Carmela was a precise woman; highly organized and exact, as her granddaughter recalls.
Flanked by cardboard boxes in her new office space, Jessica Mortarotti reminisces about the woman to whom the name of her artisan ice cream pays tribute. She quickly sinks into childhood afternoons spent perched on her grandmother’s countertop, on the receiving end of a chocolate-covered mixing spoon ripe for licking. It was an affectionate gesture that this wispy, younger version of herself eagerly anticipated, while sitting front row to the drama of a fiery, Italian-blooded Carmela expertly baking her famous chocolate cake.
Mortarotti on the other hand, is far more mild mannered, her movements calm and willowy. Brunette hair aglow in the sunlight, the 37-year-old co-founder of Carmela Ice Cream tells us how this frozen dessert was a family tradition, relished after every meal. When she traveled the world in her late teens, she took this sweet habit on the road; the rich gelato scene in Italy, a delectable hybrid of ice cream and gelato in Argentina called helado, and a variety of choices Down Under. She tried them all. Sheepishly, she admits to being a twenty-something who would drive two hours to seek out a specific shop for ice cream with a cooler in hand.
So eight years ago, when Mortarotti and her partner Zachary Cox were feeling entrepreneurial, ice cream just made sense. They sent her to Penn State University’s Ice Cream Short Course, a program famous for training the founders of Ben & Jerry’s. Clearly a mismatch for her, she chuckles now as she thinks back to the blank stares that greeted her when she shared plans for tiny batches infused with fresh herbs and flowers.
Back home in California, while Pinkberry had Los Angeles obsessed and gelato was gaining popularity, Mortarotti stepped into her kitchen, turned on the stove, and began devising a French custard base from scratch, a technique in which she adds a very small but important amount of egg yolk for a smooth texture.
Her goal was simple. She planned to develop a sophisticated ice cream menu comprised entirely of garden flavors, which she charmingly likens to the essence of French country living.
For the cream base, it took six months of tinkering and tweaking ratios of milk, cream, egg yolk and cane sugar. Once she achieved her desired profile, she peeled, juiced, steeped and brewed everything from seasonal vegetables and fruits to herbs, spices, nuts and flowers. Using every part of each ingredient, she folded flavors into her creams and sorbets, coaxing them to unwrap at precise times. The balsamic vinegar and black pepper in her Spiced Strawberry, for instance, hit the palate separately instead of all at once.
To say Mortarotti and Cox did well with their endeavor would be an understatement. Last summer, Carmela Ice Cream’s Dark Chocolate Cacao Nib snagged the top spot on Bon Appetit’s artisanal favorites, beating 168 other shops across the country. It seems unimaginable that there was a time when, while holding full-time jobs, they would have to clock out to start making ice cream. They worked through the night in a pizzeria kitchen (named Purgatory, no less), wondering, Will we ever get out of here?
Much has changed since then. They eventually outgrew freezers, found their ideal kitchen on Washington Boulevard in Pasadena, built lasting friendships with local farmers––one of whom inspired their cucumber sorbet, began catering events from weddings to dog funerals, and in the winter of 2013, opened their second shop in Mid-City.
Yet throughout the growth of the business, Carmela Ice Cream has stayed true to its vision to craft garden-fresh flavors one small batch at a time. Mortarotti and Cox use only ingredients that are both in season and locally grown, with the exception of Madagascar vanilla beans and South American cocoa. So each year, to the horror of loyal followers, Strawberry Buttermilk comes and goes with the summer, available only when the berries are growing in their natural season. And customers would be hard-pressed to find coconut or mango on the menu, because these fruits aren’t native to California.
As we walk from her office to the Carmela Ice Cream kitchen next door, the creamery and curbside walk-up bar beckons us in with the scent of warm brown butter; aromatic evidence that a fresh batch of waffle cones is being pressed.
While our noses distract us, Mortarotti prepares the counter to make her Lime Mint Sorbet. She approaches the process like a painter, the base her blank canvas. She adds sugar to the water and begins zesting the limes. Citrus pierces the air and lingers as she sprinkles fresh mint into the pot. We can see that Mortarotti is a strict purist, and only allows the actual ingredients to flavor and color her ice cream. To her, adding oils or colors would take away from what that season offers, from the goodness of what is already there.
Suddenly, we’re reminded of a familiar scene; a pair of precise hands at work in the kitchen, kept company by watchful eyes hoping for a spoon to lick.
Lime Mint Sorbet Recipe
Makes 1 Quart
At Carmela Ice Cream, discussing the best flavors can become deeply philosophical, as touchy as asking parents to choose a favorite child. Even so, when it’s summer, Zachary assures us, “There’s nothing like sitting out on the hot blacktop at the farmer’s market with a cool scoop of sorbet.”
- 2 cups Filtered Water
- 1 3/4 cups Sugar
- Zest of 3 Limes
- 1/2 cup Fresh Mint
- 3/4 cup Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
- Combine water, sugar, lime zest and fresh mint in medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Strain and transfer syrup to bowl and chill thoroughly in refrigerator, up to 4 hours or overnight.
- Squeeze lime juice and strain. Add juice to chilled base.
- Transfer mixture to ice cream machine and churn until mixture has the consistency of thick milkshake, 15 to 25 minutes.
- Transfer sorbet to airtight container, pressing firmly to remove any air pockets. Freeze until firm, at least 2 hours. Serve as a scoop, or as a float with your choice of sparkling water.
Carmela Ice Cream
2495 E Washington Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91104
7920 W. Third Street, Los Angeles, CA 90048