August 13, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Behind the Scenes 

At Gelati Celesti, thoughtfully crafted ice cream churns out nine gallons at a time.

click to enlarge Erik Robertson stirs rainbow sprinkles into a batch of birthday cake ice cream at Gelati Celesti’s production facility.

Scott Elmquist

Erik Robertson stirs rainbow sprinkles into a batch of birthday cake ice cream at Gelati Celesti’s production facility. 

Gene Raymond plucks a ripe peach from a crate, pries it apart between his hands, tosses the pit into a trash can and drops the rest of the fruit into a giant stainless steel bowl. It's midmorning on a Thursday in July, and Raymond, Gelati Celesti's operations manager, is happy to be stationed at a table in the production area.

"During the winter there's no need for me to be back here doing prep, so a lot of time I'm in the office doing office work, so it's nice to be out here on the floor with the guys," he says, noting the uptick of production during the summer, peak ice cream season.

If you've tried something new at one of Gelati's six locations, you can rest assured that it was heavily discussed and painstakingly sampled before it made it to the floor. A team of creative ice cream experts collaborate behind the scenes to brainstorm, taste and fine-tune new flavors, and with Raymond's extensive culinary background, he's usually at the helm of the process. On this particular day, as his hands methodically remove hundreds of pits, his mind is mulling over what exactly to do with some of those stone fruits — a spicy ginger peach ice cream, he's thinking.

On the other side of the spotless, streamlined production space that Gelati has called home for about a year, Justin Clay pours an ivory-colored mixture into one of the four Italian-made small-batch ice cream machines and waits patiently as it churns. After a few minutes he opens the little door, allowing the thick, milkshakelike liquid to fill about a quarter of the tub. With the ease of someone who's done this for a while, he adds a generous portion of rainbow sprinkles into the soon-to-be ice cream, repeating the process with a vigorous yet splatter-free stir between each round. It's birthday cake, a fan favorite, and this nine-gallon tub will be delivered to a store, ready for scooping, within 24 hours.

Nearly everything in this space is done by hand, down to lining tubs with creamy peanut butter and breaking up the Oreos for flavors like the white-chocolate-based Just Ask. Raymond says pre-broken Oreos are on the market, but often the pieces are too small. There's also a powder room — quite literally a room for working with cocoa powder. The closet-sized nook with a door prevents the fine chocolaty particles from clouding up in the main area and settling like dust onto the floors, tables and machinery.

"We had the opportunity to build this exactly the way we wanted it," says owner Steve Rosser of the production facility, adding that despite Gelati's significant growth, the ice cream is still made using the same small-batch method as when the company was founded in 1984. "We've got four machines here, but we can easily add four more."

Gelati Celesti takes flavor development seriously here. Poster-sized calendars hang on a back wall, outlining upcoming specials and seasonal offerings. According to Rosser, the team brainstorms and creates flavors in five categories that encompass customers' ice cream preferences: traditional, like chocolate and vanilla; young and playful, such as Oreo and the aforementioned birthday cake; mainstream, which includes pralines and cream and salted caramel; adventurous, with bold, edgy ingredients like olive oil, mascarpone and hibiscus; and more recently prioritized, diet-restrictive, which covers sugar-free sorbets and coconut-based dairy-free desserts.

The shops' cases are always packed with 24 regulars and as many as 12 rotating flavors. With the exception of anything bacon-related, in order to maintain the kosher status designated by Keneseth Beth Israel's rabbi, Dovid Asher, no idea is too outlandish for the flavor experts to at least consider. For example, a half-joking suggestion to make a Thanksgiving-themed dessert (think turkey and gravy) turned into the development of a decadent sweet potato pie ice cream.

Interested in contributing to Gelati's rotation of flavors? Every year, staff at all locations participate in a company-wide in-house flavor competition. Each store submits two flavors, and then it's up to Raymond to turn those ideas into reality. Ultimately one flavor per store goes into production, a hand-selected panel of judges samples each offering, and the winning shop gets to go out for dinner while the staff from other locations cover for them. If you'd like to become a judge, keep an eye on Gelati's social media accounts early next year and be prepared to write a compelling essay about why you're qualified to pick the winning flavor. 

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