort is the highly-valued final product: a mildly sweet, intensely fragrant honey considered by many connoisseurs as the best of its kind. In most cases, the woody, slightly smoky honey is eaten without adornment, often spread on a piece of bread or toast, so as not to lose any of the rich flavor.
You can throw in a few embellishments, of course. In an interview with Saveur, chef Tom Lewis described his ideal way of enjoying this special honey: on sourdough toast with lightly warmed blackberries and a dram of 21-year Glengoyne whisky.
The Heart-Racing Drama of Dissecting a Beached Whale
About 31 years ago, when Dr. Joy Reidenberg was a graduate student at Mount Sinai Graduate School of Biological Sciences, she climbed into a trailer, then on top of a stranded 11-foot-long pygmy sperm whale lying on its back, and “cut the midline of its throat to get past the blubber.” She parted the blubber and muscles of the 1,000-pound whale to the sides and located the hyoid bone, “which is a free-floating bone in the neck,” she says. Underneath this bone was the trophy she came to claim, the larynx, “which is a cartilaginous structure at the top of the trachea.”
She then “freed up the muscle connections that attach the larynx to the sternum and the hyoid bone.” She did the same to the tongue and walls of the pharynx. Reidenberg then cut the trachea a few inches below the larynx to release its link to the lungs. Lastly, she removed the larynx, with some attached trachea, and placed it into a plastic bag.
The network informed her about a stranded whale in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The specimen was headed to the Smithsonian at 9 a.m., where it would be defleshed in preparation for its bones to be added to the institution’s skeleton collection. But in the meantime it was hers to dissect. She’d just have to get to New Jersey—and quickly. Rental car agencies in New York City opened around 8 a.m. So, as soon as she got one, she drove 55 miles per hour down the highway. Time doesn’t stop for dead whales.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Network called Reidenberg because she was doing “a research project in comparative anatomy and had made an official request for anatomical specimens from dead stranded whales,” she says. In other words, she operated as an on-call dissector, ready to mobilize to the relevant beach.
There are many factors to consider once Reidenberg receives permission to dissect. Enough daylight to examine the specimen is one. Whale dissection is not an ideal night-time activity, but it can be done in the dark, with guts and all. Low tide and a potential storm are two other factors. It’s quite difficult working on a beached whale in knee-deep water while it’s raining. Will the whale lie belly up or down? Will there be construction equipment to move the heavy parts? Will it explode when opened due to gas build-up? These are the questions she grapples with. She could face all of these obstacles, some, or none at all. In the case of the Atlantic City sperm whale, there was one obstacle she didn’t factor in.
A police officer stopped her for speeding. Flustered, she stepped out of the vehicle in her white medical coat and complied with his instructions. He checked the back seat. “His face just turned ashen white, it was really weird,” says Reidenberg. A few moments before, she had heard on the radio that a body chopped to smithereens was discovered in plastic bags. Her rental car was filled with scalpels, hand knives, gloves, wood saws, and an array of gardening tools—equipment one would need to commit such butchery. The plastic bags in the back seat certainly did not help. She explained her situation and he decided to escort her to the stranded whale. Partly, just in case he was wrong.
The ensuing 30-minute whale dissection was one of the most important she’s ever conducted. “Before this, it was assumed that whales did not have vocal folds (the scientific name for vocal ‘cords’),” says Reidenberg. “After observing this whale, and also comparing with dissections of other specimens, we made a discovery: Whales did indeed have vocal folds after all. What had been written in the literature was simply wrong.”
The journey to this breakthrough whale dissection was a long and winding one. “When I was very young, I really enjoyed trying to figure out how things work and that includes living things,” she says. Her father took her fishing. While he read the newspaper, she fished. He agreed to drive her to the pier as long as she gutted all the fish—he was a bit squeamish. She spent hours looking at the gills and the innards. “I was just fascinated by what was on the inside. The big problem for my parents was keeping me away from death you’d find on the beach.”
During Reidenberg’s senior year in high school, she interned at a veterinarian office on weekends and she enjoyed the surgical work. It wasn’t until when she attended Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences that she grew disillusioned with the veterinary field. “The veterinarians were telling me that, well, you'll learn all these wonderful fancy surgical procedures but you're never going to get to use them because most people will just euthanize the animal,” she says. Reidenberg toyed with the idea of being a medical illustrator, but someone in the field told her there wasn’t much work in it. What field could marry art and surgery together?
When she met Dr. Howard Evans one summer, she found her answer. Then the Anatomy Department chairman at Cornell’s New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, Evans educated her about research in the anatomy field. “I’m a comparative anatomist,” he told her, which was the first time Reidenberg had heard of such a thing. He assigned her a research project over the summer to dissect toadfish and draw their anatomy for a fish dissection manual. After she graduated from Cornell University, she obtained her Ph.D. from Mount Sinai Graduate School of Biological Sciences and researched the comparative anatomy of the upper respiratory tract in mammals. Yet, what fascinated her throughout her evolutionary biology and anatomy studies were whales.
They had “completely different anatomy from anything else from land and they were stuck with evolutionary baggage of having to make sounds with air.” Whales breathe with their blowholes and hold that air in by closing their nostrils. Even with their nostrils closed, they can emit sound waves. It’s a pretty effective system that functions both for respiration and sound production, and to Reidenberg, that was simply incredible. There was much to learn about this evolutionary adaptation and what humans could learn by copying it.
Maybe we could have better underwater communications systems if we understand better how these animals communicate underwater,” she says. For example: “new protective devices that can be developed to prevent people from getting decompression sickness from diving,” or cure lung diseases.
Such research requires a deep dive into these giant beasts. The exact dissection process depends on the stranded whale, and can involve unexpected complications. She once dissected a whale on the nudity-friendly Cherry Grove beach of Fire Island, New York, a summer hotspot known for its LGBTQ nightlife, in front of over 5,000 people and the media. Dressed in a flowy dress and high heels, one news reporter “didn’t want to get near the whale because of course it smells terrible and the ground is full of blood and blubber and organs,” says Reidenberg. The cameraman and news reporter backed up to get a wider angle, but naked people filled the background. They argued over how close to get to the whale while avoiding showing bare bottoms in the shot. Eventually, they agreed the reporter would stand two feet from the whale carcass and put paper bags over her high heels so they could zoom in close on the whale. “I kept shaking my head and laughing,” says Reidenberg.
Even after she wrapped up for the night and drove back, “we had to navigate certain obstacles on the way out because some people had to decided they wanted to make love in the tire tracks we made coming to the whale dissection.”
In 2009, Reidenberg dissected a fin whale off the southern coast of Ireland. According to the The New York Times, she had already dissected over 400 whales when she received a call to get on the next plane to Ireland. By the time she arrived, the whale was seriously bloated with bacterial gas. “It was inflating like the Hindenburg,” she told The New York Times. “If you cut in too deep, you end up with a million sausage links all over the place.”
She and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group suited up in their protective gear and prepared their tool arsenal for the mission. She cut some holes into the whale’s throat to release the gas, which according to The New York Times produced “a symphony of flatulence” that took an hour to dissipate. Then, she took a meat hook to climb 10 feet on top of the fin whale and spliced rows of long cuts into its side. A hydraulic excavator from a local construction company unraveled the blubber strips. Reidenberg then started to pull out the whale’s intestines, dive into its cavernous abdominal cavity to extract more organs and bones, such as a pelvis and the sacred voice box, and placed these vestiges into a container. All of this carving took two days, lots of disinfection, approximately 15 showers, and a priceless amount of research.
At, 57, she’s still learning about these animals, but she wants to impart this knowledge to generations both old and young. “Science has to spend a certain amount of their time educating the public doing outreach education because otherwise the field is not appreciated by the public and it will die out if the public doesn't down to it,” says Reidenberg. “I find that if I want to reach the public best ways to do it is with the medium of television.” In addition to TV and TED Talks, she talks about science with classes of all ages and teaches at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. Through this outreach, she’s cultivated an avid following of budding scientists.
She can never predict when the next call for a stranded whale will come. It might come at 3 a.m. while she’s fast asleep or in the afternoon, in the middle of her Mount Sinai lectures. The “artist of anatomy,” as Reidenberg calls herself, is always prepared for a dissection.
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