The little, local gelato maker that could has come a long way from solely dishing scoops of handmade refreshment to college kids and thrusting samples in the faces of those perusing different stalls at the farmers market. The decade-long trek to the top of the frozen dessert heap in D.C. has culminated in the development of the bright, welcoming Dolcezza Factory at 550 Penn St. NE that took up residence in the shadow of next-gen shopping hub Union Market last winter.
The multipurpose compound — there’s an active gelato-making operation, limited retail space and a full-service tasting room all tucked under one roof — officially opened in December 2013, with the coffee/gelato bar following suit a few months later. The somewhat out-of-the-way space remains fairly busy, yet never tips over into uncomfortably crowded territory.
When the weather’s nice, folks routinely camp outside on the rusty metal chairs, watching the world zoom by along Sixth Street Northeast while they savor steaming cups of brew forged from freshly ground Indonesian coffee beans. Circle the neatly arranged display table a snack showcase crowded with assorted Kinderhook staples, including triple ginger cookies, orange-tarragon candied almonds, black pepper shortbread, baked cheese crackers and boozy brown butter blondies long enough, and you are likely to be joined, as I was, by a pair of first-time visitors who couldn’t help but gush about their latest find at Union Market. (“They’ve got pork butts!” one just about squealed after wandering across a Toki Underground-run outpost.)
Settle in at the spacious bar and you just might bear witness to random testaments to the generosity of the human spirits. “I brewed too much. You can enjoy this here or top off your drink,” one accommodating barista surprised a customer who appeared ready to shuffle out the door by sliding over an extra shot of piping hot Ethiopian roast.
It’s been my experience that most folks tend to find their way to this industrial park-packed slice of D.C. for a frozen pick-me-up. They’ve certainly come to the right place. Co-founder Robb Duncan estimates the factory cranks out some 400 gallons of gelato and sorbetto per day. Some of those efforts are funneled into the prepackaged pints that beckon (think: salted caramel, Thai coconut milk and Valrhona dark chocolate for gelatos; crookneck pumpkin, pineapple mint and pomegranate sorbettos, plus rotating single-serving push-pops) from the stand-alone freezer case. The rest flow over to the bins watched over by the baristas.
“All of these come out of those machines right there,” one attendant explains, nodding toward the industrial mixers opposite the service counter as she ushers a glistening ball of exotic fun right under my nose. “They’re super soft. But they’re also as fresh as it gets.” Featured flavors are served solo or can be built into custom flights (four mini servings at $8).
Indonesian vanilla bean is elegantly spicy. The timeless classic weaves together creamy bliss with a hint of piquancy. Salted caramel is an absolute stunner. The top seller (per Duncan) plays for keeps, adding an almost pudding-like mouth feel, very dense and exceptionally rich, to the warmed sugar that lends the highly prized phenomenon its name. The cleverly composed candy apple coppeta is the frozen analog to apple pie; honey-spiked sorbetto is coupled with oaty granola (extra crunchy) and then doused with syrupy dulce de leche topping. A black sesame-based production was an eyebrow raiser. The ashen-colored cooler spreads toasted nuttiness across the palate. (Not necessarily my bag, but certainly interesting.) Virginia peanut butter is surprisingly light yet potent.
Duncan said the company currently sources the freshly roasted, ground and salted source material from two purveyors in rural Virginia. The homemade peanut butter is then folded into the gelato, resulting in pale bulbs of perfectly nutty deliciousness. In the future, Duncan hopes to conquer another legume-based fantasy.
“I am still dreaming of doing a Thai peanut butter,” he said, laying out plans to cram freshly ground nuts, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, lime juice, Thai coconut milk and Thai chilies into the same crystalized spoonful.
Dolcezza Factory: 550 Penn St. NE; 202- 333- 4646. Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Read more about the Capitol Hill dining scene in our "Nom, Nom, Nom-nibus" e-book, available for download at roll.cl/Nom-nibusDiningGuide.