The ice cream scene here in Berkeley is getting kinda intense. Here is the situation in which we find ourselves:
It’s been a few years since we graduated from Fenton’s, which just wasn’t the same after the fire. I fondly remember it as the most satisfying place to watch young Asian American dudes from Cal putting away mass quantities of ice cream. (Don’t ask me about this weird fetish of mine. I promise it’s not a Mrs. Robinson thing, more of a latent Chinese mom thing.)
Mostly we’ve been going to Naia, where I usually end up with a “fruit salad” of different flavors from the sorbetto section. In wintertime it’s fun to narrow the theme down even further to a citrus salad of grapefruit, blood orange, lemon & tangerine.
Sketch is great, with a handful of lovingly selected flavors every day & a truly sweet vibe, but its hours are incompatible with late-night ice cream habits, & during the day you have to be willing to put up with Fourth Street madness.
We are breathlessly waiting for the much-hyped, Chez Panisse-pedigreed Ici to open on College; a tantalizingly vague “early August” opening is posted with luscious foodporn pictures on the papered-over windows.
In this state of heightened ice cream awareness, Donna & I were driving through downtown Berkeley this afternoon when I spotted Gelato Milano looking very minimalist & serious about itself. I hollered “Hey, Gelato Milano! Wait!” & Donna executed one of her famous instant-reflex U-turns.
Come to find out, it’s been there for seven months already! Where have we been? Not paying attention, I guess. At first glance it appears to be a pared-down version of Naia, the mere suggestion of which will surely piss the owner off, so don’t mention it unless you want an earful of bitter grievances. He used to be part of the Naia crew back when it was Mondo Gelato, & the parting of ways doesn’t sound pretty. He didn’t come right out & say “I spit upon Naia!” but we got the picture loud & clear that he considers his product to be the real deal, & theirs is “just ice cream”.
We were a bit taken aback by all this negativity, but the gelato more than made up for it. This stuff is rrrrich! The mango tasted like real mangoes & the chocolate did that indescribable good-chocolate thing in your mouth. All the flavors we tasted were way yummy. Gelatowise, he’s leaving Naia in the dust.
Atmospherewise, well, this brings me to something that I have thought lots about in the Chinese restaurant context. (Hey, I bet you were wondering when I’d ever bring that up again.) The beauty of the truly independent small business is that each business becomes an extension of its owner’s personality, & so each Chinese restaurant is unique, even if they are all serving the same fucking rangoons from Sysco.
Grumpy owners tend to do worse than cheerful owners because customers prefer a cheerful vibe, but this is not a hard & fast rule. I for one would choose a moody mom & pop place over some creepy franchise where everyone has gone through a corporate customer service training & wears the same fake smile like it’s part of their same fake uniform. As a grumpy old curmudgeon myself, I appreciate someone being real, & real tends not to be unwaveringly cheerful.
I still think the Milano guy could benefit from toning down his gelato dogma a bit, but the bottom line is, the gelato walks his talk & we’re gonna be back there soon.