The product may be cold to the core, but Sydney hearts positively melt when it comes to Gelato Messina’s frozen offerings. The proof, perhaps, of the illustrious ice-cream emporia’s popularity came when the doors of a freshly minted Surry Hills store opened onto Crown Street in the dead of winter. The degrees centigrade may not have been at the optimum level for the kind of treat generally reserved for steamy summer days, but that certainly didn’t stop the masses queuing for a fix. “I’m completely addicted to it,” says Messina’s Declan Lee. “It’s the one thing that I never, ever get sick of.” Considering that the business’ three stores now sell close to 3,500 litres of gelato per week, it’s fair to say that Sydneysiders concur.
For ten delicious years, Gelato Messina has been peddling its inspired creations. What began as a briskly burgeoning empire, however, became a largely boutique business operation once Lee got on board. Founder Nick Palumbo originally established Messina as a chain, dotted throughout Sydney. After a few years, however, he realised that good things come in small packages and, in the words of Lee, “started Darlinghurst basically from scratch again in 2006.”
Since then, Victoria Street’s little-gelateria-that-could has expanded to an outlet at The Star and, most recently, Surry Hills. For foodie Lee, getting involved in the operation wasn’t rocket science. “If it was a product that was any less than this, if it was a really cheap product, I probably wouldn’t be in the same situation,” he says over a table at the newly minted Crown Street store. “But it kind of made sense because it’s awesome.”
Ordinarily, the biggest trial you’ll face when placing an ice cream order is whether to go for a cup or cone. Choosing one of the myriad of flavours sitting cool, calm and collected in Messina’s glass treasure trove, however, is one of life’s greater challenges. From a stable of signature scoops including classic chocolate and salted caramel and white choc chip, to an ever-evolving roster of specials that range from numerous peanut butter concoctions to the wildly esoteric (goats cheese gelato with quince paste and caramelized walnuts), Lee concedes that Gelato Messina’s purpose is to astound. “We want people to come in and go ‘holy shit!’”
From a culinary perspective, ice cream is a hotter topic than ever. Heston Blumenthal, the veritable wizard of molecular gastronomy, made bacon and egg his signature. While Palumbo and head chef Donato Toce have masterminded the kind of offbeat flavor combinations that get people talking (special Nacho Libre was an avocado gelato with spiced tomato salsa and corn chips), Lee insists that, at the end of the day, the appetising will always win out over the unorthodox at Messina. “We’ve done stuff with bacon. There are guys in the states that do stuff with pork infused milk. It probably tastes fine, but we limit the savoury. There’s no point making stuff weird if it’s shit.”
At the end of the day, Gelato Messina’s hottest commodity is taste, a quality, Lee says, achieved by an unflinching commitment to artisanal production methods. “Every time we make a flavor,” Lee says, “we make everything from scratch. We make the liquid flavours. We make the additions, like apple pie, brownies and citron tart.” The magic happens offsite in Rozelle, but the final product is churned and assembled in store.
If the constant buzz of contented customers who swarm from Gelato Messina’s Surry Hills store, cones dripping with scoops of pear and rhubarb gelato or pandan and coconut sorbet, is anything to go by, a fresh location was a wise choice. Such expanded horizons, however, were not decisions to be taken lightly. “We weren’t sure if it would cannibalise what we were already doing in Darlinghurst,” says Lee. “Until now, it probably wasn’t the right time. There was no point opening unless we knew that both stores could stand on their own two feet.” Now that the success of Messina seems affirmed, things are looking to grow bigger and better. “We’re looking at a few different areas, but Bondi is one of them. That’s an exclusive!”
Agonising over a cabinet packed with frozen delights, I ask Lee what, exactly, sets his hero product apart from the competition. “Without sounding clichéd, there’s a lot of love that goes into it,” he says. It’s more than evident, then, that the team behind Gelato Messina get back exactly what they put in.