This week, Yahoo Food is celebrating America’s favorite dessert with a series of profiles, recipes and photo galleries all dedicated to the creamy, delicious dessert. Check out our Ice Cream page for complete coverage!
Photo: Polpo Gelato
Do you remember your summer job in high school? For some, this will conjure up memories of bussing tables, babysitting neighbors, or flipping burgers. For others, summer meant hours scooping ice cream for minimum wage. But this New York City teen had a different idea. Why scoop ice cream when he could own the entire shop instead?
When I entered Polpo Gelato, a brand-new pop-up shop in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan, which is painted in a bright citrus yellow, I found not an extensive menu, but rather eight pared-down flavors. Classics like pistachio and vanilla mingled with more untraditional fare, like creamy ricotta stracciatella and spicy celery sorbet.
When I asked for the owner, I was greeted by a dimpled teen bubbling with enthusiasm, and eager to share his creations.
Harrison Geller, a 17-year-old rising senior at La Guardia High School, wasn’t always interested in the culinary world. However, the drama major quickly discovered a love of food by the sheer power of location. “I was surrounded by amazing food. Being in such close proximity to amazing restaurants got me into cooking, and my passion grew from there.”
Geller’s passion escalated when he embarked on a work-study program in rural Italy last summer, where he worked on a potato farm. There, he met Luigi Dragoni, a former secretary of the Accademia della Gelateria Italiana (the Academy of Italian Gelato), and became hooked on the art of gelato-making, guided by Dragoni’s expert hand.
Photo: Polpo Gelato
Geller learned the ins-and-outs of the traditional gelato-making techniques of Italy, a region famed for the frozen treat. “Luigi taught me how to get the perfect fat ratio, which stabilizers to add, how much sugar to incorporate depending on the flavor. It was so scientific and technical— unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” Geller said. However, it wasn’t all about facts and figures, but the personal, passionate element of Italian cooking, as well. “Luigi also taught me about putting love into it. That it wasn’t all about the procedure but also about the craft,” Geller added.
When Geller returned to New York, he was frustrated by his inability to find authentic Italian gelato, so he decided to make his own. His gelato creations were an instant hit with his friends and family, and they encouraged him to translate his passion into a business — a cart in Central Park, perhaps? No, Geller had slightly bigger ambitions.
He envisioned selling his gelato through a pop-up shop, and starting looking into possible spaces around the city that would allow him to do so. That’s when he found MILES, which calls itself a “civic start-up that helps launch pop-ups.” Geller knew it was a perfect fit; he instantly applied, and using money he had saved up from 10 years of commercial acting gigs, booked the space.
Settling on the name “Polpo Gelato,” — Polpo means “octopus” in Italian, referencing Geller’s selection of eight flavors — the teen started to develop his flavors and techniques further in preparation for his introduction to the public.
One of Geller’s signature flavors — and his personal favorite — is fior di latte, a simple sheep’s milk gelato with a sweet, mild taste that allows the other ingredients shine. Given the August heat, Geller also thought it was important to include some refreshing sorbets, including raspberry, lemon, and spicy celery, which is “basically a green juice in dessert form.”
Sampling each of the flavors on their sunny opening day, I was shocked by their rich simplicity; it was unlike any gelato I’ve had outside of Italy. The ricotta stracciatella, creamy and laced with bits of chocolate, was an instant favorite, as was the pistachio, a flavor I typically find to be cloyingly sweet, now beautifully translated to accentuate the most essential pistachio flavor.
It was hard to believe a teen could be behind such refined and masterful fare, but Geller exhibits a knowledge of the craft befitting of an Italian gelato master’s apprentice. “I don’t have an industrial-sized gelato maker, so the process is really personal for me, as I hand-churn each batch and know every ingredient that goes in there,” said Geller, who also utilizes lab equipment like “spinning hot plates and beakers” in his traditional-meets-modern process.
Geller and his staff. (Photo: Polpo Gelato)
“People who have come into the shop are definitely surprised that I’m the founder and creator of the gelato,” Geller said. “I don’t think they believe me when I say I’m the chef, but then I start explaining the gelato-making process, where I source my ingredients from… then they believe me.”
And so far, it seems to be a hit. Geller said some customers have come back seeking pints of their favorite flavors.
As for plans after the Polpo pop-up ends, Geller, who plans to go to apply for university drama programs on the East Coast, says things are up in the air. However, the one thing he’s certain of is that people are loving what he’s serving up. “I’d definitely like to keep making my gelato for people, and want to continue selling it somewhere.”
Next up, senior year — but not until after he finishes his month as a thriving business owner, bolstered by the support of his friends and family, who have been slightly “shocked at the scale of the pop-up,” Geller admitted. “I don’t think they expected me to execute things on the scale that I did. But I figured if I was going to do this, I should go all the way. I wanted things to be as close to perfect as I could.”
Polpo Gelato is currently open at 201 Allen Street in Manhattan, but only through the end of August — because, after all, school starts again in the fall.
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