It might be the two faucets behind the counter, reminiscent of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," out of which pour continual silky flows of milk and dark chocolate (in which employees dip wafer cookies, a traditional gelato accompaniment). Go see it for yourself if you don't believe this reporter.
It might be the visibly creamy rows of gelato — from hazelnut and chocolate to saffron and kumquat — that are made from scratch with all organic, as-local-as-possible ingredients in an open kitchen just feet away from the glass case the gelato is served from.
But above all, it might be the sheer passion and commitment of a first-time food operator with no experience in the industry, but who loves gelato so much that she traveled to Europe multiple times to do her own hands-on research; attended immersion gelato programs in Italy; installed a test lab in her own kitchen to try out different combinations and methodologies; and spent a year and a half searching for a suitable space to open up shop in Palo Alto, finally doing so this month at 121 Lytton Ave.
Christianne Mares, who originally hails from Mexico, says she's always been passionate about (read: indulged in) ice cream, but was mostly used to the American version until she spent a decade living and working in Germany, where gelato is more common.
"It was so good, so creamy and so different than what I knew," she said.
Fast forward to some years later, after she moved to Palo Alto and met her husband, Jorge Borbolla. The couple had three children and she eventually decided to take a break from her career in the tech industry. An indulgent family trip to Italy in summer 2012 solidified her passion for gelato and inspired her to bring what she learned and observed there back to Palo Alto.
That summer, the family "went from gelateria to gelateria" throughout Italy, visiting Florence, Lucca, Bologna, Naples, Amalfi and Sardinia. It was at first for pleasure but soon became more serious, the couple said.
"We noticed there's better and not so good (gelato), even in Italy," Borbolla said, "and we very quickly started seeking out where we went."
What made the most critical difference, they said, was making the gelato fresh every single day, on site. Other techniques, such as how much fat to add (Gelataio recipes have 8 percent) or how much air to let in (the amount of air is what distinguishes gelato from ice cream, with gelato being churned at a much slower pace so as to let in less air than ice cream), Mares learned in her gelato immersion programs.
Gelataio (which means ice cream man in Italian) is a merging of two worlds: that of traditional Italy, absorbed by Mares on these trips, and that of California, land of fresh, organic produce and a supreme appreciation of handmade artisan food. It fits well with Palo Alto sensibilities that have been applied over and over at local ice cream shops, but not yet to gelato.
So inside Gelataio, customers will find chocolate gelato made from a special mixture of Toblerone chocolate, cocoa powder and other chocolates; pistachio made from a pistachio paste Mares made herself; and, if you caught it last week, a kumquat sorbetto made with kumquats from a neighbor's tree. Available sizes and prices for cups are piccolo (small) for $3.99 (up to two flavors) and regular for $4.99 (up to three flavors). A grande size ($5.99) is coming soon, the menu reads. Get your fix in a piccolo cone for $4.50 or regular for $5.75. Take-home pints are available for $10.99.
There's also what Mares calls "alternative gelato," such as popsicles (gelato frozen and then dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate), piccolino (adorable miniature ice cream cones that are filled with a miniature scoop of hazelnut gelato and then dipped in dark chocolate, then topped with chopped hazelnut, $3.15 each), gelato sandwiches ($3.99), and dairy-free gelato made with almond, rice or coconut milks.
Four main flavors — chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut and mint chip — never leave the menu board, and the rest change every few days. On a recent afternoon, the case was stocked with hills of creamy stracciatella (chocolate chip), saffron, peanut marzipan and cajeta (Mexican caramel, this reporter's favorite). There are no toppings besides the traditional wafer, which is dipped in your choice of either Callebaut Belgian milk chocolate or 71 percent dark chocolate from Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame).
Everything is made in the on-site open kitchen. Mares even pasteurizes the milk herself before mixing it and blast freezing it (which creates a critically essential "crust" of cold that protects the gelato from melting, holding the air and consistency at the ideal level, Mares and Borbolla explained). It's served at a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than the typical zero degrees of a home freezer, Borbolla said.
Down the line, you might see more unconventional flavors that Mares plans to develop (she tasted some savory gelatos in Italy that she loved), small one-serving gelato cakes and torta di riso, a traditional Italian rice cake.
Despite all the abundant traces of traditional Italy, Mares said the shop is, at the end of the day, California-inspired.
"In the end, as inspired as we were by the methodologies and tradition of Italy, one thing became very clear to us — and I really wanted to highlight — that we have an amazing food culture here in California, and we have amazing fresh produce," Mares said.
"We felt that we were actually far ahead of the mainstream in Italy as regards the use of fresh, organic ingredients. This was the last piece that was missing for us, and the element that rounded out the whole concept. We love California, and Gelataio is an expression of the best of both worlds."
121 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto