If you ever needed any proof that Melbourne is a gelato town, get this: 70,000 people flooded into Carlton late last month for the Gelato World Tour, where local and international gelato artisans battled it out in a scoop-off to see whose icy confections reigned supreme.
The first prize went to a flavour called Cremino - salted caramel, gianduia (hazelnut chocolate), fresh meringue and amaretti - made by Donato Toce and Simone Panetta, gelato artisans from the revered Gelato Messina, which is just about to swing open its Melbourne doors. If the turnout in Carlton was anything to go by, they better be prepared. (Wisely, the Melbourne store is their largest one to date. They obviously know who they're dealing with.)
Melbourne has always had a love affair with gelato, with old-school Italian gelato bars bringing a lick of European glamour to the city back when a four-litre tub of Neapolitan was de rigueur in the suburban freezer. You could order a zingy, tart lemon or stylish pistachio, and it was swiped on with a paddle, not scooped on with one of those sticky-levered contraptions. A cone would be artfully filled with interleaving layers and you could almost hear the buzz of passing Vespas.
But Melbourne's food scene is a wildly different beast now, and so is its gelato. While the traditional version is still available in many classic Italian eateries, many of the newer gelato artisans are pushing things to a new, more inventive level. They are looking to pop culture influences and technology to get their product known, while retaining the integrity of the origin of gelato.
Gelato Messina is a classic example of old-school techniques paired with new-school marketing and a hearty scoop of pop culture joie de vivre. This award-winning gelateria has several locations across Sydney (and one coming up in Hangzhou, China) and it's not unusual to see queues snaking out the door as people queue up for a scoop of Raisin Hell or Robert Brownie Junior. It's damn fine gelato, hand-churned on site, with a cutting-edge approach to their flavours - new, daily ones appear and just as quickly disappear, like a dessert version of Sliding Doors, or a tribute, like the Heisenberg flavour created for the finale of Breaking Bad. Constantly inventing new flavours keeps things fresh and exciting, and it keeps you intrigued to see what might come next. To date, they have a back catalogue of 900 flavours.
Gelato Messina started in 2002 by Nick Palumbo (he now co-owns it with Donato Toce, Declan Lee, Danny Palumbo and John Stephens), a first-generation Australian with a family background in Messina, Italy. At age 8, he visited Messina and met his grandparents. His grandfather took him to his favourite patisserie, Irerra, where he ordered a granita di fragola con panna e brioche (a wild strawberry granita served with whipped cream and a brioche). This was the moment that he first discovered food.
Later, he went over for a holiday as a teen and learnt how to make gelato from his uncle. His uncle used only simple, natural, quality ingredients. But what intrigued him most was the science behind it - how you can take these pure ingredients and transform them into something totally different, creating a completely different tasting experience. (Pick up a copy of the newly minted Gelato Messina cookbook if you want to try your hand.)
Even though these gelartisans are inspired by envelope-pushing chefs like Heston Blumenthal (they're currently experimenting with a banana cheddar combo), the wildness has a realness to it - when you order the apple pie gelato, be assured apple pies have been baked that morning to end up in it. It may be crazy but it's never artificial. Italian Simone Panetta (a partner in the Melbourne store who will be heading up the kitchen there) has been making gelato since he was 11 and has worked with some of Melbourne's finest restaurants, as well as being prestigiously chosen to be a ''gelato pioneer'' at Carpigiani University in Bologna.
But what is most fascinating about the modern gelaterias is their comfort in the online space. Gelato Messina has harnessed the power of social media to keep close connections with its customers and it's a relationship that adds a real-time personal touch to their business.
They have a huge online following and people regularly submit suggestions for new flavours. In a scene that could have been taken from a Nora Ephron rom-com, a girl called Monique suggested a flavour, which was named ''Monoffee Pie'' after her. One day she went in for a scoop of her namesake gelato but on the label speared in the tub, her boyfriend had arranged to have it say ''Will you marry me?''. There have been several subsequent in-store proposals, which begs the question: do they keep a tub of ''Thanks but no thanks'' out the back?
Similarly scientific and social media savvy, N2 Extreme Gelato, (329 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy) is another gelateria with a branch in Sydney that invites people to submit flavour suggestions. But going a little more left-field, they teamed up with airbnb.com.au (the international subletting website) to ask people to devise a flavour that tasted like ''Sydney''. Can you imagine what your neighbourhood would taste like?
N2 work with a collision of science and organics. Ingredients are locally sourced, but gelato is made to order using liquid nitrogen. This parlour is a far cry from a 1950s experience with kids in striped paper hats twirling soft serve. Here they're in goggles as dry ice steams over mixing bowls, serving you a neatly peaked tub of salted caramel with a black lava-like crumble of salt on top, and, instead of swivelling on a stool at the bar, you can lounge lo-fi on an Astroturfed cube to enjoy it.
The opening of Gelato Messina will coincide with the launch of the Night Noodle Markets at Good Food Month, where they will design some one-off flavours to complement the food on offer. Don't miss it - it might never appear again.
TOP THREE SELLERS ON PERMANENT ROTATION
● Salted caramel and white chocolate (their biggest seller)
● Chocolate fondant
● Pandan and coconut
THREE CRAZY DIAMONDS
● Elvis, the Fat Years: peanut butter gelato with fried brioche bits and banana jam
● Risotto Milanese: saffron gelato with saffron vanilla rice pudding
● Breakfast of Champions: milk gelato with honeyjoys and homemade Milo
GET THE NUMBERS LICKED
● 9000 litres of gelato sold every week across three Sydney stores
● Of those, 1300 litres are salted caramel and white chocolate
● 1300 litres of salted caramel and white chocolate gelato equals 12,000 scoops
Gelato Messina, at 237 Smith Street, Fitzroy opens this Thursday. Gelato Messina, the cookbook, is available from selected bookshops; RRP $39.95; published by Hardie Grant.