Frederic-James Fitoussi is one Dubai’s few artisan food makers. His speciality is premium gelato, which to him means no preservatives and picky sourcing. The result is a frozen dessert that is soft, rich and the embodiment of whatever ingredient it’s meant to represent. Unlike industrial ice creams, which can last in the freezer for up to
a year with no ill effect (save on your health), Fitoussi’s brand doesn’t keep longer than a week. But that freshness is something you can taste.
‘If you go to Italy, on each corner of the street, you have a gelato shop, run by individuals who all have their own recipes. By contrast, with a franchise, it’s really just following the book. You don’t need to be a chef, you just throw in some powdered flavouring and that’s it, but that’s not gelato, and it doesn’t taste as nice.’
He says Dubai is a difficult place for small businesses pushing a quality brand. ‘Here, they’re not that interested in the product. If it’s a new concept, they want to know, “Who’s your sponsor?” and “How big is your company?” It can be very frustrating.’ After one and a half years of developing and marketing his gelato, Fitoussi has finally found a receptive audience. He has seven locations in the UAE, including a gelato stand at Ibn Battuta Mall, Deira City Centre and Mall of the Emirates.
‘I started by talking to executive chefs at hotels, because they understand good product,’ he recalls. It was the chefs that got him the link to the malls. Currently, a number of hotels stock his products, including the InterContinental, Mina A’Salam, Al Qasr and the Shangri-La hotel.
Into the cold
Eager to show me the effort that goes into a superior scoop, Fitoussi brought me into his freezer, where all the magic happens. Underneath stockpiles of whole cinnamon sticks, pliant vanilla beans, bags of limes and imported Belgium chocolate, Fitoussi has set up tubs of ice cream base, each containing different chunks of these ingredients. Once he makes the creamy base of the gelato (which comes out thick and warm), he soaks the ingredients (be it lemon zest, pandan, coffee beans or what-have-you) in the substance until it cools, and then strains out the chunks.
The base assumes the flavour of the ingredients. Next, he puts the liquid into a machine that will aerate it, freeze it, and turn it into gelato. For chunky recipes (cookies and cream, chocolate chips, and so on), he mixes those elements in by hand. While the most popular flavours veer along the vanilla, strawberry, chocolate line, part of what makes Napoli gelato unique are its combinations. Belgian biscuit and strawberry and black pepper are two examples of Fitoussi’s more unusual recipes.
I wouldn’t have thought the Dubai clientele adventurous enough for these flavours, but he assures me that this isn’t the case. ‘I really believe the customer always wants to try something different. They want the chance to experience a new taste. I hope I’m able to give them that opportunity.’
Fitoussi says a side effect of his formula is his gelato has half the calories of industrial ice cream. He maintains that this is because of the added fat and sugar ice cream companies use to prolong the shelf life of their product. Plus, consumers can rest easy knowing that the lack of additives make Napoli gelato, if not healthy, than at least healthier.
Keeping it small
Fitoussi has always been interested in food. While at university, he spent a summer learning how to make gelato from a friend’s Italian uncle, a 55-year-old man whose family had been in the business for generations.
‘I learned 95 per cent of what I know from that summer,’ he recalls. He has since modelled his business in the Italian way: ‘In Italy, making gelato is usually a family tradition. It’s treated with pride, and the recipes are passed down. A family gelateria isn’t interested in turning into a big business that sells their product in supermarkets. They just want to make their own shop the best they can.’ Similarly, he tells that he has no interest in seeing his gelato in the ice cream aisle next to Häagen-Dazs and London Dairy. ‘That would defeat the whole point,’ he says.