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The nation’s best gelato — in Fennville

With 600 flavors in 49 states,
Pete Palazzolo tingles the taste buds
with his concoctions — from bubble gum
to mascarpone caramel pistachio.

By Kalee Rinehart
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Pete Palazzolo’s passion for frozen treats started 22 years ago in the back of his mother’s restaurant in Saugatuck.

After two decades of continual success, Palazzolo’s Artisan Gelato and Sorbetto can now be found in 49 states (excluding Hawaii), and in 600 flavors. It has even been discussed on “Oprah,” who included Palazzolo’s sorbetto on “the O list” as a creamy and heavenly summer treat.

It all began in 1986, when Marie Palazzolo opened Palazzolo’s Italian Specialties. Pete started working there when he was 16, during the restaurant’s second summer. The mother and son almost immediately decided they wanted to offer gelato.

The gelato quickly became so popular that they decided to wholesale it. Their first deliveries — via the back of their Chevy Blazer — were to The Sandpiper restaurant (now The Piper) and to Holland Hospital.

Palazzolo’s has quite a few more customers now. The products can be found at Forest Hills Food, D&W stores, and many area restaurants, including San Chez, Bistro Bella Vita and The Chop House. (See list.)

Palazzolo’s Artisan Gelato and Sorbetto relocated to Fennville last year, a move that gave the company 50,000 square feet — 10 times the size of the original building. Despite the 45,000-square-foot increase and higher revenues, Palazzolo’s remains a small company, with 16 employees.

Food, it seems, runs in the Palazzolo family. Pete’s maternal grandfather was chef and owner of Larco’s Inn in Detroit, and his grandmother was an executive chef.

“I’ve always had it in me to be in the kitchen,” Pete said. “I put omelets together at 4 or 5 years old.”

And Pete still has the privilege of working with his mom. Marie is responsible for managing retail. Even Pete’s dad, a retired Chrysler employee, puts in a few hours once in a while.

“He has a good pension, so I just give him a little spending money,” Pete laughed.

When they initially started, the ingredients available did not satisfy Pete.

“I have a knack for assembling things that taste good — Italian instinct; it is part of me to know what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “The equipment- guys typically wanted you to use the powdered mixes. It helped me learn that I didn’t want to use those.”

 

Marie Palazzolo, above. packages spumoni gelato.

Dismayed at the processed and artificial flavors, Pete decided to use only high-quality, natural ingredients, the authentic way to make gelato. Other companies couldn’t do it because they lacked the proper equipment.

Many ice cream manufacturers add oil-based flavoring to their products instead of real fruits and nuts, since berry seeds and nuts will clog their machines. Pete’s special equipment from Italy allows him to flavor his treats with real foods. He creates flavors that he knows other companies cannot replicate. Between the gelato and sorbetto, Palazzolo’s offers 19 varieties of vanilla and 44 chocolates, along with products that include coffee, nuts, fruit, liqueurs, and spices and herbs.

The company uses mangos from the mountains of India; couverture chocolate from Switzerland, Venezuela and Belgium; and high-quality vanilla from Tahiti and Madagascar. There is even a Bloody Mary sorbetto, complete with tomato juice, red pepper, dill, horseradish, vodka and Worcestershire.

The flavor ideas sometimes come from customer requests and sometimes straight from Pete’s imagination. One of the more unusual flavors, Mexican chocolate chipotle, was requested by a chef at a Cuban restaurant in Miami. The final product includes chocolate gelato blended with raspberries, chunks of chocolate and spicy chipotle peppers.

Other flavors have come about almost by accident.

“When family and friends come over, they request vanilla. But once, I had a tub of mascarpone. I figured they wouldn’t notice,” Pete said. “I had some caramel and pistachios too, and just started adding them in.”

Mascarpone caramel pistachio became Pete’s favorite flavor, and a mainstay on the menu.

Palazzolo gelato also has a different consistency, with less air whipped in, making it gooey and creamy. “It doesn’t feel like a frozen sponge,” Pete said.

Less air means more density. Three gallons of ice cream yield 50 four-ounce scoops, while 2.5 gallons of gelato yield 80 four-ounce scoops.

Pete said there is a misconception that gelato has less fat than ice cream. The fat content varies among flavors; French vanilla, blended with lots of egg yolks, is on the higher end of the fat spectrum. If fat is a concern, then the answer is sorbetto — which is dairy-free, made only with water, sugar and fruit.

The business has grown exponentially. In the ’80s, Palazzolo’s frozen products found a niche in fine dining, but in the ’90s, family-style restaurants also began to request the products — and wanted to scoop rather than just serve. Pete connected with Frigomeccanica, an Italian industrial refrigeration company. Along with Frigomeccanica, he now has helped 30 companies custom-design their space for gelaterias.

 

Pete said that occasionally customers are not satisfied with new flavors. He related a story about one company that requested a batch of pistachio gelato.

“They said, ‘This doesn’t taste right. We want it to taste like this other pistachio ice cream,’” Pete said.
He tasted that ice cream and realized the flavor was not pistachio, but almond. So, he created a gelato that pleased the company’s taste buds, foregoing authenticity.

“The key to our success and growth pattern is doing what the customer wants,” he said.

That includes bubble gum and blue moon gelato.

While Pete loves his job, he does have his frozen-treat limits.

“I’m like the plumber with a leaky faucet,” he said. “I never have it at home.” GR

Kalee Rinehart is a recent graduate of Syracuse University and a summer intern with Gemini Publications.

   
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