Donato Giovine and Mariagrazia Zanardi knew Portland was a good fit – despite those Maine winters – when they pulled up stakes in Milan to open a new business in the USA.
By Meredith Goad firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND — Opening a gelato shop in Maine in December seems a little like opening a hot chocolate stand in Phoenix in July, when the average high is 105 degrees.
Mariagrazia Zanardi settles a fresh batch into the display case at Gorgeous Gelato on Fore Street in Portland.
Mariagrazia Zanardi and her husband, Donato Giovine, opened Gorgeous Gelato last month after a carefully orchestrated move from Milan. Among other reasons, they decided Portland would be a good place to raise their two children.
Donato Giovine and Mariagrazia Zanardi, owners of the new Gorgeous Gelato shop at 434 Fore St., are happy to explain.
The couple recently moved here from Milan, but they weren't flying blind. They've had Portland in their sights for some time now.
And no, they are not old friends of Fabiana de Savino and Enrico Barbiero, the Milanese couple who, two years ago, opened Paciarino, a fresh pasta restaurant located just a block or two down from the Gelato shop. (If that's not enough of a coincidence, the two couples have discovered that they lived just a half-mile apart when they were in Milan.)
Giovine and Zanardi's affection for their new home goes way back.
"The first time we fell in love with the United States was 15 years ago, during our honeymoon," Giovine said.
On that trip, the couple traveled to New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They returned to Milan thinking that they might like to relocate to this country some day.
Then, exactly seven years ago, they decided to visit Portland during the first part of January.
While they were visiting, the city had an ice storm.
"I saw my car, the rented car, completely freeze on one side," Giovine said. "It was the first time for me to see something like this."
That experience made the couple "a bit" worried about moving here. But Giovine said they knew they wanted to be in New England because it is the shortest plane ride to Europe and the closest to European culture.
Portland seemed like a nice place to raise their son, Frederico, and daughter, Eleonora. The people seemed friendly, and there's a low crime rate. The city is "full of nature," but the couple also saw it as ripe with opportunity.
"It's not a big town like Milan," Zanardi said. "In Milan, you have everything, like in New York or Boston, but that wasn't what we were looking for. We wanted something smaller, but if the children want to go to the movies, they have it. If they want to go to a public library, they can."
Portland, truth be told, already had a leg up on the rest of New England, thanks to the old TV series "Murder, She Wrote," which is apparently wildly popular in Italy. Even though the show is supposedly based on Camden (and was actually filmed in California), Angela Lansbury's character, Jessica Fletcher, often mentions "going down to Portland."
"Even his grandmother knew about Portland, Maine," Zanardi said.
"Thanks to Mrs. Fletcher," Giovine added.
Zanardi and Giovine, who owned a packaging company in Milan, finally decided in September 2009 that they would move to Portland and open a gelato shop. Zanardi immediately enrolled in the Italian School of Gelato in Perugia, just south of Florence, where she spent eight hours a day learning to make Gelato.
Giovine attended a course in Milan that was taught by a student of one of Italy's Gelato masters, "then we worked for different famous gelaterias to be perfectly trained with this kind of work."
Why Gelato? The whole family loves it, and Zanardi has always liked to cook. "She's from Parma," Giovine said. "You know, that's the home of Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto Parma."
People associate Gelato with calories and fat, but Gelato contains 70 percent less fat than American premium ice cream, Giovine said. Gelato also contains less much less air, which is one of the factors that gives it its dense, creamy texture.
Gelato is made, frozen and stored at very particular temperatures, which can vary by recipe. Gelato masters know just how to properly balance the fats, sugars and proteins in the product, Giovine said.
"It seems strange, but making Gelato is a sort of chemistry," he said. "You have to know certain physical and chemistry processes. If you think about Gelato, you have to think about a product that is able to maintain fats and liquids all together, which as you know is very, very difficult."
Gorgeous Gelato, a bright space painted golden yellow and violet, features 16 flavors at a time in its display case. There's the familiar – peanut butter, almond, vanilla, chocolate, coconut and pistachio – as well as more adventurous flavors such as panna cotta, sour cherry, stracciatella, tiramisu and rum chocolate.
The store also sells handmade Gelato pops, Gelato cakes, coffee, cappuccino and thick Italian hot chocolate.
Even on a cold Wednesday, a couple of days after a blizzard blew through town, customers seemed to be regularly filing in for their Gelato fix – including Fabiana de Savino, who brought in her daughter for a taste of home.
It's cold outside, but somehow a scoop of homemade Gelato makes people feel warm.