Gelato is Italian ice cream, but if your name is Paolo Dalla Zorza it is your art. As interesting as Paolo’s Gelato Italiano is Paolo himself. A native of Treviso, Italy, Paolo is a veterinarian, pilot, raconteur, and connoisseur of good food. He has traveled the world in his own plane to learn about the dessert, frequently with his beloved cat by his side. Paolo is serious about gelato and has practiced the art of making it for 16 years. A visit to his shop can be as much about the delicious gelato as being entertained by Paolo’s sense of humor and banter. At the core of Paolo Dalla Zorza is a man who realized his dream and would not allow anyone or anything to stop him. His enthusiasm is contagious and you may walk away being as much a fan of the gelateria’s creamy creations as you are Paolo himself.
Paolo Dalla Zorza: Do you know what Paolo means?
Paul Leslie: It’s your name, isn’t it?
Paolo Dalla Zorza: Yes, and it means “gelato”! Just kidding. The thing is many people here in America think “gelato” is my family name, but it isn’t. “Gelato” means “ice cream” in Italian.
Why did you choose to make gelato?
In 1999, when I came here, there were four million people in Atlanta and there was no gelato, so I opened a dessert place here because there was no such place. And I fell in love with this area, Virginia Highland, which is very European-like. It is difficult to find authentic things here in the States, because most of them got destroyed, people want big things all the time. And Virginia Highland has a very authentic, European feeling and it’s not far from downtown.
What is your story, Paolo?
My story? Oh, how much time do we have? Very briefly: I came here, in America, as a plane pilot, flying planes is my passion. In Italy I studied to become a veterinarian, but I had no job in Italy as a vet, because there you have to go through the government and I didn’t like that. I’m a very independent guy, I like to do my own stuff. You can see this in my store, I’m a doer, I’m not the kind of person who sleeps on the couch all day. And I liked the idea of America, of coming here to work.
So I was in Montgomery, Alabama, thinking what could I do to live here in the States, with my visa, with all the papers, and to fulfill my passion for flying. And I thought: Gelato! But I don’t know anything about gelato! So I decided to fly back to Italy and start working for an Italian company that was making gelato. In the meantime, I started the preparations for my visa. I was lucky, because in 1998 it was easier for Europeans to come here. So I came back and I selected this place, which I found by chance and I thought it was perfect. There used to be an Italian ice shop here, and when I came, they told me: What, you want to open a gelateria?! With Italian ice we are already bankrupt, with gelato you will be super-bankrupt! And I told them: Please, give me a chance! And I’ve been here for 16 years.
How was the beginning?
Oh my God, nobody knew what I was doing! People would come inside and ask me if it was cold in the shop. I used 50,000 spoons just to offer them gelato – that’s the population of Venice, close to where I come from in Italy. So it’s like all the population of Venice came to my store just to taste samples of gelato! It was difficult, it took a lot of patience and dedication. I spent three years in front of the counter to explain each person what I was doing.
I know you also opened a factory that produces plastic supplies. How did that start?
I was trying to expand myself. In order to sell gelato, you need spoons and specific cups, because you are offering that person an experience. I sometimes feel like I am in Disneyland. People come here because they get a five minute trip to Italy in this place. Sometimes I joke with them and I ask them if they have a passport, because it’s like traveling to Italy. Also, I hire people who look more Italian, with dark hair and dark eyes.
You think about all these details?
Of course! It’s not just a gelato business, it’s an entertainment business.
Back to the gelato plastic supplies – I was bringing them from Italy to my store. I had a full container, $ 30,000 worth of cups and spoons, so I thought to myself: I’m going to sell this stuff! I came up with the idea to make a website with my partner, Elizabeth, and marketed this product, because there were a lot of ice cream stores that were interested. And in one year we sold the first container! It was amazing, we hadn’t expected that there was this niche in need for this kind of items. That’s where we started, and now we have a production facility where we mold and print out stuff. 50 % of the items are made in the States and the other 50 % is made in Italy by a local company. We use the port of Charleston to bring them here. We send back around 25 containers per year, but before that it was much more. When the economy was bad and the euro was up, I decided to produce the supplies in the States. So I gave jobs to Americans.
Where can these products be found?
Online, the website is called gelatosupply.com. People who have a store like mine can buy them from there, but we also have distributors who buy from us for the markets in Florida, Las Vegas, Michigan, and San Francisco. Of course, now I have competition – the Chinese, the Korean, the Spanish, the South-Americans – but I was the first guy who came up with this idea and I’ve always had upscale products. They call me the Cartier of gelato! (laughs) Not because my stuff is expensive, but because it’s beautiful.
What is the most rewarding about what you do?
To see the people’s faces when they taste my gelato. Remember, there is the new generation that still doesn’t really know what gelato is, and they taste it and they say: Oh my God, this is so good! My fruit gelato is non-dairy, we use skim milk and most of the stuff that’s in the gelato is vegetable fat. I don’t use any corn syrup, I use cane sugar, so it’s healthier for you and easy to digest. Thanks to my background as a vet, I know chemistry. Other people don’t. They buy a mix, they dump it in the milk or the water and they make it. So people see that I make the gelato from scratch and they like it, otherwise they would go and buy it from somebody else. There are many places in Charleston and Atlanta that do that, it’s easier. It is so much harder the way that I do it!
When did you open this shop in Virginia Highland?
I opened it in 1999. I was all by myself. I was making and scooping gelato, talking to the people, working 14 hours a day. I had no employee.
Had you met your partner Elizabeth yet?
No, not yet, she came later. She came into the store as a client and that’s how we met.
My mom would come sometimes, from Italy, to help me out, sweeping the front. I was living in an apartment complex down the street here, I had no transportation other than a bike. I had to do all my papers to get a Social Security Number, all that kind of stuff, so I didn’t have anything done yet. If you don’t have a Social Security Number, you can’t have electricity, you can’t have a car, you can’t have a driver’s license.
Did you apply for a work visa?
Yes, but it takes time to get it. I was a complete immigrant at 35 years old!
What does your partner Elizabeth do?
She likes marketing and she helped me a lot with this part. We’ve been working together for 15 years now. We create everything together and we try to make it as Italian as possible. It’s funny that here I became more Italian than before! That’s what people want!
In addition to the location in Atlanta, there is another Paolo’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Tell us, how did that start?
It started more like a joke. I flew on my plane to go to a party. There was the grand opening of this restaurant called Rue de Jean. When I went to the party, I met this guy who is now my landlord. He said: Hey, I have a little space and we can move some gelato. Listen, I said, 1,000 dollars per month, for 12 years, and maybe we have a deal! And after three days he called me. He accepted my offer and that’s why I moved there. Now, this area is booming in Charleston and I still pay $1,000 for the space. And it was good that I went there, because that’s where I developed my plastic supplies business, that’s where we have our warehouse. And it’s a smaller town, it’s more personal, people know what you do and appreciate it. In Atlanta it’s different, it’s a big city, people don’t know me, although I’ve been here for 16 years.
What was the most difficult thing for you, since you started your business?
To find people to work for me. It’s very difficult to find the right people, the ones that can transfer to the customers the idea that I have in my mind. I will not find a person like me, but I was looking to find people who do their job, pay attention, that don’t steal money. It’s been so difficult to find people that I can trust and who do a good job. I got disappointed, because in 16 years I’ve changed so many people. Nobody cares. And that’s so sad, because you invest so much energy in this stuff and then people let you down. The problem with the new generation is that they don’t want to work. I’m sorry, that’s reality. They want easy money.
What does America mean to you?
Freedom of ideas. And if you want to work, you can do stuff from scratch. Still now, it is the only country where, if you find the right place and the right people to support you, and they let you stay, you can do anything.
Would you recommend a foreigner to come to America now and open a business?
I know there are some difficulties now with the legislation, but there is always some opportunity. You need to find out what you really want to do. And to be persistent and focused in what you’re doing. You need the commitment of at least 10 to 12 years before you’re going to be successful. If you think you’re going to come here in America, make the money quickly and leave, forget it! Maybe some succeed, but normally you need to really commit for 10-12 years.
What makes your gelato unique?
I like cooking, I like food, and if you’re passionate about what you are doing, how can you go wrong? When I cook Italian food in my house, I cook it the way I learned it from my mother. And when I make gelato, I try to find the right hazelnuts from Italy, the right cherry to make amarena, the right pistachio, the right dulce de leche in South America. I found the right people in Italy who can provide these things for me and I bring them here in containers. Other gelato business owners buy these products from distributors. I buy them from families in Italy. Or, in Charleston, when it’s strawberry or peaches season, I buy them fresh and I make gelato with them, and I freeze what’s left for the rest of the season. Other people don’t do that. I prefer to charge one dollar more, but at least it’s good stuff, do you agree?
So I pass the test!
What do you miss about Italy?
The food! Beside my friends, I miss the food.
But you can find good Italian food here, too!
Yes, but it’s not the same. There are a lot of Sicilian places and people think that’s Italian food. It is not. Every region of Italy has its own specific food. I miss this diversity. Here, it’s all generically called “Italian.”
Maybe your next business should be an Italian restaurant, an authentic one.
I’m working on a project like that, I will open it in Charleston, in 2016. It’s going to be an Italian private club and for the food I will combine local products with Italian products. But it will be very private, only 75 members and only the people who will be members of the club will be able to eat there.
What would you like to say to anyone listening or reading this interview?
Thank you very much to all the people who have supported me, who come to my store and eat my gelato. Being successful is a great thing that I never expected! Secondly, for people from the new generation that come here to work, I hope I can give them the work ethic and some idea about how America can get back to what it used to be – do your job right, be honest with people and do everything the correct way.
The two shops “Paolo’s Gelato Italiano” are located in Atlanta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina and offer up frozen dessert connoisseurs a rotating selection of more than 60 flavors ranging from simple to the more exotic. Gelato is not the same as regular ice cream. It is typically healthier, containing less than 7 percent milkfat. Yet, the flavors are typically far more brilliant and complex. Some of the rotating flavors Paolo’s Gelato Italiano offers include a variety of chocolates, pistachio, Stracciatella (an Italian version of chocolate chip ice cream), as well as exotic flavors such as rose, jasmine and avocado. Although not technically gelati, Paolo also makes sorbetti, which are fruit flavors not made with milk. Some of the flavors include fig, pear and peach.
IF YOU LIKED THIS INTERVIEW, PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A DONATION
You can listen to our interview here:
You can find Paolo’s Gelato Italiano in Atlanta, Georgia (1025 Virginia Avenue) and in Charleston, South Carolina (41 John Street).
Photos: Corina Stoica/www.larevista.roSemnat de Corina Stoica, Paul Leslie