Summer Party: Santa Barbara's Natural History Museum to Host City's Premier Wine Festival

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/24/18

The Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival changed its name just last year. Organizers at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the storybook setting for this annual wine fete, added the Food reference to reflect the culinary wow factor. This festival has grown, in fact, to become a feast for the taste buds, as it’s where dozens of the region’s top chefs converge.
To name a few: Bob’s Well Bread; The Bear & Star; Barbareño; Hitching Post II; The Lark; Industrial Eats; Finch & Fork; Les Marchands, Loquita; and Via Maestra 42. Longtime faves like Brophy Bros. and new arrivals like Blue Water Grill will serve up, too. Local foodie celebs like caterer Michael Hutchings and confectioners Jessica Foster will also be there.
So, you won’t go hungry when you go on June 30th.
The setting alone -- the oak-shrouded grounds of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History -- is a major draw
But make no mistake: the Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival stays true to its wine roots. This may be the one festival where winemakers show up because they want to, not because they contractually have to. It’s the interaction with the crowd – winemakers engage with a captive, cheery crowd that’s there as much for the gourmet extravaganza as for the dependably sunny afternoon, along a creek, under the oaks. For those who pout, it’s also a lot about comradery, in a relaxed setting, in the middle of the wine grape growing season, several weeks before the rigors of harvest come calling.
Doug & Marni Margerum and Richard Sanford
Consider: Santa Barbara County’s first winemakers have been attending this even – laying claim to the same pouring spot, actually – for more than 30 years. “That first year, I remember pouring wines from bottles that didn’t have labels on them yet,” Alma Rosa Winery’s Richard Sanford once told me; the man who instinctively planted his first vines near Lompoc in 1971 is a legend.
Guys like Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist, Ken Brown, Fred Brander and Doug Margerum are there. Drake Whitcraft used to come here as a kid, when his dad, the late great Chris Whitcraft, doled out pinot and chardonnay; he’s doing the doling out now.  Among the dozens of other labels in attendance: Kaena; Area 5.1; Babcock, Blair Fox; Brewer-Clifton; Casa Dumetz; Carr; Tatomer; Sandhi; Fess Parker; Folded Hills; Tercero.
You won’t go thirsty, either.
And you may not even go empty-handed. The Every Cork Wins raffle ensures everyone’s a winner: pay $40, pull a cork, and win a guaranteed prize valued at least $40 (some are valued in the hundreds).
Winemaker Matt Brady and Blair Fox
The 2018 Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival takes place Saturday, June 30th, from 2-5pm.  Tickets are $100, or $75 for museum members.  For $125, upgrade to the VIP Lounge and get early admission, chair massages and exclusive food and wine pairings. Buy tickets through the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History website, sbnature.
The money raised by this event, close to $100,000, funds enrichment programs for more than 40,000 California students who come to the Museum each year to learn about natural history.
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A Place to Pour: Iconic Santa Barbara Wine Label to Open First Tasting Room

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/17/18

The Hitching Post label is one of the most recognizable brands in Santa Barbara County. Consumers order it at wine shops and restaurants across the country, including the famous Buellton restaurant that shares its name. It’s never had its own destinations tasting room, however, until now.
This week, business partners and co-winemakers Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley announced that Hitching Post Wines’ first ever tasting will open in July. Mr. Ostini, the well-known chef who owns the Hitching Post II restaurant, has leased property that abuts his eatery, expanding his real estate holdings along E. State Route 246 from one acre to 12. The parcel is mostly open land that drops into a river basin that borders the popular animal haven, Ostrichland, but it’s also home to a wine tasting room that, until recently, housed the Loring and Cargasacchi brands.
Gray Hartley & Frank Ostini
“We’ve always wanted to have a tasting room, just never a satellite one in a place like, say, Santa Barbara or Los Alamos,” admits Mr. Hartley, who’ll be entering his 39th wine grape harvest with Mr. Ostini this fall. “Having it right next to Frank’s restaurant, though – that’s a natural.”
The Ostini-Hartley team has been making wine in Santa Barbara County since 1979, focusing primarily on pinot noir and on sourcing grapes from premier vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The Hitching Post label was born in 1984. The brand was propelled into the limelight by Rex Picket’s book, Sideways, and the Oscar-winning film it inspired in 2004. The restaurant is where the main character, Miles, comes to quench his sorrows – usually with Hitching Post pinot – and where he meets his love interest, Maya. The Hitching Post has been a household name among wine aficionados ever since.
“The wine business has always helped promote the restaurant, it’s always complemented it,” says Mr. Ostini. “But then it began to grow in a very organic way, so that now it stands on its own. And we’ve always been very serious about making it. So giving it its own tasting room just makes sense.”
Hear ye, hear ye
About 80% of the Hitching Post’s 17,000-case annual production is sold through distribution. The new tasting room will allow the winemaking duo to sell wine directly to consumers. “It’ll also help us grow our wine club,” adds Mr. Hartley, which ships wines out to members several times a year.
The Hitching Post tasting room, which will become the 10th wine tasting venue in the city of Buellton, will feature a patio and picnic grounds. Visitors will have the option to purchase food from a new limited lunch menu, which will be delivered “on foot or maybe by electric golf cart,” according to Mr. Ostini, from the famous barbecue-themed restaurant next door.
The signage for the new space, which will enjoy prime visibility near the Highway 101-SR 246 interchange, will also showcase a brand new look for the Hitching Post wine label.
“We just want to get people to the [Santa Ynez] Valley,” adds Mr. Ostini, “because it’s the true wine country.”
For more information, visit
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For Mom, By Mom: Mother's Day Rosé Wines (Made by Moms)

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/10/18

A rose by any other name is still a rose. Unless it's rosé.
You can’t go wrong with the thorny beauty, a perennial symbol of love and appreciation on any day, especially Mother’s Day. But you can say the same for rosé, the soft-hued quencher that’s finally earning the notoriety among American drinkers that it’s been chasing for years – it has its own trending hashtag, after all, #roséallday! With colors that range from salmon to crimson, and with aromas often aligned with berries and flowers, the easy sipper is as pretty as it is tasty, making it the perfect gift for any thirsty mother. Even better, some of the best rosé in Santa Barbara is made by winemakers who are, themselves, moms. These three options, each one priced at around $25, deserve serious consideration:
A Tribute to Grace, 2017 Rosé of Grenache, 2017
Angela Osborne has three young boys, ages 6 months to four years. And yet, this New Zealand native still finds time to craft a thoughtful portfolio of lovely wines. Her Rosé of Grenache is delicate on the nose and bursting with minerality and freshness. Grenache grapes were sourced from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, 60 miles inland and at an elevation of 3000 feet. The wine was bottled under an Aries moon in February and released in March. Osborne’s label is a tribute to her grandmother, Grace.
Carhartt Vineyard, 2017 Chase the Blues Away Rosé
These days, Brooke Carhartt splits winemaking duties with her 29-year-old son, Chase – pretty much 50-50. This familial cooperation, which also includes husband Mike, the Carhartt label’s chief grape grower, has led to one of Santa Barbara’s coolest wine brands. The bouncy and refreshing Chase the Blues Away Rosé, also all-grenache and fermented in stainless steel, was released in mid-April. Aside from ordering it online, that poplar Carhartt tasting room in Los Olivos is the only place where you can get it.

Cambria Winery, Rosé of Pinot Noir
Denise Shurtleff is an empty nester these days, her two adult sons currently pursuing careers outside the wine business. That means more time to focus on vines and wines, a gig she’s had at Santa Maria’s Cambria Winery for more than 15 years. Shurtleff uses estate pinot noir grapes from Julia’s Vineyard for the label’s 2017 rosé, which is smooth and bursting with flavors of strawberry and watermelon.
Happy Mother’s Day!
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Mud Reimagined: Santa Barbara Winemaker Uses Montecito Mire as Fertilizer

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Mo McFadden & Fred Brander
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/29/18

“It’s a pretty crazy idea,” admits winemaker Fred Brander, “but it’s a neat idea.”
For obvious reasons, there’s little more that the Montecito community likely wants to do with mud than to discard it. Dump it somewhere far away.
Mud, along with boulders and debris, thundered with deadly force through the luxe enclave on January 9th, and as cleanup and recovery continue, much of it remains.
Fred Brander at his Montecito property, post-mudslide
Mr. Brander and his son, Nick, were among those affected that morning, when they became trapped in their house just off Mountain Drive and along Oak Creek. “A culvert at the bottom of the road got plugged up with mud, and that made water and debris go over the road and into our backyard,” he recalls. Crews from Montecito Fire would rescue them soon after.
There’s an emotional connection to this property, since it’s a house his parents built in 1983, where they resided until they both passed away in recent years, and where Mr. Brander has been living ever since. “I have roots to this property,” he says.
There are also roots to Fred Brander’s namesake vineyard in Los Olivos, which is home to the first sauvignon blanc grapes ever planted in Santa Barbara County. His parents, Erik and Virginia, bought that land in 1974. The Brander Vineyard, established there in 1977, remains one of the most awarded wine labels in California today.
And in the vineyard, that mud suddenly offered opportunity.

“The disaster of the fires and the food was a really unusual event,” Mr. Brander says, referring to the Thomas Fire that roared through Santa Barbara in December – the largest in California history – and the Montecito mudslides that followed it so quickly.
“All that debris was unusually high in wood ash.”
Crews remove mud and rock from Brander's Montecito property
Mr. Brander set himself to study the potential benefits of ash in soil. It’s no secret, he says, that previous generations regularly used ash to fertilize their vegetable gardens. “Those veggies got nutrition because wood is high in potassium and other nutrients and minerals.”
He also learned that alkaline soils, like the ones that coat the mountains that embrace Montecito, could benefit acidic soils, like the ones across the Santa Ynez Valley. “It can increase the pH of the soil to beneficial levels, and that’s a plus,” he says.
So when construction companies came to clear the culvert by his house, Mr. Brander intervened. “’Where are you taking all the mud and rock?’ I asked them. When they said, ‘Los Alamos,’ I told them I had a place that was a lot closer.”
No less than 60 truckloads made their way to The Brander Vineyard. More than 900 tons in all. Most of it is rock, actually, which Mr. Brander has earmarked for decorative landscaping across his 52-acre property. But that mud – that mud's become fertilizer.
After drying out and going through a sorter and being cleared for toxicity, Montecito mud has been spread across three acres of cabernet sauvignon vines. “That was the most labor-intensive part, hand-fertilizing each plant,” he says. Another two acres of cabernet in the same block are being used as a control, and when harvest comes around this fall, Mr. Brander will be able to quantify the effects of his unique peat.
A sorter separates ash-rich mud from rock
Ash-rich mud is used to fertilize cabernet vines at The Brander Vineyard
“When we pick, we’ll test pH and acid and sugar to see if there’s a difference,” says the winemaker. “But we should be able to track progress during the growing season, within weeks even, if the leaves start to look healthier, greener.”
Mr. Brander believes that this may be the first time wood ash has ever been used as vineyard fertilizer, at least to this extent. The grapevines they’re nourishing were planted 10 years ago and generate fruit for Brander’s award-winning reserve cabernet program. “So we’ll make a good quality wine either way,” he says.
Mr. Brander is keeping a close eye on his vines
And when that wine is made and released sometime in late 2019, it’ll become a tribute to victims of the Montecito mudslides. The commemorative wine, with proceeds tagged for relief efforts, will even feature a label specially designed by “a top artist from Oaxaca” that Mr. Brander commissioned just last week.
“We all want to do something good to bring awareness and to help the community heal,” adds Fred Brander. “So it’s important to see that something good can come out of a bad situation. Even here, there can be a silver lining."
Brander Vineyard, 2401 N. Refugio Rd., Los Olivos. 805-688-2455.
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Santa Barbara's Biggest Wine Party of the Spring: Vintners Festival Returns

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/12/18

Santa Barbara’s biggest wine party of spring is just days away. Santa Barbara Vintners, the group that represents more than 100 local wineries and vineyards, is hosting its 36th annual wine fete on Saturday, April 21st at sprawling River Park in Lompoc. Free-flowing world-class wine aside, here are five reasons to be among the 2000 thirsty revelers who’ll be there.
The Bubbles
The Bubble Lounge is new this year – a dedicated spot to all things fizzy! In a few short years, Santa Barbara has seen sparkling wine production soar, with some of the area’s top labels, like Riverbench, Lucas & Lewellen and Alma Rosa, cranking out bubbly yearly. The Bubble Lounge will be an effervescent oasis – a great way to cleanse the palate throughout the afternoon.
The Food
Wine lovers are food lovers, so the culinary spin to this festival is always a crowd pleaser. In fact, at some of the area’s most popular gastronomic hangouts, be ready to wait in line. More than 30 local restaurants, chefs and purveyors will be doling out edible treats, and look for some of the region’s top farmers to be serving up their in-season organic fare.
Frank Ostini, chef/winemaker
The Stages
This year’s festival will feature not one, but two stages. One will add to the event’s epicurean appeal, hosting several cooking demonstrations. The other stage will host The Bryan Titus Trio, a band known for its modern take on bluegrass. Toe-tapping to their high-spirited tunes is a great way to take breaks and pace yourself throughout the day.
The First Few This year’s event is a tip-of-the-hat to the 17 young winemakers who started it all. “No one has that ‘look at me’ mentality, it was about ‘look at us,’” remembers Qupe vintner Bob Lindquist in a recent interview with Santa Barbara Vintners. The first Vintners Festival took place in 1983 at Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, with the goal of raising enough money to print a wine trail map; with 500 tickets up for grabs, it was a sellout. And today, it’s one of the longest-running wine festivals in the country. Look for many of those original 17 winemakers –Lindquist, along with Jim Clendenen, Ken Brown and Richard Sanford, among others – at the April 21st event.

Norm Yost, winemaker
The First Responders
More than 8500 firefighters from 10 states descended on our area in December when the largest wildfire in California history roared through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The debris flow in Montecito a few weeks later showcased first responder heroism all over again. In gratitude, the Festival includes a First Responder Invitational, which allows members of the community to buy a ticket for a firefighter or police officer to attend the festival. The goal: at least 100 first responders in attendance.
Please enjoy this festival to the max, but please enjoy it responsibly. Bus transportation from Santa Barbara, Solvang or Buellton begins at $30 and non- drinking tickets for designated drivers and kids (ages six to 20) are $25. General admission to Saturday’s Grand Tasting is $70 and the five-day Vintners’ Visa Weekend Pass, which gets you complimentary tastings at 12 wineries of your choice all weekend long, costs $50; do the combo for $100. Check out
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In a Flash, and Flashy: Montecito’s New Frankland’s Crab & Co. Raises Bar on Food Served Fast

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Yasmin Alishav and Jakob Layman
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/12/18

To hear Chef Philip Frankland Lee describe his Buttered Maine Lobster Sandwich is simply mouthwatering.
“We use a five-pound live Maine lobster that’s flow in, we keep it live on ice, we steam it live, then pull the meat out, chop up the whole lobster and then chill it,” he says.
Chef Lee’s wife, Margarita Kallas-Lee, makes the butter on the stovetop, and she folds in the cracked lobster shells to infuse flavor. She also makes the brioche bread, which is griddled on the outside to keep the inside soft and dressed with homemade cocktail sauce. Lobster meat goes on, along with the warm butter, lemon juice, shaved iceberg lettuce and plenty of Mr. Frankland’s proprietary seasoning salt.
“We close it up, put a pair of toothpicks in it and then cut it in half,” the chef concludes. “It’s inspired by the way I like to eat lobster. We just make the whole thing into a sandwich and make it killer.”
No wonder, then, that this sandwich has become the number one seller at Frankland’s Crab & Co., the brand new and much-anticipated street-front eatery at the Montecito Inn. Opening day was April 6th, and the restaurant’s been buzzing ever since. "Jam-packed, busier than we expected, and we expected to be busy,” admits the chef. “The community has been incredibly supportive.”
On expectation alone, Frankland’s was bound to launch big. It’s the first of four dining concepts in the works for the Montecito Inn by the celeb chef couple behind LA’s Scratch Restaurants, and it was just one week away from opening day when the Montecito debris flows hit on January 9th. The hotel’s re-opening last month was, even if just emotionally, a welcomed step forward for the Santa Barbara community. Frankland’s own grand opening, even if three months behind schedule, strikes an emotive chord, too.
Chef Peter Frankland Lee (Alishav)
“We’re not just back on track,” says Chef Lee, optimistically. “As a community, we’re further than we were, and we’re keeping it growing.”
But the chef and his team are aiming to strike expectations head on, and they intend to deliver. There’s only counter service at Frankland’s Crab Co., and while the food comes out fast by design, quality prevails. “People come in here to eat, not dine. Like when you’re coming back from the beach, in sandals, and just want to pop in to grab a bite,” says Chef Lee, 31. “There are plenty of other spots up and down Coast Village Road that do the fine dining thing, they’re more proper, and they do it great. We’re a high-brow approach to low-brow cuisine.”
Dovetailing from the out-of-the-box concepts that have shaped the chef pair's Scratch eateries over the years, high-quality ingredients are sourced both locally and globally, and pretty much everything on the Frankland’s menu –from breads to sauces to pickles – is made from by hand and onsite. “We’re more like a French brigade of chefs – a team that’s trained more in a fine dining style – that happens to be doing this more approachable type of food,” says Chef Lee. “So, if you’re having a sandwich here, you’re getting the best product money can buy. And we’re making everything else ourselves, and we’re tasting everything for quality.”
The Frankland’s menu is concise, with a tip-of-the-hat to as much that’s local as possible; the “Specials” board this week has featured local spot prawns, local sea urchin and local rock crab.
Oysters and clams ($3 each) are available raw or fried, and they stay live until they’re fried to order. Steamed items are presented at market prices, including snow crab claws, king crab legs and live Maine lobster. Sides include corn on the cob, salads and potato chips, though the Frankland’s Style Fries ($8) are the star: Yukon gold potatoes sliced thin, tripled-blanched in the fryer until crispy, seasoned with Frankland’s seasoning salt, topped with a heaping ladle of homemade clam chowder, bacon, cheddar and scallions.
Sandwiches highlight a seafood variety, like the Beer Battered Branzino ($15), the Soft Shell Crab ($16) and the Lobster Grilled Cheese ($14). There’s also a Prime Angus Cheeseburger ($12). And the Breaded Chicken Breast ($13) is another early winner: Mary’s Free Range Chicken breast, butterflied, panko-crusted and fried, served on fresh brioche with spicy mayo remoulade, a multi-colored pickled slaw of cauliflower, fennel and carrots and seasoning salt. “It’s what all my chefs eat while on break,” jokes Chef Lee.
Margarita Kallas-Lee (Alishav)
There’s only one dessert on the menu – Margarita's Homemade Iced Cream Sandwich ($6) – and a handful of beverages, including housemade root beer, local draft beer by the pint or pitcher ($6/$17), a bevy of Bottles from the Minibar ($8) and Wine in a Can ($12).
In the near future, the Frankland’s team aims to provide picnic baskets to go (inside logoed Igloo coolers) and even seaside delivery. Says Chef Lee, “We’re working on a drop-off point at Butterfly Beach, where maybe people are laying out, they can order by phone, we ride down in a beach cruiser and deliver food to them on the sand!”
Three other dining concepts are in the works, including The Monarch around July, a fine dining option inside the former Montecito Café spot across the hotel driveway from Frankland’s. Margarita’s Snacks should open in the fall, a France-meets-California seaside patisserie doling out ice cream, cakes, pies, doughnuts and scones. And The Silver Bow, a super-deluxe, reservation-only, chef-led dining concept in a private alcove on the inn’s ground floor -- an experience Chef Lee predicts will be “the French Laundry of Montecito – could be welcoming guests for New Year’s Eve.
Frankland’s Crab & Co. is open seven days a week, 11am to 10pm.
Frankland’s Crab & Co. at The Montecito Inn, 1295 Coast Village Rd., Montecito. 805-845-9310.

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Time for Dessert: Italian Ex-Pat Launches Gelato Venture in Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez Valley

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Dan Quinajon
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/29/18

When Alessio Carnevale speaks about making gelato, he compares it to other classic food preparations that require time. “It’s like braising osso buco,” he insists. “You can’t rush it.”

And when the Italian native really wants to drive the point home that great gelato is the product of patience, his comparisons get even more vivid. “It’s like sex, actually,” he says, with a hearty laugh. “It’s more enjoyable if you take your time!”

It’s with a clear passion for classic Italian food that Mr. Carnevale, 35, just launched a new boutique dessert business in the Santa Ynez Valley, Valley Craft Gelato. His focus is on the sweet treat that’s practically part of everyday life in Italy. For Mr. Carnevale, that included working in his uncle’s parlor in the southern Italian region of Calabria. “This is where I first learned how to make gelato – in my mind, one of the best,” he recalls. “My uncle’s shop kept a regular stock of perennial favorite flavors.”

On the surface, gelato differs from ice cream in the execution: more whole milk, less cream (therefore, a product with a bit less fat); a slower churn, with air whipped in (for a denser, creamier product); and presentation at a slightly higher temperature (for a dessert experience that melts smooth in your mouth).

For Mr. Carnevale, though, there’s no real competition between gelato and ice cream. “What makes the difference is, who’s making the product? I’ve tasted great ice cream just like I’ve tasted bad gelato. If the person making it has the right passion, you’re going to get the right product.”

What really distinguishes a quality gelato, he continues, is the quality of ingredients, which generate flavors that are remarkably genuine and intense. “You buy the best bananas, and you get oranges that are perfectly ripe,” he says. “And then you let flavors ferment for several hours – six or eight hours. So many people try to make gelato so fast.”

Indeed, making a batch of gelato is a two-day process for Mr. Carnevale. Some of his ingredients are imported – “Pistachios from Italy are the best for me,” he says – the vast majority are sourced from throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, like blood oranges and figs. “I’m also using Belgian chocolate which is the best, but I’m looking to start working with some of the great chocolatiers in Solvang.”

Mr. Carnevale established roots in the Valley when he moved here in 2010. He met his wife, a Southern California native, while she was studying in Rome and the pair, and their twin children, now live in Buellton. After a stint at former Santa Ynez Italian food hotspot Trattoria Grappolo, Mr. Carnevale was part of the original service team at SY Kitchen, where he still works alongside his friend, Executive Chef Luca Crestanelli. SY Kitchen was one of the first customers of Mr. Carnevale’s side business, combining his vanilla bean gelato with hot espresso for their affogato dessert.

The Valley Craft Gelato line is handmade inside a private commercial kitchen in downtown Santa Ynez. Flavors range from the classics -- Salted Caramel, Tiramisu, Dark Chocolate, Espresso – to seasonal, locally-inspired creations, like Pistachio and Lemon Zest, Roasted Coconut and White Chocolate, Honey and Lavender, and Fig Sorbetto. Currently, the gelatos are primarily made-to-order for catering, special events and wholesale orders, as well as for a growing list of local restaurants, including the newly-opened Mattei’s Tavern. Mr. Carnevale also takes direct-to-consumer orders and crafts flavors by request. He can be reached through the Valley Craft Gelato Facebook page, through Instagram and, eventually, his in-progress website.

Mr. Carnevale’s ultimate dream is to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and open his own storefront, leveraging a growing appreciation for gelato among U.S. consumers. “You guys are ready!” he says.

But, just like when he’s making great gelato, he’s not rushing it.

“It’ll take some time, because I’m a one-man army right now. I’m doing everything in the business myself. But that’s a good way to show vendors that I am committed to this.”
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