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Kittanning family scoops up honors - and fans - for its cool concoctions

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

KITTANNING -- And to think that you can eat such a treat on Mulberry Street.

"I'd like to be one of the top 10 [gelato] shops in the country some day," says Dr. Rick Mercurio, who with his wife, Linda, runs Mulberry Street Creamery in Kittanning. (John Heller, Post-Gazette Photos)

Just off the main drag into this Armstrong County seat from Route 28, across from the postcard-pretty park along the Allegheny River, in a cute red octagonal shop called the Mulberry Street Creamery, you will find it:

Some of America's best gelato.

So said members of the National Ice Cream and Yogurt Retailers Association, which at its annual convention in October gave this tiny Western Pennsylvania business five awards. They included a first place for best nonfruit flavor (Root Beer Float) and a second-place tie for best fruit flavor (Key Lime Pie).

Mulberry Street's gelato was competing mostly against ice cream, which it is not, as the store's mom and pop -- Linda and Rick Mercurio -- will explain to you.

Ice cream, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, must contain at least 10 percent butterfat. Some "super premium" brands fatten up to twice that. True gelato, which means "frozen" in its native Italy, also is a flavored dairy confection, but it typically contains about 5 percent fat.

Yet gelato has a creamy texture because it is frozen with smaller ice crystals and far less added air. Ice cream can be up to 50 percent air.

With about 7 percent fat and 10 percent air, Mulberry Street's gelato is like a dense, silky frozen pudding with flavors as intense as -- well, as the Mercurios' missionary zeal for the stuff.

"It's going to be the new thing," says Rick Mercurio, whose other family practice is in medicine. The doctor works in the shop, with his wife and all seven of their children.

Linda Mercurio says the lower fat is "just a bonus" for customers. "They come for the taste," which the Mercurios agree is better than ice cream.

"By a landslide!" her husband nearly shouts.

Now in its third season, Mulberry Street Creamery is creating a buzz outside Kittanning, too. That includes in Pittsburgh, where a few restaurants and other eateries offer the shop's gelato and gelato desserts. But the Mercurios want to be known farther away than that.

"I'd like to be one of the top 10 shops in the country some day," says Dr. Mercurio, who, like his wife, has taken classes in ice cream making and marketing in pursuit of gelato perfection.

What a blast

Like a mad Arctic scientist, Dr. Mercurio experiments while concocting the creamery's recipes. He always starts from scratch -- milk and sugar -- which means that, unlike most ice cream shops that start with a ready mix, they must pasteurize first.


 
 
The Mulberry Street Creamery is open noon to 10 p.m. daily. The phone is 724 54-TREAT. From Pittsburgh, take 28 North to the Kittanning exit, which puts you on South Water Street along the Allegheny River. Look for Mulberry Street and the creamery on the right.
   

 

They make gelato in small batches, in five-liter stainless steel pans that go immediately into a blast freezer set at minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit. (At serving temperature, about 10 degrees, gelato lasts only a couple of days at the most.)

Be warned: Gelato doesn't necessarily stay low fat for long. Many of the creamery's 130-plus flavors include rich additions such as Belgian chocolate, nuts and coconut. The best sellers, in descending order, are turtle, coconut cream pie (with bits of crust), peanut butter smoothie, butter pecan and apple pie.

More true to the Italian tradition, they also make many with fresh fruit and pureed fruit imported from Italy.

Dr. Mercurio boasts that he could make gelato out of anything, but admits to making a few clunkers.

"Oh, mandarin fudge. Never again," he says with a groan.

"That was terrible," agrees Bob Ware, one of the family friends who helps out at the shop just for the free gelato.

It's powerful stuff. Just ask the saleswoman from Cranberry who comes in every time she's near.

"Oh, your car came this way again," Ware teases her.

"It's an addiction," the woman replies as she orders her second gelato of the day. The shop only has been open for 90 minutes.

An Italian love story

Linda Mercurio once dreamed about opening a tea room. But they started thinking ice cream shop because of how much they love frozen custard, that egg-yolk-enriched soft ice cream. Plus, being able to close in winter sounded great.

As part of their exhaustive research, they visited the Frozen Custard Capital of the World, Milwaukee, and tasted tons of custard. They traveled even farther to several of the country's top ice cream shops.

But it was while Linda and two daughters were in Italy for a wedding in 1995 that they fell in amore with gelato, which they ate every single day at the gelaterias that are everywhere.

So the Mercurios decided to sell custard and gelato at the shop, which they built on a lot that they bought because it was near the river and just across the Allegheny from their home. The fact that it is on Mulberry Street -- also the main drag in New York City's Little Italy -- seemed like a good sign.

They expected custard to be the big seller. But gelato outsells it six to one. And they've plunged into it, traveling back to Italy this past January for a 10-day tour of gelaterias and the industry's massive trade show led by ice cream expert Malcolm Stogo.

Alissa Brochetti, 13, of Kittanning enjoys a waffle cone of Blueberry Cheesecake gelato on the porch of the Mulberry Street Creamery.

Will gelato get as hot here? Well, Haagen-Dazs just started selling several flavors in groceries. Gelato is the luscious cover story of the current issues of Saveur and Cooking Light magazines. And gelaterias are opening all over, including several of the Italian-based Parmalat chain, which even put one in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for the recent exhibition, "Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draftsmen of the Renaissance."

"There's definitely a surge going on," says Stogo, the Riverdale, N.Y.-based consultant and Ice Cream University president who wrote the book on ice cream retailing. He agrees with the Mercurios that some "gelato" sold in the United States is much higher in fat and air than the Italian stuff. He admires the Mercurios for keeping theirs as "real" as it is.

The Mercurios don't mind saying they've become ice cream snobs. If they taste too much fat or some other problem in another brand, they just drop it in the trash.

Spreading out

The Mulberry Street Creamery starts each day with a dozen flavors in the glass gelato case, each pan elaborately decorated on top. The display is part of the experience. They serve it with scoops instead of the traditional Italian paddles -- it's easier to control portions -- but still work from end to end so some decoration always is visible.

Pints usually cost $3.40, but if you're willing to take a risk, you can buy a mix of leftover flavors in a "potluck" pint for $1.50. A regular cone or cup is $1.95 (waffle cones are 50 cents extra).

When one flavor runs out, they replace it with a different one from the freezer below, which is why savvy regulars know to ask, "What do you have underneath?" or "What's under?"

They also offer four no-sugar-added gelatos and nine different sorbets (made with real fruit) and ices (made with fruit flavors).

Then there's the custard, which is what they use to make treats including shakes and banana splits (of course) as well as special house concoctions such as the Italian Sensation (layers of vanilla custard and lemon ice with fresh strawberries).

While Kittanning can make for a fine Sunday ice cream drive -- this Sunday happens to be National Ice Cream Day -- you don't have to go there to enjoy Mulberry Street gelato. It's now also carried by a few other outlets, including the Sewickley Confectionery and Enrico's Tazza d'Oro cafe in Highland Park. The ranks of the addicted, if not their waists, are growing.

"It's as good as I've had in Italy," says Eddie Caropreso, who has the gelato with his family at Michelle's Cafe in Clarion about once a week. They're planning a "field trip" to Kittanning.

Linda Mercurio also makes and markets a range of frozen desserts, some of which they regularly deliver to restaurants ranging from Franco's Trattoria in Dormont (which buys her spumoni and hazelnut torte) to Ladbroke at the Meadows in Washington County (chocolate-shelled gelato tartufo in goodie-filled flavors like raspberry and dulce de leche).

The Mercurios are thrilled to get their products to a wider audience, and would love to open an outlet in the big city. But meanwhile they're still pretty small-town, phoning folks when their favorite flavors are on and getting it to homes packed in dry ice. It's so much work that they frequently eat dinner at the shop, says Mom. "This is where we live."

They're looking forward to making money, she says, but this is more than just a business. This is their lives. This is gelato, and "What we're putting out, we're trying to make perfect."

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