There’s Ice Cream. Then There’s Gelato.

A commuter heads home from the city, grabs a newspaper in the Weehawken ferry terminal and treats herself to a gelato cone bought right in the New York Waterways’ kiosk. A couple playing the slots in Atlantic City get their dish of gelato after dinner at Atrium in Trump Plaza. A shopper picks up his pint at the Fairway Market in Fort Lee.

All over the state they’re eating a brand called Bertolotti. In an twist richer than a spoonful of the gelato itself, some of the biggest foodies in Manhattan are scooping it up too. And they don’t even know it’s made in New Jersey.

It all started, sort of, with something we’ll call the ride of the gelati. Sometime last fall, John Camisa packed a few pints of the handmade gelato his factory makes in Fairview and sells in his small cafe in Cliffside Park, grabbed his friend and employee Judy Joseph, and headed for his car. “You’re driving,” he told Mrs. Joseph. “I’m delivering.”

Off the pair went to Manhattan, making three unannounced stops at Eli’s Manhattan, Citarella, and the Vinegar Factory – all high-end food emporiums. “I dropped off a pint at 11 A.M. at Vinegar Factory,” recalled Mr. Camisa, “and by 12:30 I had a message from them saying they wanted to start carrying it.”

When Mr. Camisa tells it, the offbeat road story becomes imbued with high drama, something akin to Prometheus descending from the heavens to bring fire to man. But the tactic worked. Today, all three markets carry his product, as do such longtime customers as Balducci’s and the Perugina store on Madison Avenue. But there is no reason to cross the river. The Garden State is brimming with Bertolotti purveyors; you just need to know where to look.

As a boy from Brooklyn, Mr. Camisa fell in love with Italian ice cream on visits to his parents’ native land. Here was a creamy confection so decadent that it was practically slathered into cones, cups and dishes with spatulas. Here was ice cream studded with flavors, nuts, and surprises he’d never seen back home: citrus fruits and blackberries, nougats and truffles, custards and candied fruits, topped with whipped cream or dusted with cocoa powder.

In time, he grew up and earned a doctorate from Northwestern University and took a post as a medical researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital, rarely meeting the people he was supposedly helping, and routinely plodding through mountains of paperwork to get one more grant. But his heart longed for summers, when he returned to Italy and its gelato offerings. And one day he decided to make his own..

But that was easier said than done. Most “homemade” ice cream shops use a prepared base consisting of milk, cream and sugar – then add their own flavors. And some parlors simply buy their products from a supplier. If Mr. Camisa truly wanted to mix his own base, he had to move to New Jersey. New York City prohibited operating a pasteurizer within the five boroughs.

The origins of ice cream are murky and tumultuous, at best. There are no clear inventors, only tradition. Lacking sugar and refrigeration, the Romans and Greeks concocted a dish of wine and flavorings mixed with Alpine snow, kind of an ancient Slurpee. Marco Polo brought back a milk dessert recipe from Asia. And the French are said to have dabbled in this realm as early as the 16th century. The gelato Mr. Camisa grew up with is something of a paradox. Ideally, it contains less butterfat than American ice cream, but tastes somewhat denser because less air is pumped into it.

“The trouble,” said Mr. Camisa, “is most people who make gelato in the U.S. think, ‘Oh, Americans like more fat,’ so you get these really fatty gelatos here. Or they cut corners and put more air in. That’s not real.

Borrowing a recipe from a cousin who operates a shop on the Italian Riviera, Mr. Camisa began making small batches, and selling them in a storefront shop in Cliffside Park. He took pains to recreate the gelaterie he recalled from his childhood. Yes, there would always be an elegant espresso machine hissing and burbling away, and pastries (or those who preferred them. Customers could get their gelato with wet walnuts, dark cherries, crushed pineapple, French butter waters, crushed toasted almonds, peanuts, or even a squirt of amaretto. He tried to serve gelato Italian style – soft and a little sloppy – but found his patrons preferred ice cream-like scoops, which required turning up the freezer a notch or two.

He still bristles at such inauthentic presentation. “It’s only got half of the fat of American ice cream,” he says, “but if you eat it correctly, it can be a very sensuous experience.”

Within three years Mr. Camisa left the research field for good, and persuaded his brothers, Ronald and Albert, to leave their jobs as furriers to help him in the business.

Today, Bertolotti’s gelato, sorbet and baked goods turn up in selected pockets in the tri-state area. Lucky Cliffside Park residents can make a gelato run to the original shop after dinner each night. They sit at the small tables and make their selections from the menu. There are 25 gelato and 14 sorbets in all. (Cone and sundaes range from $2.25 to $5.90.)

After 16 years, the shop can claim to have raised nearly a whole generation of local children on gelato. “We call them Bertolotti babies,” said Ms. Joseph, who posts pictures of customers’ children on the wall. “They don’t like to eat regular ice cream because they’re so used to ours.”

This new batch Jersey gelatophiles may someday change the industry with its taste buds. Once, while taking a course on ice cream making, Mr. Camisa had an instructor who haughtily pointed out that Italians don’t make as much, or eat as nearly as much, ice cream as Americans. Mr. Camisa’s response: “Italy doesn’t make many cars either. Would you rather drive a Buick or a Lamborghini?”

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Bertolotti Cafe, 735 Anderson Avenue. Cliffside Park.


Originally published SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 1999, THE NEW YORK TIMES,
Copyright ©1999 The New York Times
Reprinted by permission