Il Piccolo Gelato
In the heart of Ballarat, on Sturt Street, is an institution that presents a taste of Italy. It comes complete with an authentic 1962 Vespa that is wheeled out every morning and wheeled inside every evening. Everything inside is genuine Italian, even though the owner, rather ruefully, admits that he isn’t.
Il Piccolo Gelato, a Ballarat institution pioneered by Anthony Ransom, opened during June 2016. At the time, Anthony had just returned from learning how to make gelato in Italy, something he says he not been inclined to make before moving to Ballarat. His background was in baking, and he had had a restaurant in Sydney before he decided to go to Italy specifically to learn about gelato.
Anthony had successfully identified that there was a market for gelato in the Golden City because restaurants were ordering it from Melbourne. At that time, there was no food scene in Ballarat and there were sceptics that gelato would succeed. 5 ½ years later, there is still demand for Il Piccolo gelato. And Anthony says that he is very grateful to Ballarat because he can create what he likes and people keep coming back.
The primary product of Il Piccolo is gelato but there has been a recent expansion into cakes. There is also a function cart but, Anthony cautions, gelato doesn’t transport well. Last summer was a very busy period after a quiet period between April and August when there was no one in town because of Covid. Changes to the way the Begonia Festival was held in Ballarat this year led to the busiest Begonia Festival that the store had ever had. Usually, it is held at the Ballarat Botanic Gardens and preparations for participating had involved taking staff out of the shop for the three days of the festival, making the gelato and then carting it up to the gardens. One of the things that Anthony says he learnt in Italy is that gelato must be fresh – you can’t sell old gelato.
Anthony is happy to chat to anyone who comes into the store about gelato, but he is quick to point out that he doesn’t educate people about the difference between gelato and ice-cream and the ingredients in either concoction. He stresses that ‘people like it and we’re happy’, or his favourite saying of his own invention which has become the store’s ethos ‘Come in happy and leave happier’. Making gelato, according to Anthony, is a very rewarding job because people can taste the gelato in front of you and leave happy.
Food perception is inherently a visual response and shouldn’t use colouring. “Blue is not a colour in food”, says Anthony and follows this with the question “What’s making it blue?” He says that people go for the flavours that they ‘recognise from childhood…appeal to everybody…not complex”. These are chocolate, choc mint, caramel and strawberry. Anthony adds that people are ‘intrigued by different flavours but they don’t buy it”. 250 different flavours have been produced in-store including limited editions of Hot Cross bun and Christmas pudding flavours. Prosciutto and rockmelon gelato was made once but it didn’t work, supportive of Anthony’s observation about what customers are looking for. Another comparison that he makes is that liquorice is the last to sell – just as it is the last one to go when it’s in a bag of lollies. He adds that ‘staff have to sell it so they have to like the flavours’.
That doesn’t mean that Anthony isn’t open to requests. In fact, he says, that he likes challenges. He makes unique flavours for other places around Ballarat including burnt butter gelato and tailors small batches on request. On one occasion he produced six different flavours of coffee. But he adds that for in-store sales he ‘won’t make anything silly’ and chooses to specialise in seasonal flavours such as mango and makes these from fresh ingredients only when they are in season.
Il Piccolo also caters for allergies. Egg and soy aren’t used anywhere in the shop and separate spatulas are used for every flavour. But no guarantee can be given that nuts won’t cross-contaminate. The kitchen is open so that you can see into the kitchen to view the process and verify that the gelato is made onsite rather than shipped in from a factory. Anthony says that he also designed the shop this way because he is proud of it and wants people to see it. One quip that he adds is that ‘authentic gelato is not served with a scoop, but it is served with a spatula’.
Anthony describes the process of making gelato as a science and it must be unique to the environment – one formula doesn’t always work. Sometimes it becomes necessary to change the base because of the atmosphere in the store. Water levels must be right, and the amount of sugar and fat must be correct. Nuts have fats and fruits have fructose. Each batch of strawberries will have a different level of sugar that has to be balanced out in the final product. There are lots of different types of sugar too and because it is an anti-freeze, it must be used. But there are options to choose from – dextrose, fructose, honey and maple syrup.
The best flavour to tell if gelato is good? Anthony suggests his favourite flavour and the first one he learned to make – lemon. He describes it as a very Italian flavour because you are taking something sour and making it sweet. It is the same with lime.
Anthony knows the customers and clientele that his store attracts. He says its is easy to build rapport with customers when they come in because they are ‘standing right in front of you’ and he knows the parents and kids who visit. On publicity, Anthony says that ‘word of mouth is the best advertising method when a kid’.
It seems to work when you are an adult too.