Vivoli: Three generations of gelato

Gelato-master Silvana Vivoli talks gelato-drama and why she chooses to mind her own business.

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Vivoli stands behind her many gelato flavours, ready to serve.

Gelato-making is in Silvana Vivoli’s blood. Her grandfather opened what is now the Vivoli gelateria in Florence in 1930. The tradition was passed down to her father and then to her. When she was a child she and her sister would spend their days in the shop, playing games, seeing who could crack the eggs or clean the chestnuts faster. Her transition into the business was natural, and now she sits in her gelato shop, almost fifty years old, surrounded by her family and her livelihood. “At a certain age you must be relaxing,” says Vivoli. She is settled in a comfortable grey sweatshirt with an espresso in front of her, taking her own advice.

Florence’s Gelato Festival is happening today but she is not a part of it. As the owner of the oldest gelato shop in Florence, (though gelato was invented in the 1500s no original shop remains), one would expect her to be there. She participated in previous years, but she is sitting this year out, with the exception of a small demonstration set for the next day at 17.00. She will not enter a flavour, this is partially because of disagreements with other gelato-makers and the organizers of the event. “We are Florentine. It’s in our DNA to fight,” she explains, using the tale of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, old warring parties of Northern Italy, to emphasize her point. Vivoli prefers to focus her energy on her family business, rather than the drama of the gelato-world.

These smaller arguments are not the only conflicts Vivoli is avoiding by not attending the festival – the bigger issue of brands versus traditional gelaterias is a continuous battle, and one that Vivoli is all too familiar with.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when her father ran the gelateria, industrial gelato such as Nestle’s Motta claimed to be the only true gelato option. “They said artigianale (homemade) gelato-makers will make you sick,” Vivoli says, along with talk of the dangers of unpasteurized milk. Her father and his colleagues from across Italy tried to battle this big industry, which is why the association to protect “artigianale” was born, and Vivoli was raised along with this idea.

“I’ve known the story for a long time,” she says. “I’m exhausted.” Her gelato shop is tucked in a street (Via Dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7r, 50122 Firenze, Italy, to be exact), in front of Santa Maria della Croce, the basilica that holds the remains of Michelangelo. His statue of David is a symbol of Florence, and Vivoli’s plight for small gelato-makers recalls David’s struggle.

It’s like a little piece against a giant,

she says of the fight against ice cream companies.

Vivoli mentions the big expo in Milan happening currently, lasting until October, where more than 140 countries are coming together to discuss “being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium.” She finds it funny that McDonald’s is one of the expo’s official sponsors. “The festival is the same way,” she says – Nutella is one of their global sponsors and hosted its own ice cream truck at the festival, despite the event’s goal to promote artigianale gelato-makers.

Vivoli prefers to avoid these contradictions and stick to her family’s business, though she admits to hating the “happy Ben & Jerry’s cows.” Her family’s shop is enough to keep her busy. “Always behind nice things there are hard workers,” she says of her sometimes 12-hour work days.

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Vivoli leads a gelato-making demonstration at the 2015 Gelato Festival in Florence.

“Gelato, at the end, is my life. I love my job,” says Vivoli. “A master once told me my gelato was too cold,” she laughs. He suggested using a type of protein powder to thicken it, and she said thanks, but no thanks. Vivoli uses the same recipe and technique passed down from her grandfather, no written recipe required. “We create gelato from taste and from the heart. Not a formula.” Her skill can be tasted in all her flavours. She offers some of her rice pudding gelato, a creamy, delicious mixture that surprises with chewy bits of rice throughout.

As artigianale gelato-makers and corporate ice cream companies face-off in the dessert arena, the Vivoli gelateria sits back and remains the same as it was nearly a century ago. She can teach those fighting a few tricks, though, that maybe big corporations wouldn’t dare try. During her one appearance at the Gelato Festival, she combines her gelato with boiled egg, asparagus and salt, to create a kind-of dinner gelato. And it is delicious.

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Vivoli’s savory gelato concoction, complete with a hard-boiled egg. It was surprisingly delicious!