Noi lo facciamo davanti a tutti. Translation: We do it in front of everyone. This is the modus operandi at Bella Gelateria, which proprietor and maestro gelatiere, James Coleridge, takes very seriously. “We don’t keep things in storage,” he says. “We make everything from scratch right here using only the freshest local ingredients and quality sourced products from around the world.” To put it another way, Coleridge sees himself as caretaker of an old-world process that is quickly disappearing in today’s world of industrialized gelato.
I discovered Bella Gelateria a few summers ago while spending a weekend with my husband at the Fairmont Pacific Rim before the birth of our second child. Located on the ground floor of the hotel, Bella Gelateria harkens back to the traditional ice cream parlors found in Rome or Naples: striped cream-colored walls, checkerboard tiles on the floors, custom millwork with roman arches. On one wall hang black-and-white photographs from celebrated master ice cream maker Donata Panciera’s book, Il Mio Gelato, reproduced exclusively for the gelateria. Classic songs by Andrea Boccelli and Tiziano Ferro play softly on the stereo while, behind the counter, Coleridge scoops out spoonfuls of his delectable creations. “What’s your favorite flavor?” I ask one of the customers. “It changes every week,” he says finally with a hint of a smile. Indeed, every day Coleridge creates 24 flavors from scratch, depending on what’s available and in season.
A graduate of Gelato University, Coleridge opened Bella Gelateria in Vancouver in 2010 and quickly gained attention with his unique concoctions. Every day he handcrafts dozens of flavors inspired by the seasons (like Xoxolat chocolate bacon, maple cinnamon crème brûlée, toasted marshmallow and saffron rosewater, to name a few.) He keeps them out of sight under the counter in stainless steel containers to ensure the ideal air, temperature, humidity and aroma. “We are trying to preserve this tiny little ice crystal in the perfect state before someone tastes it,” Coleridge says.
“We’re big fans of the 100-mile diet,” Coleridge tells me. His local ingredients include Avalon organic milk from Chilliwack, cherries from Osoyoos, and Bartlett pears from the Okanagan. But the chocolate he brings from France. “Michel Cluizel costs four or five times more than a typical chocolate,” he says. “But you can’t make five star gelato with one star ingredients.” Every three weeks or so he clears customs for his shipment of Sorrento lemons that fly in from (where else?) Sorrento, Italy. Smooth and delicate with a long finish, his lemon sorbeto is out of this world.
During a recent visit I try a flavor I’d never heard of before: Kulfi. “This couple came in and raved about the ice cream in India,” Coleridge tells me. “All I knew about it was the name, Kulfi.” After a bit of research and many hours in the kitchen, Coleridge is pleased with his new concoction. I taste the cardamom first, then hints of saffron as well as bits of almonds and pistachio. Though I’ve never been to India, I am immediately transported to the set of a Bollywood movie, with the sounds and smells of a crowded Mumbai street. “That’s what we try to do here,” he says, “recreate that perfect vacation to Italy or that childhood memory of picking raspberries in summer.”
He tells me of another creation: Lavender di Federique. An 11-year-old girl came into the gelateria over the summer and saw a lavender sorbeto on the menu. “I grow lavender in my garden,” she told Coleridge. “I tell you what,” he responded, “I’ll buy the lavender from your garden and make a sorbet with it.” The little girl’s name? Federique, of course.
After I tell Coleridge about my childhood in Argentina, where gelato is a way of life, he invites me to step behind the counter and inside his glass-walled kitchen where the magic happens. Flavors are infused for at least 12 hours then poured in Cattabriga “Effe” mixers, which helps craft an extremely smooth and intense gelato where air is almost non-existent. Like a proud papa, he points to the state-of-the-art stainless steel containers that keep gelato out of sight and in a temperature-controlled environment. “We don’t practice ‘Spatulart’ here,” he says, referring to the technique of making the gelato display look good. “At Bella Gelateria it’s not about what gelato looks like but what it tastes like.” And what it tastes like is everything you want gelato to be: a dream, a fantasy, a childhood memory.
With summer almost here, the quest for finding the best gelato means, happily, that you simply must try them all. The real question is: cup or cone?