The best gelato doesn’t come from a cooler in Sicily, but rather a tanning salon in Bensonhurst.
Self-described “gelato maestro” Gino Cammarata remerged this March after a five-year hiatus from the city’s culinary scene — and instead of opening his new shop on a bustling restaurant row, Cammarata opened the tiny Oro Verde Gelati in a storefront shared with Alaskan Sun Tanning on a stretch of 86th Street more fit for auto repair shops than gourmet eateries.
“This is like my home,” said the artisanal gelato maker of the narrow storefront, between 16th and 17th avenues, which attracted him because of its heavy-duty walk in freezer. “I sleep here and I nap here between making batches.”
But location — and a nearly fanatical devotion to his craft — aren’t the only things that separate Cammarata from the borough’s other gelato purveyors.
Instead of catering to American palates with sugary tastes, familiar flavors and lurid colors, Cammarata — who is best known for his Manhattan gelato bar and Mediterranean restaurant Bussola that closed in 2003 — scoops out traditional Sicilian gelatos: fig, ricotta cream, hazelnut, and pistachio, among other flavors.
“If you’re a businessman, you just make what sells,” he said. “If you’re a chef, you like to introduce people to things that are different.”
Doing thing different in Brooklyn’s bland gelato scene means natural ingredients, no additives, and offering risky — yet traditional — dishes including a Sicilian ice cream sandwich served on brioche and coated with macadamia nuts and pistachios ($5).
“I don’t make the common flavors, I don’t like the competition,” said Cammarata. “I like to create.”
But being creative comes with a cost.
“If people don’t know something, they are afraid to try it,” said Cammarata, who worries that his uncommon flavors and high-for-the neighborhood rates ($2.50 for an espresso cone, $3.50 for a pistachio cone) might scare away customers.
“Brooklyn people think it’s a little bit overpriced,” said Cammarata, who shells out $28 per pound for his gourmet pistachios. “But if you eat the right things, you satisfy your palette.”
Walk-in business has been slow, but Cammarata keeps Oro Verde in the green with a busy wholesale trade that stocks Manhattan restaurants like Padre Figlio and the famed Da Silvano, which, according to Cammarata, has used his lemon gelato to make specialty cocktails.
Everyone back in “the city” still speaks of Cammarata with the hushed tones typically reserved for a deity.
“His gelato is even better than everyone says it is,” said Antonio Cerra, co-owner of Padre Figlio on East 44th Street in Manhattan — which stocks Cammarata’s gelato. “Most of the time, the first bite is when you get all of the texture and the flavor — it usually fades after the that. But every time I bite into his gelato, it’s like the first bite. “
Cammarata hopes that his walk-in business will pick up, but beyond the possible introduction of a soup and sandwich to the short menu, he has no plans to attract customers with Baskin Robins-style flavors or Coldstone-style fixings.
“Some people don’t have the luck to taste the original thing, but that’s what I give you — the original taste,” he said.