The Gelato King
story by Julia Steele
photo by Ann Cecil
Thank God for Italy. It’s given us luminaries from St. Francis to Fellini, epic cathedrals, great pizza, fabulous shoes, neo-realist cinema and the best ice cream on the planet. Italian gelato is so goodso smooth, so luxe, so deliziosothat it’s hard to believe there’s no sacrament involved in its consumption. But no: You buy it, you eat it, you marvel. You buy more, you eat more, you marvel. That’s it. Rite, no; heaven, yes.
Maurice Grasso makes our gelato in Honolulu, and he’s a bona fide expert. He understands that it should be fresh, natural, inventive. He believes that the love and imagination that went into it should be just as evident on the palate as the flavor. And the flavor? He isn’t restricted by anything as mundane as convention. You want a glaze-roasted fig with port wine gelato? Meraviglioso! Maybe a white chocolate ginger gelato? Bellisimo! Grasso is nothing if not an adventurer, and it’s gelato gone global at La Gelateria, his small ice cream institution at 819 Cedar St., where he now has over 200 flavors. Tarragon, pumpkin, dragon fruit and guava have all been featured, though the classics are here, too: chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut.
Grasso opened La Gelateria in 1981, after studying the art of making gelato back in the Old Country. It was a decision of the heart: Grasso had come to Hawai‘i, fallen in love with the place and decided he wanted to find a way to stay. He realized good ice cream was lacking in the Islands, went home, learned to make it, came back and the rest is, as they say, spumoni. In 1986, he was deemed a gelato grand master after winning an international contest in Italy. Today, Grasso’s gelato is served in Hawai‘i’s best restaurants, and La Gelateria’s walls are lined with pictures of ice cream-loving big shots like the governor and Hawai‘i’s Congressional delegates. And what flavor does Grasso like best? “I like passionfruit, lemon, grandula,” he says. “Oh, and when I was a kid in Torino, my dad used to dip pears into red wine. So I made a pear with Chianti gelato. That’s a favorite.”