Italy’s L’Albero dei Gelati Sends A Branch to Brooklyn

Helmed by true old-world artisans, L’Albero dei Gelati is the only international outpost of a storied gelateria in a tiny town outside Milan.

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To most passersby, L’Albero dei Gelati looks like any other new scoop shop, catering to monied families pushing doublewide strollers down Fifth Avenue. You might assume the owners just sold their stock options, or maybe left a marketing gig in Midtown on a start-up lark.

But you’d be wrong: In fact the shop is literally helmed by true old-world artisans, the only international outpost of a storied gelateria in a tiny town outside Milan.

Monia Solighetto, who opened the Brooklyn branch of L’Albero dei Gelati last year with her husband, Alessandro Trezza, has been spinning custard and hand-filling cones practically since she could walk: For nearly 30 years, her parents Marina and Luigi ran a beloved gelato shop in Soregno, her little Lombardian home. But she grew up, went to college and got a communications job in the fashion industry, and had no interest in taking over the business — until her parents retired. Only after they shuttered the shop and sold off all the equipment did she finally comprehend the loss.

“When you have something,” she says, “you don’t really realize you love it until it is gone.”

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So she and her brother decided to open a gelato shop of their own, with a new name and a new-old mission. L’Albero dei Gelati, which means “the tree of ice cream,” would follow the ancient traditions — using heirloom, organic, fair-trade ingredients from small farmers — heralded by Slow Food, whose international headquarters stands nearby in the region of Piedmont.

“For us ‘the best’ means quality, and it means taste for sure,” explains Solighetto, “but it also means all of the values around it.”

And it means churning flavors that go far beyond ordinary cioccolato. Though L’Albero dei Gelati’s standards are exhilaratingly good — soft clouds of sweet cream laced with ripe berries, vanilla bean, artisan licorice or finely crushed pistachios from Sicily’s volcanic soils — Solighetto and Trezza draw inspiration from unconventional ingredients. “You can make anything into gelato,” says Solighetto. Indeed, in the rainbow row of flavors on offer in the open-to-the-street shop — each tub smoothed into soft waves like tiny seas of sweet dairy — you might find chamomile, strawberry-thyme, even yellow bell pepper, sweet tomato-basil, grassy green bean and mint, deep black squid ink or a rich, unexpectedly delicious blue cheese.

It was difficult, back in 2006, for tradition-bound Italians in Seregno to understand sweet, frozen scoops flavored with mushrooms and risotto.

“I had to pray,’” says Solighetto, “‘someone please taste this.’” But the gelato spoke for itself, and the curious became regulars, calling up in advance for the savory flavor of the week so they could plan their dinner.

Eventually, L’Albero opened two more shops near Milan, hired a team, and Solighetto and her husband set their sights overseas. They wanted to move someplace new, to open a L’Albero outside of Europe, maybe start making their own pastries and breads, a few frittatas, paninis and other little confections, and to buy in a few top-quality products like salumi, wine and cheese.

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They considered Australia, but after a visit decided it wasn’t the right fit. Solighetto had been to Manhattan: It felt too hectic, no place to raise their young son, now three. But someone suggested Park Slope, and when she Googled the neighborhood, “everything that came up was the food co-op.” That, she says, was a very good sign.

With help from their partner and pastry chef Marco Iannantuoni, Solighetto and Trezza built out the space on Fifth Avenue, just across from J.J. Byrne Park. But although they intended to import their technique and expertise from Italy, they didn’t want to make gelato with Lombardian strawberries or sheep’s milk ricotta flown in weekly from Rome.

They did much of their research while the café was under construction, when they came over for two-week jaunts to seek out the purveyors from whom they would buy cream, berries and stone fruit, vegetables, herbs and grains, starting with a list of local farmers provided by Slow Food USA.

What they make at the Park Slope L’Albero dei Gelati is Italian in spirit, explains Solighetto, but this particular albero is rooted in the terroir of their new home. The whimsical menu is busy with notes on the breads made from “mother yeasts” spawned from Jonagold apples, or fair pay for our upstate producers; she hands out free packets of wildflower seeds that grow well here.

All of which is why, each morning, you might see soft little rounds of authentic Italian brioche called tuppo, but they’re served with raw local honey or Jersey blueberry jam. The fritattas — made from eggs from the Sunday farmers market held across the street — aren’t flavored with prosciutto, but rather bacon from Vermont Smoke and Cure. The breathtakingly lovely cakes — buttery almond-flour tortes, rustic slabs filled with chocolate and nuts or crowned with ripe apricots — are baked with Pennsylvania flours, while their tiramisu is layered with Vermont mascarpone.

In fact, says Trezza, even the gelato’s master recipe channels local terroir, and not only because the dairy comes from Pennsylvania pastures: The base for every scoop, he explains, is sweetened with just a kiss of maple syrup.

FIND OUT MORE: Click here for our tour of Park Slope’s best frozen treats, including real Thai ice cream, farmstead fruit pops and from-scratch Triple Chocolate Chunker ice cream cookie sand- wiches sold two blocks from Prospect Park.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.