The sophisticated art of keeping it simple
STORY BY CHAD WALSH
PHOTOS BY AUBRIE LEGAULT
When Sandro Paolini left his hometown of Pisa, Italy, with an agriculture and forestry degree in hand to emigrate to the United States, he didn’t speak a lick of English. So he learned the language the way a lot of American immigrants do — by cooking in kitchens.
After spending a few years cooking and volunteering on farms in the big-sky country of Montana, Paolini headed west and landed in Portland, where he split time working in agriculture and at New Seasons Market.
But he had a long-simmering idea that he was ready to bring to a boil: Make the kind of gelato he grew up eating as a boy in the old country.
So he went back home and spent a year helping out at his friend’s gelateria, conveniently located down the street from his parents’ house.
When Sandro returned to Portland, he imported all that he’d learned and, on the first day of summer in 2015, he opened Pinolo Gelato, which he now runs with his girlfriend, Ashe Lyon, his friend Cosimo Gonnelli, and his gelato assistant, co-conspirator, and fellow taster, Suzy Boatman.
“I want to create the same experiences I had growing up,” Paolini explains, about why he opened a gelateria and why now. It turns out, his customers crave those experiences, too.
In a Salt & Straw ice-cream town, Paolini is encouraged that people either already “get” gelato — ice cream’s kissing cousin — or they’re eager to learn more.
For the uninitiated, gelato is made with milk — not cream — which results in a denser, creamier texture. It also requires less sugar, so it’s less sweet (and less fattening). And because Paolini uses natural gommes (or natural resins) to bind his gelatos and sorbettos, the majority of his flavors are egg-free, too.
And there are a couple of reasons for going egg-free, Paolini says. True, it makes his gelatos egg allergy–friendly, but the more practical reason, he points out, is that egg yolks obscure a flavor’s true taste.
“There’s a simplicity to gelato that lets you taste what you are eating,” he says. “With ice creams, they sometimes try to combine too many ingredients. I like the simplicity of the gelato. I’ll often use just one single flavor. I don’t have many different flavors combined. And that is the gelato I loved in Italy.”
For instance, his lemon sorbetto — the first flavor he fell head-over-heels for as a kid — uses just four simple ingredients: lemon juice, sugar, water, and gomme.
His favorite, though, is his pinolo — or pine nut — although he admits that, at first, the taste may be outside of some Americans’ comfort zones. “It’s a strong flavor,” he says. “When you eat it, it doesn’t wow your mouth, but it’s really persistent.”
And while most of the ingredients are sourced weekly right here in Oregon — “There are so many great fruits, and milk is much better than the quality we get in Italy because of the nutrition of the cows,” Sandro says — those pine nuts come straight from Italy.
But there’s something more wholesomely subversive to Paolini’s operation besides providing Portlanders with bona fide Italian gelato. Paolini also hopes to be a cultural ambassador by sharing the culture attached to gelato.
“It’s like coffee in the morning: You get up, get coffee, and start your day,” Paolini says. “In the summer, in the afternoon, around four, or even after dinner, you have gelato. Gelato in Italy is a way to have a chat. Your friend will say, ‘What are you doing?’ and you say, ‘Well, I have 10 minutes,’ and he’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s go get gelato and chat.’”
Those chats are the impetus behind the space’s design. People drop in for some gelato, take a seat, talk, and then head out to wherever it was they were going to in the first place.
“I’m really excited because people here do that,” Sandro says. “They’re not on their phones; they chat and relax. I feel that is really good for that reason. I feel like the people understand what I was trying to do.”
3707 SE Division St.
503-719-8686 • pinologelato.com
Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He contributes to — and sometimes pinch-hits as editor at — Eater PDX and writes for other publications, like Edible Portland.