By Pam Kragen
The San Diego Union-Tribune.
A couple of years ago in Rome, Cristina Amoroso was a high-paid financial analyst for a global oil company and Paola Richard was a journalist and international media consultant for Italian ministries and environmental groups.
Today, the Roman cousins live in North County, where they spend their days running an Italy-centric gelato shop in Carlsbad’s Village Faire center. Walking away from their lucrative jobs at mid-career for a new life in a new country was a huge risk, but the women say they have no regrets.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Richard, 47. “We’ve been here a year and I can’t believe all we’ve accomplished. To move to a different country at our ages, learn the rules of opening a business and doing so well… We’re now planning a second shop.”
Amoroso, 52, worked as an analyst for Mobil Oil, Kuwait Petroleum and Johnson & Johnson. She was successful but bored, so in 2013 she decided to pursue her passion for gelato. She enrolled at University of Flavors in Perugia — yes, there is a school in Italy for professional gelato-makers — and spent five weeks learning the art of perfecting the 500-year-old frozen dessert.
“Gelato is a part of the culture of Italy,” Richard said. “It’s something everyone eats every day.”
When Amoroso graduated and told her cousin that she wanted to open a gelato store in Rome, Richard convinced her to open it instead in the United States. As a teen, Richard trained with a synchronized swimming team in San Francisco and longed to return.
“I had always loved California since I was 18 and I dreamed of coming back someday,” Richard said. “I wanted to bring the Italian way of living and lifestyle here.”
In May of last year, they moved to the U.S. and rented an apartment together in Oceanside.
Almost immediately, they encountered an unexpected obstacle. Amoroso, who among her many degrees has a bachelor’s in nutrition, wanted to make all of her gelatos from scratch. The USDA has strict rules about milk/cream pasteurization, so to avoid the licensing process, most U.S. gelato shops work instead with milk-based powdered mixes.
With the help of Paola’s brother, Fabrizio (who serves as a silent partner and financial manager from Rome), the cousins bit the bullet and purchased an American-made pasteurizing machine and imported Italian gelato machines so that all their gelato could be made in-house with only fresh milk and cream.
Richard and Amoroso, who are both single with no children, say it’s been an enlightening experience becoming Americans at midlife.
“I think that when we start our life from scratch, we have a huge opportunity to find out who we are besides what we do and the role we play in society. It’s a beautiful exercise to let go securities and find yourself in a place where nobody knows you,” Richard said. “The gelato journey is bringing us way more than just a business and an opportunity to live by the ocean, it’s traveling through our fears and strengths and struggles.”
Stepping into Gaia Gelato (“gaia” means joyful in Italian) is like taking a trip to Rome. Customers in the shop at 300 Carlsbad Village Drive, Suite 104, can sip San Pellegrino water, order a LaVazza espresso hand-pulled from an Italian machine, nibble Leone chocolate pastilles and relax on chairs designed by the Italian modernist artist Enzo Mari. Richard bakes brioche for customers and as the weather cools this fall, she plans to make Italian cookies and fruitcakes from her late grandmother’s recipes.
The desserts they serve are made in the Italian style, which is denser, creamier and with less sugar than many American-style gelatos. Amoroso has developed more than 60 flavors of gelato, sorbet and granita and introduces new ones each week. To preserve the flavor and texture, gelatos are made in small batches and not sold after 24 hours.
Some flavors are inspired by American tastes, like cookies and cream, salted caramel, pumpkin, whiskey & cream and lime & salt (which tastes like a margarita without the alcohol). But most flavors are Italian in style and substance. The pistachios and almonds are imported from Sicily and the hazelnuts come from Italy’s Piedmont region. There’s a zabione custard made with sweet Sicilian wine, an almond variety made with Amaretto Disaronno, as well as flavors made with Nutella, ricotta and Italian coffee. One of the newest flavors is the Tuscan Trifle, a tiramisu-inspired blend of vanilla gelato, ladyfinger cookies and Italian port wine.
With so many flavors to choose from, Richard and Amoroso (who is still learning English) strongly encourage customers to sample as many as they wish.
“As Italians we were born with a tradition of food where we were educated by taste,” Richard said. “I spend a lot of time talking to customers encouraging them to try the different flavors. California people are so open. They like trying new things.”
The gelato is sold in 4-, 6- and 9-ounce cups, which range in price from $3.75 to $6.95 (cones are a bit more). A four-ounce portion has about 200 calories. Americans are accustomed to large portion sizes but Richard said her regular customers are gravitating to the small cups preferred by Italians.
“We’re in a time of change in the U.S. where people have a growing culture of enjoying good things in small portions,” she said.
Richard said she’s enjoyed working with North County growers who happily trade their fresh-picked passion fruit, strawberries, blood oranges and mint for tubs of gelato.
“I like the way we fit into the community now,” she said. “Everyone has been super welcoming and great. We’re busy all the time.”