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Heavenly Discovery 

This gelato's so exceptional, it might as well be from another planet

Chris and Dana Sherman discovered gelato where it was invented. While studying abroad in London a couple of years ago, the pair took a ten-day side trip to Italy. There, they found gelato stands on countless corners, and witnessed how locals and tourists alike flocked to them. Neither Chris nor Dana had ever even heard of gelato before, but as practically everybody does, they fell in love at first sight — then again at first taste.

Suzy Reis discovered gelato in a less likely corner of the world: Dallas, Texas. This was also just a few short years back, when Reis owned an accessory and gift store in the St. Louis area. As practically everybody does, she wondered why on earth she couldn't find this incredible stuff back home.

For myriad reasons, Reis was ready to close her gift shop and start up a new venture. For the Shermans, graduation was fast approaching and a game plan was needed. For both parties, the answer was to open a gelato store. In September, Reis opened Gelato di Riso next to a Dierbergs in West County. Soon after the new year, the Shermans debuted Gelateria on Washington Avenue downtown.

The short definition of gelato: It's Italian-style ice cream. A more technical definition: It's a frozen confection that forgoes cream (the basis of American-style ice cream) and instead uses either milk or — for the fruitier, more sorbet-like gelatos — water. It's also denser than ice cream, because less air is churned into the product as it's being mixed. Because of this, gelato registers much more lushly on the tongue than ice cream, all the while doing so with less butterfat.

My personal definition of gelato: Heavenly. Very few foods prove so instantly addictive that they make grownups with no previous food-service experience — heck, Reis and the Shermans didn't even know what gelato was five years ago — open eateries in their honor. Gelato is better than ice cream — its flavors more immediate and true, its texture softer — yet it's also better for you than ice cream, saving you (even if only a little bit) on both calories and cholesterol. More gluttony with less guilt; isn't that what the afterworld must be like?

One of the things I love about gelato is that, because of its relative rarity stateside, everybody's got a story about how they first discovered it. If I remember correctly, I first discovered gelato as a tweenager, during a class field trip to Boston, at a little stand inside Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I hardly saw it in the States after that. (Pasteurization issues have long kept gelato from establishing a foothold domestically. Gelato-making machines do cook the ingredients, but not to a degree that has suited the United States Dairy Association.)

Then two summers ago, I visited Sydney, Australia. As in Italy, gelato was everywhere — near the main ferry terminal downtown, I think I counted two indoor gelato parlors, plus three outside stands, and there were lines at every one, even though it was winter Down Under. Gelato was all over the beachside neighborhoods as well. In fact, I don't think I saw ice cream for sale at all.

Then again, once you actually lay your eyes on gelato, you won't care about actually seeing ice cream ever again. Nothing looks as good as gelato. I'm serious. I could probably stare at a tub of fresh-made, untouched gelato longer than I could stare (and have stared) at Auguste Rodin's The Kiss at his museum in Paris.

Gelato doesn't fully harden like ice cream does, so if you're good with a spatula, you can actually add a little artistic flair to its presentation. In Sydney, the gelato was often towering out of its tub, reaching for the sky like the white cliffs of Dover. At Gelato di Riso and Gelateria, they opt for more serene displays: undulated, curvy piles of pudding-rich confection topped off with a few fat berries or a thick stripe of chocolate (hardened, Magic Shell chocolate at that). It's enough to make you swoon. It's enough to make you forget everything you once enjoyed about ice cream, so craggy and pedestrian by comparison. It blows the doors off Cold Stone Creamery. It even makes you think twice about what exactly you saw in frozen custard in the first place.

Both Gelateria and Gelato di Riso offer flavors you'll recognize — chocolate, chocolate chip, pistachio — and flavors you'll probably only recognize if you've spent a lot of time in Italy. Both offer bacio, Italian for "kiss" and, in gelato terms, chocolate hazelnut. It's an accurate name for the flavor, the way the creamy, rich chocolate tones lightly play off of the headiness of the hazelnut taste. Both also serve zabaglione, which is Italian for eggnog. It can be a little much, if you're a fool like me and order a quart-size to-go container of half-zabaglione, half-caramel, as I did one night at Gelateria. After a few mouthfuls, the custardy richness overwhelmed my palate, and the gelato started tasting more like yellow cake mix. Even for a grown adult, a smaller-than-small, bambino-size portion (as Gelato di Riso calls it; at Gelateria it's simply a mini) is plenty.

One of the other things I love about gelato — probably what I love about it most — is the frankness of its flavors. Chocolate gelato doesn't taste like chocolate; it is chocolate. It is a vat of cocoa flying at your taste buds. Peach gelato is the syrupy sweetness of a canned peach. Grasshopper, a chocolate-mint flavor I found at Gelato di Riso one afternoon (there is some rotating of flavors at both locations; at Gelato di Riso, perhaps a little bit more) is the insides of a Thin Mint cookie. Pink grapefruit gelato is a mouthful of acidic, citrusy pulp.

As wonderful as gelato is, man cannot live by it alone, and so Gelateria and Gelato di Riso both also operate as coffeehouses and light-fare cafés. Both serve paninis and breakfast items and espressos, and all of those things are nicely filling and nicely made in-house as well. Perhaps because it's had a few more months to find its footing, Gelato di Riso seems a bit more well-rounded in both its savory and sweet menus. In addition to lovely pressed sandwiches — I particularly enjoyed the meatless ones, especially the Capri, with whole-milk mozzarella, tomato and basil — di Riso proprietor Reis offers a rotating selection of homemade soups. Just as the gelato is a delicious enough reason to crave sweaty summer days, the soups make you crave air-conditioned environs chilly enough to merit a cup of her hot creations, like a velvety cream of asparagus, a sharp and vibrant minestrone, or a hearty and satisfying cream of potato.

Most notably, Gelato di Riso offers a shot of balsamic glaze to go with its gelatos. It is a cooked and distilled derivative of the same Trebbiano grape juice that's used to make balsamic vinegar, kind of like a cross between balsamic vinegar and maple syrup, its tartness meant to further coax out the gelato's flavors. Try just a trace of it on a spoonful of gelato — too much, and it'll taste like a spoonful of medicine. Try it, and you'll have a how-I-discovered-gelato story of your own.

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