[This a new column at Every Food Fits about the people who cook the meals we enjoy outside of the home and the role nutrition plays in their lives and kitchens. For more photos, visit http://staceyviera.zenfolio.com/boccatogelatointerview]
By: Stacey Viera
People can’t get enough of the pineapple/basil sorbet? I thought that Cristian Velasco, co-owner of Boccato Gelato in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va., was pulling my leg. “It’s insanely good! It explodes with a pineapple flavor.”
Sitting on a bench outside of 2719 Wilson Blvd., traffic flying by, Velasco animatedly rattled off other flavor combinations. “Elvis Pelvis gelato is made with peanut butter and bananas. A little raspberry sauce on top makes it taste like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Minty Girl Scout gelato is made with Thin Mint cookies. And Boccato’s most thrilling flavor of all, XXX, is an almost “sexual experience” with five kinds of chocolate, almonds and nougat.
It sounds sinful – for more than a couple of reasons – but many of Velasco’s products, the sorbet in particular, are fat-free. His gelato is made with milk and other fresh ingredients, such as chocolate and fruit. The sorbet is made with water, fresh fruit and fruit pulp. For the health benefits associated with antioxidants, Velasco is using more fruits like pomegranate and will soon introduce acai berry.
Gelato differs from ice cream in that it has 6 to 9 percent less butterfat than ice cream. There is less air in the batter, making it more dense and providing a more intense flavor in every bite. On the day I visited, 80 percent of the case was dairy free, filled with sorbets and exotic flavors such as lúcuma. Lúcuma?
It’s an Andean fruit – lúcuma even has it’s own following on Facebook! – hard to find in the D.C. area. Popular in his native Peru, Velasco described it as having a butterscotch/toffee flavor. I tried the lúcuma. My unrefined palate would call it “really good.” Before handing over a sample spoonful, Velasco held the orange-toned treat up to the bright orange-y wall, the first thing that customers see upon entering Boccato. The colors are an exact match.
Boccato – a play on the Spanish word for “mouth” – is a gelateria that blends traditional gelato-making techniques with its own style and flavors. After learning the gelato trade from experts in Argentina, Chile, Peru and working at a gelateria in Florence located a block away from the Duomo cathedral, “I tried to replicate other people’s gelato. But the stuff I made on my own was crazier and better. So I just run with it.”
Velasco calls the making of gelato a “beautiful production, artisan, artistic,” and the ultimate reward after working 30 days straight in the shop is “the joy of people, seeing the reaction when they see a beautiful thing. I want to be proud of my work.”
During our chat on the bench outside, we were interrupted by a customer. “You’re in the middle of a conversation, sorry to jump in, but,” the smiling woman looked at Velasco while her family waited a few feet away, “you’re the owner right?” Velasco said he is, and she gushed, “Thank you so much for having lúcuma! No one else even knows what it is!” As she walked away, Velasco looked at me and said, “You see? I made an impact in her life. And that buzz goes around.”
As animated and lively Velasco is, his business partner, Rob Shelton, seems laid back and reserved. Shelton and Velasco met as waiters in Washington at The Oceanaire Seafood Room and later decided to go into business together. “We were two waiters, talking, and all of a sudden, we made it happen,” Velasco said. “This is our lives. Every penny is in the business. We have no investors, we’re not corporate. We thrive on customer service and great products.”
Shelton said he had “always done my own thing,” so it seems natural that he would want to be his own boss. For Velasco, after years of high-end catering following his study at Le Cordon Bleu and his divorce, he took a break to figure out what to do next. Through out his career, “gelato has been my passion.”
In addition to gelato, Shelton and Velasco offer a variety of flavored teas that “taste good, help with digestion” and provide other health benefits. Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Seattle supplies the beans used for Boccato’s fresh-brewed coffee. The shop has four full-time employees, 10 part-time and four people work each shift. I was surprised to hear that in the high-rent Clarendon neighborhood, Boccato has 18 parking spaces behind the shop.
In spite of the economy, 2009 was a great year for Boccato. Velasco said that there is a “40-Degree Rule” in his business: “If it’s 40 degrees and above, we do fine.” According to this data from the National Weather Service, the average monthly temperatures for 2009 show that there’s probably something to the 40-Degree Rule. During the December 2009 snowstorm that crippled transportation in the D.C. area, Clarendon residents were out walking around the neighborhood two days later, and Boccato enjoyed their best Monday ever.
In May, Boccato will celebrate its 2-year anniversary. (Chocolate Guinness will be the featured flavor of the month!) There is much to celebrate as their second anniversary approaches: not only can you find Boccato Gelato served in upscale casual establishments such as Clarendon’s Eventide Restaurant and Screwtop Wine Bar, but a second store will be opening the first week in July.
The new location is in the heart of Old Town Alexandria, at the intersection of King and Patrick streets. Velasco knew that he wanted the shop to be in Old Town, but away from the waterfront area and the “crazy” intersection of Washington and King streets. At his family friendly shop, “I wouldn’t feel right with kids running around on such a busy street. I want [Boccato] to be a place to chill and relax.”
Their five-year plan is to have five stores in places such as Bethesda and Georgetown, and expand their offerings to include empanadas, panini sandwiches and pastries.
Enjoying the experiences of today while looking forward to the future, Velasco said, “I don’t feel like I am working. I have fun. Everyone should find this in their lives.”
View more photos from the interview: http://staceyviera.zenfolio.com/boccatogelatointerview. Follow Boccato Gelato on Facebook and Twitter.