From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

Coffee Break

I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones in your life, be they reasonable accomplishments, or the more understated achievements that most people probably find kind of lame. For example, recently I’ve felt very proud of myself for what some might call a pretty underwhelming development — I’ve finally started taking my coffee black. It’s useful because I’m trying to cut down on sugar where I can (and let’s be honest, I’m just not gonna start eating fewer Oreos). And it allows me to play at being sophisticated (see previous sentence about Oreos), since there’s something oh-so-chic about declining milk and sugar with a “no thanks, I take mine black.” But the reason I think I’ve fixated on this new habit is that it’s a piece of the developing puzzle of what my taste as an adult is. My relationship with coffee mirrors my general relationship with food, and shockingly, I feel as though I’m learning to embrace new discoveries beyond the walls of all-dessert-all-the-time.

I can clearly remember when Starbucks came to my hometown in the early 2000s. I had always avoided my father’s brewed coffee (smells great, tastes awful), but when it was explained to me that a mocha involved chocolate, well I just had to try. It was serviceable, but these Starbucks folks clearly had no idea that for a chocoholic tween, the emphasis should be less on the espresso and way more on the chocolate syrup and whipped cream. A few years later, another Starbucks opened up literally next to my high school. Sophomore year,  I challenged the upper limits of my pancreas by opting for a Venti Hot Chocolate during every early morning free period I had. (Note: this was an early but striking lesson in nutrition, when I discovered that consuming full-fat cocoa drinks with whipped cream several days a week in fact leads to weight gain. Shocking.)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started voluntarily consuming coffee-based drinks, and even then the term “coffee-based” is a bit of stretch. My college roommate Megan was a Pennsylvania native, and so decided in our first scant hours together that I needed to be educated about the wonder that is Wawa. For those not in the know, Wawa is pretty much 7/11, only WAY BETTER. Not only do they offer a multiplicity of brewed coffee flavors (french vanilla, hazelnut, etc), but they have one of those gross powdered-latte machines. And that miraculous machine was precisely where my true coffee journey began.

Cue a montage of my freshman year experiments with the Wawa latte machine. Just as Megan had promised, the machine was meant for dreamy artist-types, with its magical capacity for flavor combos, like Irish coffee/peppermint, or french vanilla/toffee. And note the easy learning curve afforded by the push-and-hold-to-fill buttons. You could start with a 90% hot chocolate, 10% almond latte, then slowly adjust the proportions as you became addicted to the sugar and caffeine high of these artificially flavored masterpieces. By the end of that year of trial-and-error I probably would have picked the caramel-mocha as my go-to drink, which just seems disappointingly mundane given all the possibilities.

Much like the venti hot chocolates of my high school days, I eventually realized that I was basically drilling cavities into my teeth with these drinks, and I tried to make the switch to regular coffee. Plus, Megan had moved on, and I’ve realized in chronicling this she really was the tastemaker for me when it comes to coffee. She was always one step ahead on the journey to coffee simplicity, and chose black coffee for years before I got into the game. So I grimaced and set aside the latte machine for the flavored coffee carafes right next to them, adding in a couple of packets of artificial sweetener and maybe even a flavored coffee creamer to keep up the excitement of untried flavor combos. Baby steps, to be sure.

Luckily, a semester abroad in Scotland forced my hand. I was distressed to discover that brewed coffee is relatively rare in Scottish cafes (or at least it was in 2008), and the exchange rate does not favor an American in a Scottish Starbucks. Reluctant to empty my bank account on expensive mochas (and/or add to the generally unhealthy diet of delicious Indian food and cafeteria meat pies I was surviving on), I turned to the only thing that seemed familiar — Americanos. Of course, I threw a solid amount of milk and sweetener into those, since the straight espresso flavor was a big leap for me. I grumbled about missing real coffee for 4 months, but it was heaps better than the gritty cups Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee I grimaced through each morning in my dorm.

Back in America, I had my ups and downs, at one point giving up coffee all together, then slowly falling back into the habit with decaf, and eventually returning to full-fledged addiction when I started in the working world. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve cut out my customary packet of Sweet-n-Low, and only in the past month that I’ve left the half-and-half in the fridge.

And you know what? I actually kind of like the bitter taste of black coffee. Maybe it’s the same effect as when you start drinking a liquor like Scotch straight-up — once the dominant flavor of  the mix-ins is removed, you start to notice the subtlety of the base itself. While I would be loathe call myself a discerning coffee drinker (I like Dunkin Donuts a lot — there, I said it), I can now really tell the difference between the brews of coffee I like and those I don’t. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and gosh darn it, I’m actually proud of myself for taking the opportunity to try something different.

During the tumultuous period of my 20s, it’s kind of refreshing to discover new things about myself on the micro-scale. There’s a lot of change going on in every part of my life, but finding out I like eggplant or poached eggs or pinot noir are the kind of developments that somehow offer me a bit of stability. Silly as it may seem, accepting that my tastes are shifting lets me know that change is inevitable and can actually be rewarding. Like my fencing coach said in high school — if you focus on taking small steps, you’ll be balanced when opportunity comes to lunge. I don’t fence these days, but occasionally life throws you a tough bout, and you can damn well bet when that happens that I’ll be on the strip well-caffeinated and armed with my full cuppa joe. I’ll take it black, please.

Fencing epee in high school