Trevor Morris is a lot like any other Bay Area foodie. When he tastes something great, he can't wait to use it, share it, and think about how it could become part of his culinary repertoire. But as the co-founder of Gelateria Naia, his first thought upon tasting anything particularly delicious is, Could I make gelato out of this?
As anyone who's watched the original Japanese Iron Chef knows, just about anything can be made into something resembling a frozen dessert. (Tasting the buttered lobster ice cream sold at a popular ice-cream shop in Bar Harbor, Maine remains a low point of my tongue's career.) Even as simple a flavor as coffee can be trickier to perfect than one might assume.
The company's years of dedication have paid off. Naia now has 4 gelato shops around the Bay Area, and freestanding counters in numerous Whole Foods stores throughout Northern California.
But it wasn't until last week's Fancy Food Show in San Francisco that I tasted gelati that transported me from the fluorescent-lit Moscone Center to the arched pergolas of a Bologna side street, to where I spent many a euro (and lazy afternoon) at La Sorbetteria Castiglione, that gastronomic city's best gelateria. And it wasn't in the Italian-food aisle, but California-made at Gelateria Naia.
What set these gelati apart was their purity and depth of flavor. Not too sweet, they were satiny smooth, pillowy and cool on the tongue, nipping right from the tongue straight to the brain's joy button. There was a deep, mellow coffee, rich but unbitter, made with Blue Bottle beans. There was a lovely, perfumey Earl Gray tea gelato steeped with a Numi Organic blend. A St. George Spirits single-malt gelato called out to be drenched with a shot of whiskey like a grown-up affogato. Chocolate was suave and mellow, the raw material provided by Tcho.
What was the one thing all these flavors had in common? They were all locally inspired, featuring some of the best artisanal products from around the Bay Area.
Part of the reasoning is, of course, a dedication to staying local. The company already gets many of its ingredients from nearby farms and producers, listing the day's sources on chalkboards in each of its stores. Yogurt from Pavel's, honey from Palamino Farms, fruits and nuts from Fiddyment Farms and B&B Ranch, among others, have become an integral part of Naia's offerings. As Morris notes,
"We opened our first store in 2002 and a year later decided to stop using the semi-finished ingredients we were importing from Italy. They tasted fine but it was a silly way to make gelato. Why buy chocolate from Italy when Guittard is right down the road? Why import pistachios when we can call and discuss different roasts with the grower in Roseville? And why would you ever use coffee flavoring when you can just use coffee beans?
But there's also the undeniable business sense of cross-branding with a company that already has its dedicated fans, as Blue Bottle does. Most important, though, said Trevor as he handed me yet another spoonful to taste, is the brainstorming and resource-sharing that happens when obsessive geniuses get together.
Instead of trying to learn everything about coffee in order to make a superlative coffee gelato, you go to a guy like Blue Bottle founder James Freeman, a man who probably spends most of his waking hours thinking about coffee. (Who needs sleep, when there's espresso?) And you sit down and talk, and by the time you get up from the table, you've hashed out a new cold-brewing method of getting big-bean flavor into your product without astringency or bitterness. Or you come back to the test kitchen with dozens of Numi teas, thinking you'll make one, two, maybe three tea flavors at the most. And then you taste tea after tea, each remarkable, each stunningly original, and you realize that you want to make a gelato out of almost every tea.
Same went with Tcho chocolate; to avoid the cloying heaviness that can weigh down some chocolate gelato, Naia gets pure chocolate liquor, without cocoa butter, for use in its version. Making gelato with high-proof alcohol is a dicey undertaking, since it resists freezing, but since their success with St. George's single-malt whiskey, they're now working on a similar gelato made with the company's popular Absinthe Verte.
Plans for other partnerships are in the works (Morris is already working with chocolate star Michael Ricchiuti on a few possibilities), and the new local flavors should be available in Naia's shops in early February. But those who can't wait can attend Naia's upcoming Pre-Release Gelato Tasting Benefit on Feb. 4, held from 6-9pm at the Berkeley store at 2106 Shattuck Ave. (The $5 fee goes to Doctors Without Borders.)
There will more than 20 brand-new flavors available featuring ingredients from TCHO Chocolate (TCHO Nutty, TCHO Chocolatey), Numi Tea (Earl Grey, Green Tea, Jasmine, Golden Chai, Rooibos), Blue Bottle Coffee (Bella Donovan, Hayes Valley Espresso, Sidamo), St George Spirits (absinthe, eau de vie) and Recchiuti Chocolate.