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August 6th, 2012

Black Dog Gelato: the Scoop

BY Kari Skaflen

At one end of a humming kitchen, milk churns in a machine while an employee in a grey t-shirt chops chocolate into coarse, fragrant chunks nearby. She turns her attention to a large mixing machine and in no time, a thick, creamy mass is oozing from the spout.

The woman carefully guides the luscious mounds into small white buckets and returns to her work station, swiftly mixing in the coarsely chopped chunks of chocolate by hand. This the last stage in the process of making sesame, fig, and chocolate chip gelato. Yes, you read those ingredients right. The woman in charge of all this is Jessica Oloroso, owner of Black Dog Gelato, and flavors like sesame, fig and chocolate are why she’s fast becoming a local juggernaut.

Oloroso hands me a tiny tasting spoon of the freshly made gelato. It’s like heaven: creamy texture with the unexpected kick of sesame followed by the sweetness of fig and comforting familiarity of chocolate. It’s easy to see how she can sell between four and six hundred gallons of gelato a week through her wholesale business and two thriving store fronts. But all this didn’t emerge from  thin air.

Oloroso honed her dessert chops in the kitchen of Scylla. Under chef Stephanie Izard, she learned to work with a variety of ingredients and how to harness the power of creativity. “Working at a small restaurant you don’t always have the opportunity to bring in just anything that you want. A lot of times it was, what do we have in the kitchen that I can utilize? We weren’t going to bring in a ton of fancy pastry ingredients.” So coming up with a new flavor went something like this for Oloroso: “Well I have sesame oil, which I really love and we need to make that a little sweeter, so let’s pair that with black mission figs; or you know we have goat cheese. How can I turn goat cheese into something that’s going to be a dessert?”

This creativity carried over into Oloroso’s gelatos, which she began making after Scylla closed. “I decided that I wanted to work on my own. You’re making really, little money and working really long hours, so I thought, maybe if I’m going to be doing this, I should be doing it for myself,” she says. And the timing, it seems, was spot on. “Certain things just sort of fell into place. Ice cream had always been my favorite dessert as a child. And then I went to Italy, just traveling a little bit, and I fell in love with gelato.” So she purchased the Scylla equipment and started making gelato for a few wholesale accounts in 2007. Oloroso performed every step of the process herself, from buying the ingredients, to production, to delivery, until she opened her first retail location in 2009. She now has a staff of twenty and two storefronts.

Oloroso named the business after her black dog, who recently passed away. “I needed a name and to be honest,  it started off as something, not like an inside joke, but just something silly and personal. But then as we started to get some more accounts, we realized there’s no changing it now. I don’t have any children; my dog was totally spoiled.”

The name is endearing and memorable, just like the gelato.“Our guests rave about it and I continually catch the staff dipping into the freezer,” says Joe Darling, of Au Cheval restaurant, which carries Black Dog’s malted vanilla gelato. Au Cheval diner combines Oloroso’s gelato with root beer for a classic float dessert. “The combination of Berghoff root beer and Black Dog’s malted vanilla gelato is like some sort of cosmic connection,” he continues, “I think I’ve seen large flashes of light in the sky when I pour the root beer into the gelato in the float glass.”

Her flavor combinations have been raising hands for second helpings since she opened. Flavors tend to run in threes, there’s the goat cheese, cashew, caramel for example; or the roasted red pepper with cinnamon and honey. “When I’m using savory ingredients, I try to choose things where there’s an undertone of sweetness to begin with,” says Oloroso. “Roasted red peppers definitely have a layer of sweetness to them. So I think, what’s going to compliment that?” And she confesses, there are happy mistakes, “things have accidentally been mixed together when they weren’t supposed to, and they’ve actually turned out really well.” One example: Oloroso’s coconut thyme gelato.

Aside from its Italian name and heritage, what really makes gelato, gelato? Oloroso explains that there are three major differences that distinguish gelato from ice cream. Gelato relies more on milk than on cream. This translates into less fat in gelato than what’s usually found in ice cream. The famous, thick, creamy texture comes in part from less air being mixed into the gelato; ice cream generally has more air mixed into each batch. The final distinguishing feature is gelato’s temperature. Gelato is served five to ten degrees warmer than ice cream. Oloroso explains, “when it’s super cold [as with ice cream] you register the cold first and then get hit with the flavor. Here you should be hit with the flavor right away— temperature doesn’t mask the flavors of the gelato.”

But back to that cultural bit that infuses Oloroso’s Black Dog Gelato, she says, “When I got to Italy, culturally, it was a whole different experience. You’ll find gelato shops everywhere and a lot of times people will go and have a cone or a cup in lieu of lunch.”

I know where I’m going for my next lunch.

http://blackdogchicago.com/

859 N. Damen

1955 W. Belmont