Noah Dan grew up in Israel but spent every summer with family in Italy, visiting the same gelateria all summer long: Zampoli’s.
Zampoli’s used real eggs and milk to make gelato the old-fashioned way. As Dan described it, the product there was “the real McCoy,” gelato done right.
But for every gelateria that does it right, there are hundreds of others that skimp on the proper ingredients or tweak the 100-year-old recipe the wrong way.
The matriarch of Dan’s family, his aunt, often complained that few gelato shops offered the classic taste she loved. So for her 80th birthday, Dan and his cousin looked up the traditional recipe and whipped up a batch of crema, one of the simplest flavors — a basic gelato made with eggs and milk.
Dan’s aunt wasn’t quite fooled. She knew something was different about this gelato. But the subtle difference didn’t change the fact that this was Zampoli-quality gelato.
“Did Zampoli’s change management?” Dan remembers her asking.
This quality gelato is what he strives to serve at both of his current Pitango shops and what he plans to offer at his new branch in Eastern Market, opening next week. The new shop will sell all of Dan’s 20 flavors, each one crafted with fresh ingredients, many of which come from local farms in Pennsylvania.
Dan said his shop is different in that he aims to make gelato the old-fashioned way, and so few gelaterias — in both the U.S. and Italy — use the traditional process.
“Today, almost nobody does it from scratch because of the cost of the flavor, the cost of rent, there’s no space,” he said.
The difficulty behind creating real gelato means that those gelaterias that do exist in America often don’t produce a high-quality product, according to Dan.
“[Workers at those shops] go for three days’ training at the Gelato University, and they teach you how to use all those products in cans and how to mix them, so the gelato that’s made its way to America is a bag full of tricks,” he said.
“In the States, you can call a ham sandwich gelato.”
Dan keeps his operation simple. Because of health codes that prohibit using the unpasteurized ingredients he needs for his recipe in his shop, he makes the mix for all of his gelatos on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania, where the owner’s 11 children help with the operation. And because he buys the majority of his fruits locally at nearby farms, Dan spends days looking for the perfect ingredients — those just-right raspberries, the proper milk.
This focus on good ingredients stems from what Dan calls his “fascination” with flavors, something that compels him to spend years perfecting just one, such as the sour cherry flavor he’s had in the works for three years and finally plans to start selling this summer. He said overproduced flavors can often mask a substandard product.
“A lot of times the flavor is a little bit like a trap,” he said. “If it tastes artificial, if the texture is wrong, you can mask it with artificial flavors.”
But Dan said that with the gelato he sells at Pitango, the flavor is an integral part of the whole product, not an artificial construct.
“[With Pitango,] it’s not so much that the flavor is a thin layer on the outside, but what you get is what it is,” he said.
This fascination with flavors started in 2005, when he realized he had two daughters he’d need to support through college someday. (This was four years after Dan had sold his thriving software company.) After spending the better part of a million dollars figuring out how to re-create that classic gelato in the States, he opened his first shop in Baltimore. Although the gelato didn’t sell as well as he’d wanted it to, he was pleased with those patrons that did stop by.
“The customer reaction really made me happy,” he said. “We got the feeling that when we got the customer, he’s our customer forever.”
Dan has since opened three other locations — two in the District and one in Virginia. And although his product is popular with locals, he said he has no plans to make Pitango a national chain, for fear that the quality of his ingredients would deteriorate if he had to mass-produce his product.
For now, he’s content to experiment with flavors on a smaller scale, crafting them at his home and keeping them in a freezer in his garage. His new products are all taste-tested by his daughters and their friends, who are usually good indicators of whether a flavor will be popular or still needs more work.
And he knows the years of work he put in to the sour cherry flavor, amarena, paid off.
“If I see a certain flavor gone, I know that’s a winner,” he explained. “The amarena flew.”
Pitango’s 20 flavors will be available daily at 660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE starting next week.