Sweet freeze | March 10, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - March 10, 2006

Sweet freeze

Michael's lush gelato overwhelms our intrepid investigator

by Dale F. Bentson

I was jittery after the 20th sample of gelato. I forged fearlessly forward, though — resolute reporter that I am — until I had tasted all 30 flavors, retested several, then eaten more than I should have of my favorites.

I was investigating the recently opened Michael's Gelato & Cafe on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Michael and Sladana Lucich have been in the salon business for 20 years and recently opened a gleaming gelato palace a few steps away from their studio in the space vacated by Swensen's Ice Cream.

A complete gutting of the building has resulted in a handsome gelateria that boasts pomegranate walls, tables and chairs decorated in a rainbow of ceramic tiles and whimsical lighting in an open, airy space.

"Being European, we love gelato, and we have always wanted to bring those authentic flavors here," Michael said. The couple had their freezer equipment and cabinetry designed and built in Italy. It was installed by specialists from the factory last December.

The idea of frozen desserts dates back to the Old Testament when Isaac offered Abraham goat's milk mixed with snow, telling him, "Eat and drink: the sun is torrid and you can cool down." Frozen desserts or ices can be traced through ancient civilizations the world over. Our contemporary notion of gelato is attributed to Renaissance Florence, where fabulous examples of the delicacy are sold today in every conceivable nook and cranny of the city.

Gelato is made from cow's milk, never cream, and contains 4 percent to 8 percent butterfat — less than most American ice creams that have 10 percent to 18 percent fat. Gelato packs more flavor, too, because fat coats the mouth preventing full enjoyment of fresh, natural flavors. Like high-quality ice cream, gelato contains less than 35 percent air, resulting in a dense and exceptionally flavorful product.

I carefully checked the flavors and colors and arranged the sampling like a wine tasting: lightest to darkest with the densest, most full-bodied last. I was not looking for any particular characteristics; rather, I was looking for what struck me as the gelato lay on my tongue.

I closed my eyes with each new taste, sipping a drop of water between each spoonful to refresh my mouth and palate. Each taste sensation conjured specific images, creating the basis for my tasting notes. Amongst the noteworthy:

•Lemon custard sorbet: tangy, creamy, cold, puckery, makes you want to kiss someone right away.

•Mixed berry sorbet: raspberry, maybe some blueberry and strawberry, seedy, grainy, Parisian-designer-lipstick red.

•Strawberry sorbet: grainy, paint-the-town red, subtle flavors, crisp, fun to eat.

•Spring yogurt: vanilla yogurt with bits and swirls of fresh strawberry, jammy, custardy, very lush, creamy. One of my favorites.

•Mango: yummy, close your eyes and think of sandy Baja beaches, palm trees quivering in tropical sea breezes, hammocks stretched near thatched cabanas. Soooo refreshing.

•Caramel pecan: silky caramel with ground pecans not unlike a rich butter pecan ice cream — but healthier.

•Cookies and cream: kids' favorite, adults' favorite, one of my favorites, ground Oreos, let's-go-play-in-the-sandbox good.

•Anna Delizia (I think I dated her in high school): caramel, less sweet than other flavors (why I stopped dating her), eggy, hazelnut, toffee and chocolate fudge. A girl with rich taste (why she stopped dating me.)

•Vanilla: die-and-go-to-heaven, high-octane vanilla. Seductive, creeeeamy, dense, ambrosial with flecks of Madagascar vanilla bean.

•Coconut macadamia nut: chocolate bits and whole Macadamia nuts, tastes like fresh shredded coconut, creamy, and oh so white, it resembles the alabaster flour Michelangelo used in casting David.

•Crema country: not unlike dense eggnog impregnated with chocolate slivers, vanilla, amaretto cookies, chocolate-almond crunch. Sweet as an Andrea Bocelli aria.

•Gold coffee: in-your-face, smash mouth, supercharged, espresso flavor. Puts hair on your chest or takes it off. No decaf here. Could cause your eyes to cross.

•Coffee toffee: silky texture, toffee bits add sweetness, for the fainter of heart or those who want to sleep tonight.

•Mocha: medium-bodied, with bits of chocolate folded in, espresso, light vanilla cream, slivered almonds, chocolate fudge. Won't affect your vision.

•Brownie: seriously rich, smooth base with chunks of fudge brownie, dark and luxuriant, something from a fairytale with a happy ending.

•Borgia: The Borgias, of course, were that bad-to-the-bone Renaissance family made famous (or infamous) by Machiavelli. The gelato is better. Grand Marnier with dark, dark, dark chocolate. The kind of dark chocolate that gave you a stomach-ache as a kid.

•Papa rock: dark, dark chocolate, chockablock full of walnuts, marshmallows, almonds and other gooey good things. Think Rocky Road here, chunky and chewy.

My knees started to buckle after the caramel pecan but I caught my second wind with the coconut macadamia nut. The sugar rush really took hold on my second pass at the brownie. My writing became jumpy and I had a hard time keeping my scribbles on the straight lines of the notebook.

By the time I concluded, my mouth was raw from frostbite and my brain numbed from concentration and the polar surge of sugar, but I had a fixed smile on my face that did not let go until my lips defrosted.

This is a veritable playground of decadence. Prices are $3.75 small, $5 medium and $6 for large cones or cups. Gelato is also available by the pint and quart ($11 and $17). There are shakes ($4.75), floats ($4.50), sundaes ($6.75 and $8.25) that include three toppings, granita (shaved ice) with a choice of 10 flavors, $3.75. There are also pastries, espressos, and fancy coffees in the morning and six different panini (sandwiches) for an anytime repast.

Michael's just seems like a place I could live in, at least for a while. There is a small upstairs seating area that would be perfect for my pup tent. You might see me there when you stop in.


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