Secrets of a prize-winning Sicilian gelateria

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Pizza, pasta and gelato: the holy trinity of Italian food. And while the first two have conquered the rest of the world, no other country yet has succeeded in making gelato quite like the Italians do. A more intense form of ice cream, containing less dairy and served slightly warge.. and spring… and winter.

Go for a walk any evening, any town, any season in Italy and you’ll see people taking their passeggiata (stroll), gelato in hand.

“Gelato for me means comfort and goodness,” says Giovanna Musumeci. She would know – it’d be no exaggeration to call her Sicily’s queen of gelato. The daughter of one of its kings, the late Santo Musumeci, who won nationwide plaudits for his gelato, Giovanna has inherited his ice cream instinct and combined it with scientific recipes to make the best possible dessert. No wonder her bar, Santo Musumeci in the small town of Randazzo, is constantly cited as one of the best – if not the best – places to find gelato in Sicily, and even Italy.

Following her father’s death in February 2022, Giovanna Musumeci now runs the gelateria-pasticceria with her sisters Sandra and Carmen.

Ten years ago, though, following in her father’s footsteps couldn’t have been further from her mind.

A change of heart

Giovanna Musumeci moved back to Randazzo, on the slopes of Etna, after a career break.

Musumeci took a degree in economics and marketing, and worked in tourism for 10 years, promoting her area of Sicily – inland from Catania, on the slopes of Mount Etna, where few outsiders traveled at the time.

But in 2012, things went wrong with her job and she took some time out to think about her next move.

“I didn’t feel comfortable and went home to understand what I wanted to do,” she says.

“Bit by bit I started to occupy myself with cake design – back then, everyone was doing cake design. Getting into gelato was by luck.”

Her father, already a highly respected gelatiere, was taking part in a competition, and needed an assistant. Musumeci decided to give him a hand.

“I didn’t understand anything about gelato but I started to study it, and found I was passionate about it,” she says. “I realized I loved gelato, not pastry-making. I do both, but I prefer to work with the cold stuff.”

And that was that – love at first sight.

Although being her father’s daughter meant she had to work harder to prove herself, it gave her learning experiences she’d never otherwise have had, says Musumeci.

Science, meet gelato

Santo Musumeci was famous in Italy's gelato world.

Her dad introduced her to stars of the gelato world, including Luca Caviezel, widely considered to be the godfather of modern gelato. Caviezel brought science into what had previously been a more homespun equation, and he passed on his knowledge to Musumeci over gelato-filled chats in his Catania home.

The key to a good gelato is balance, she says.

“Luca wrote books about this: how much protein, fat, how to balance the gelato, because it’s very scientific. We work with ingredients which are very different to each other: sugars that don’t freeze, fats and milk that do. They have to go together, so you need to know a bit of chemistry, then work it out mathematically. Luca was the godfather of this way of making gelato.”

Musumeci senior, who’d opened the gelateria in Randazzo in 1967, had a natural instinct for gelato, says Giovanna.

“He never measured. He would put stuff in, taste it, say we need a bit more of this and less of that, and would construct the gelato on his palate. I don’t have that talent, so I use science.”

Her gelato debut led, in some ways, to a generational clash in the kitchen. Santo preferred sweeter flavors, while Giovanna had a more health-conscious, modern palate.

“We started to work things out scientifically, and alongside dad I changed the recipes. It was no longer conceivable that you would put as much sugar in gelato as people did 40 years ago. So the science helped us to better what we already had.”

A generational tussle

Sicilians eat granita with brioche for breakfast.

Her father wasn’t too happy about her new career path, but not out of competition. “He had 50 years experience and knew what the duties, the obligations, the responsibilities and the hassle of running a gelateria were – he did everything to deter me,” she says.

“Eventually he had health problems, realized he had to delegate and saw that I wasn’t doing this for fun. By the end, he was proud of what I was doing. And although at the start I was seen as Santo’s daughter – the gelato world had to work me out and check if I was OK, and that took some time – but my dad helped me a lot. I wasn’t unknown.”

Today, the gelateria is known for its prize-winning flavors: Strafico, a mix of ripe figs and hazelnuts which won second prize at SIGEP, a national competition, in 2005; Pirandello, a mix of toasted and caramelized almonds, lemon zest and chocolate, which won the popular vote at the Sherbeth Festival in 2012; and Oro Verde della Sicilia, which took first place at SIGEP in 2004, and combines pistachio, mandarin and caramelized almonds.

All three are Santo’s recipes – “We will never, ever take them away,” says Giovanna, who’s also won plenty of prizes herself, but prefers to rotate her flavors and experiment regularly.

It’s not all about gelato, either; in summer, everything revolves around granita, the delicate flavored ice you’ll find all round Sicily.

“In Italy they make granita, but granita is ours,” says Giovanna’s sister Sandra, who runs the gelateria with her, spooning out the flavors all summer: strawberry, mango, cherry, raspberry, fig, prickly pear and more, all made from local ingredients.

Transforming the region

Giovanna turns local ingredients into desserts, like this purple cabbage granita.

In fact, promoting the local area is something Giovanna has continued from her previous job – only now she does it through produce rather than plotting tourist routes.

“I have lots of people who call me and suggest we use their stuff, and it’s a huge responsibility for me to transform them into gelato or granita,” she says. “There are youngsters going out onto Mount Etna and farming, and it’s important to respect their job and their ingredients.

She tells customers where she sources the fruit, which often leads to new business for the producers.

“In a strange way I’m doing the same thing as I did before,” she says. “I think it helps to develop the area. I’m in a place that needs to grow alongside the gelateria, so it’s not just about convenience, it’s about growth.”

In fact, when Santo Musumeci opened his gelateria, his family wasn’t happy.

Musumeci was working in Giarre, on the Catania coast; his wife, Anna Maria, who he met on the bus, was studying there but came from Randazzo.

Musumeci trained as a pasticciere, making delicate Sicilian pastries. But when he decided on Randazzo for his first bar of his own, his parents weren’t happy – it was so out of the way that they thought he couldn’t succeed.

Instead, he became so famous that he brought tourists to Randazzo, which, an hour inland, was previously overlooked. “Life proved him right,” says Giovanna. Today, the area is increasingly famous, bringing tourists not only for gelato but for the wines that are made on the slopes of Mount Etna.

How to pick your gelato

Giovanna tells stories through her gelato.

The secret to their success? Telling the story of the area – and of the gelato. Constructing a flavor “starts from telling a story,” she says. So for her flavor “Heidi,” she started with goat milk and pears.

“Then they can come from what happens when you go shopping, when you’re buying things to go together. Or by meeting people. Or mixing colors – inspiration can come from everyday life,” she says.

And she says that us gelato-eaters should ask the gelato-makers for advice, if we want to choose well – as well as consulting their ingredients book, which is often on display in artisanal gelaterie.

“Look at the composition – you can put 2,000 things in a gelato, but my theory is, if you don’t need it, don’t put it in.

“You don’t need many ingredients to make a good gelato. If it’s a lemon granita, all you need is water, sugar and lemon.”

She also recommends picking a place that keeps its gelato covered – usually in stainless steel tubs – rather than putting it on display.

Even if it’s visible, take a good look at the gelato in its tub.

“If it’s dirty, or has liquid seeping out, I’d never buy that,” she says.