The scoop on the best gelato in the d.c. metro area: an interview with stefano polles of sorriso ristorante

As I write this the temperature is in the low 80’s and there’s a gentle breeze on an almost cloudless day. It is the kind of day that poets love to rhapsodize about and the forecast is for more sun in the weeks ahead. Spring has finally arrived and when spring arrives my attention turns to thoughts of gelato.

Yes, gelato! While Italian wine is my main passion, my infatuation with gelato is a close second. Ever since my first trip to Italy, and Rome in particular where I first sampled the real stuff, I’ve been a devotee of gelato.

And I’m happy to say that it’s become easier to indulge my passion for Italian-style gelato in the Washington, D.C. metro area in recent years. While stores specializing in gelato, (called a gelateria in Italy) were hard to find not too long ago, new gelaterias are popping up with increasing frequency. While gelato is easier to find today, the question is how good is it and where can you get the really good stuff, the kind that you can buy in Italy?

With this goal in mind, my intrepid companion and wife Julie and I, sometimes with Italian friends in tow, embarked on a month endeavor to assess the state of gelato in the Washington, D.C. area. We sampled gelati in Arlington, the Dupont Circle and Logan Circle areas, Georgetown, Bethesda and Rockville, among others. And I’m happy to report that the quality of the gelato we tasted is pretty good. Not as good as in Italy but still pretty good.

However, we discovered that the best gelato was not at a gelateria but at an Italian restaurant, specifically Sorriso Ristorante on Connecticut Avenue, N.W. in the Cleveland Park area of D.C. It was here that we found gelato that came closest to our Italian ideal. Having great gelato in an authentic Italian restaurant makes a lot of sense because there is a natural affinity between traditional Italian dishes and gelato. A pizza margherita or plate of tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce just pleads to be followed by a sweet dessert such as gelato.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we discovered that the maker of this gelato, Stefano Polles, son of the owners of Sorriso, acquired his skills in Italy at a week-long, full-immersion class on making gelato conducted no less in Italian. This was the real thing and he has put his training and skills to good use at Sorriso’s.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and spend some time with Stefano discussing the state of gelato in the D.C. area.

WineWordsWisdom (WWW): Your primary culinary interest used to be making pizzas at Sorriso. How did you come about to add gelato to your list of culinary accomplishments?
Stefano: I felt it was time to expand my repertoire. Coincidentally, I  had been visiting local gelaterias.  I’ve enjoyed gelato from the time I was a kid but I’ve never found gelato here as good as in Italy. While it’s pretty good here I just felt like something is missing and anyone who has tasted gelato in Italy will know what I mean. It was that plus the fact that there are so few places that make and sell gelato here that made me think that there is a market here for authentic gelato.

WWW: How long have you been making gelato?
Stefano: Since November of last year. 

WWW: Where and when did you learn how to make gelato?
Stefano: In November 2009 I went to Bologna, Italy for training at the Carpigiani University of Gelato where I took the classes in Italian. This is a famous school that was written-up in Time magazine a little while ago and it’s like a graduate school for gelato.

Stephano Polles of Sorriso Ristorante

WWW: Sounds challenging. How did it go?
Stefano: It was a week-long program with students from around the world that ran from 9in the morning to 6:30 at night each day and involved a combination of lecture and hands-on practice. A lot of the material was very technical such as formulas for how much cream, dextrose and stabilizer to use as well as the pasteurizing temperatures for flavored bases.

But perhaps the mostchallenging aspect was when I came back home and had to put what I learned to work in actually preparing gelato. I practiced making gelato every day until I got it perfect.

WWW: What are the most important things you leaned in Italy about making gelato?
Stefano: Taste, texture and display are probably the most important things. Really good gelato requires the perfect gelato base and that’s not easy to achieve. The gelato base has to have the right combination of ingredients so it has a balanced flavor and texture. The texture should be creamy, not because there is cream in it but because there is less air in it which is what makes it creamy.  

The color is also important – it can’t look artificial and should be displayed properly. The most important thing is to display it in such a way that is has maximum appeal so that people want to buy it. So there is both a science and art associated with good gelato.

WWW: What differentiates Italian gelato from most gelatos made here?
Stefano: Well, it goes back to the items I just mentioned - taste, texture and display. I’ve noticed that the texture of gelato here is sometimes lumpy and not very smooth and frequently the gelato here is also served too cold to be consumed properly – gelato that’s too cold can numb the tastbuds.

I also think all gelaterias should have their gelato looking attractive with all colors and decorations. In Italy, gelaterias want to capture your imagination with how the gelato looks even before you taste it.

WWW: Can gelato made here ever be as good as that in Italy?
Stefano: Absolutely! I’ve heard this romantic notion that gelato here can never be as good as in Italy because it lacks the atmosphere of Italy. You know, the idea that the same gelato will simply taste better in Italy because you’re sitting on a sun-drenched piazza in Rome with a view of the Pantheon. But the reality is that it all depends on the technical skills and the preparation involved in making and displaying the gelato and it shouldn’t matter whether you are in Italy or the U. S.

WWW: What’s your favorite flavor of gelato?
Stefano: That’s easy - hazelnut.

WWW: Anything else of interest that you learned in Italy?
Stefano: I also learned how to make sorbetti in Italy. Basicallychocolate and cappuccino gelato that is a process of combining sugar with primarily fresh fruit and water. The key component in making a good sorbetto is balancing the sugar content with the acidic content of the fruit. It is important to be able to measure the acidity very carefully. At the University you were taught a mathematical calculation that enables you to determine the right amount of ingredients so the acidity and sugar are in balance. If done correctly, sorbetto can be a real treat.

WWW: Care to share with us your future plans?
Stefano:  Right now I’m still experimenting with different flavors, trying to perfect them so they taste authentic. Currently I have ten flavors that I’ve worked with and that I think are pretty good. But not all flavors are available at all times. Tonight, chocolate and cappuccino flavors are available at Sorriso’s. A couple of days earlier hazelnut and tiramisu were on the menu. It all depends. I’m still experimenting and I want to gradually add more flavors so that when I open my own gelateria, which I hope won’t be that far away, I can hit the ground running.

Richard Marcis
May 9, 2010

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