Houston's Own Artisanal Gelato

The dulce de leche gelato was masterful: velvety smooth with that familiar thick sweetness, but not overwhelmingly so.  Some dulce de leche treats take on an overpowering, sickly sweet caramel flavor, but not this gelato.  The shards of dark chocolate scattered throughout added a welcomed bite to the texture and the creamy taste.

Dulce de leche is the most popular flavor at home," the gelato's creator explained to me. "There, you always get dulce de leche and something else. There eight or ten different varieties of dulce de leche on the menu. It's my favorite."

Marcelo Kreindel, the man behind the dish, speaks like a Zen master of artisanal gelato, but his path towards gelato nirvana couldn't have been a more unlikely one.  Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kreindel moved to Houston eight years ago to open the U.S. branch of the Argentinian software company he was working for at the time.  Four years later, he'd grown tired of the office life and desperately missed the heladerías of home.  Shortly afterwards, Trentino Gelato was born.

Heladerías are the coffee shops and bars of the strongly Italian-influenced capital of Argentina. Besides being located on every corner of the city, they're also meeting places for friends and family, where you linger and catch up and enjoy an afternoon over expertly-crafted gelato and a cup of coffee.

The heladerías themselves are downright gorgeous, with warm woodwork and inviting seating -- no Baskin Robbins plastic booths here. The gelato is not out on display in cases. Instead, it's stored in airtight cylinders. This is for two reasons: first, you don't need to "see" the food at a restaurant beforehand - you should simply trust that it's good owing to the freshness and quality of the ingredients. And second, the cylinders keep out the air, which can make the gelato look "old."

Presentation of your gelato in Buenos Aires is elegant yet simple; your gelato comes in either a waffle cone or in a simple white dish alongside your cup coffee. It's an entirely different experience overall from our ice cream shops and coffee bars.

Kreindel missed this aspect of home the most, although he was quite happy living in Houston and didn't want to leave. It was out of this longing for home that he created Trentino Gelato. As he puts it, "The relationship with happy moments, something you choose to do - choose to enjoy and take time out to do," was important enough to reconstruct in Houston.

Of course, that's easier said than done for someone who has no background in making gelato. So Kreindel self-financed a month-long trip back to Argentina, where he learned all the aspects of gelato-making under the stewardship of one of the country's top gelato consulting firms. That's right: owing to the massive popularity of gelato in Argentina, gelato consulting firms are big business.

The first thing he learned was how to create the perfect formula, a delicate balancing act of  water, sugar and fat.  Unlike ice cream and pure Italian gelatos, which use heavy cream, Kreindel's gelato uses only whole milk, which results in 30% less fat than ice cream (Kreindel prefers the smoother texture, too).  And when he found his ideal balance, he began to experiment with flavors.

Fittingly, dulce de leche was the first flavor that he created.  He imported the dulce de leche itself straight from Argentina, a practice he continues to this day.  His repertoire today consists of over a hundred gelatos and sorbets, some of which are seasonal, organic, sugar-free or even Kosher.  He attributes the wide variety of flavors to all the chefs he's worked with over the years.

In the initial stages of creating his gelato business, Kreindel discovered that it wouldn't be financially feasible to create a freestanding heladerías right away.  Instead, he decided to work with local chefs and restaurants to figure out how they could incorporate his gelato into their menus.  Chefs like Monica Pope, Tony Vallone, Nash D'Amico and Bryan Caswell quickly took to Kreindel's methods of creating small, handmade batches of gelato using only high quality (and local, whenever possible) ingredients.

Pope requested flavors like cucumber-cilantro-lime and habanero-tomato sorbets for her menus, while Caswell requested tamer flavors like guajillo honey.  And D'amico taught Kreindel the secrets behind creating the best spumoni in town.  In the meantime, Kreindel also marketed the more mainstream flavors like amaretto and mango to local grocery stores and farmers markets.

Selling his wares at the farmers markets has become one of his favorite pasttimes, because of the connections he forms with his customers.  "It's a way to talk to the people who are actually eating the gelato," he says.  "They come with suggestions and ideas.  I have regulars who come every week for a supply, they keep it in their freezer and come every week to get a new flavor. I have people that grow fruits on farms and bring them to me and say, 'Do this for me.'  A couple that got married in Illinois shipped my gelato all the way up there for the wedding; that was very special for me."

In addition to selling his gelato at farmers markets around town, he enjoys purchasing many of his ingredients there, too.  Kreindel prefers local, fresh ingredients from farmers markets, he says, "despite the fact that they take longer to clean and prepare. The flavors are stronger and more intense; they just taste better."  The hard work that goes into each hand-crafted batch is evident in its taste and quality.

Getting started in his own kitchen required just as much work.  Kreindel started out in a kitchen behind a bar that, while cramped and with limited hours, was at least free.  After that, he worked in trade for Mark Lewis at Yapa Kitchen, exchanging gelato for rent. Today, Kreindel runs the entire operation out of a 2,500 square foot commercial kitchen in East Downtown near Urban Harvest that he rents from developer Alan Atkinson.  This location excites Kreindel as much as creating the gelato, as he shares Atkinson's vision of revitalizing East Downtown.

In addition to support local farmers, Kreindel is a fan of supporting local businesses.  On the day of our tasting, he'd been in his kitchen with Lennie Ambrose of Saint Arnold's Brewery and Jonathan Cohen of Coffee Groundz, concocting batches of sorbet out of three of Saint Arnold's beverages: the Spring Bock, the Brown and the root beer.  Coffee Groundz -- which sells Trentino Gelato alongside its own coffee and pastries -- held a tasting of the new flavors that night, where all were well-received.  The Spring Bock sorbet in particular was lightly sweet with subtle hints of malt and citrus, and even seemed to retain a carbonated, bubbly consistency.  It was the hit of the night.

Asked about the Saint Arnold's creations, Kreindel just said that he hopes the flavors will be popular enough to go into production so that he can not only add new items to his rotation, but also cross-promote another homegrown business.  If there's one thing that stands out besides his love for gelato, it's his love for Houston.  He's happy to be in a city where people have been so eager to help and assist him along the way, and is just as eager to help out the community and support others with his company.

Although Kreindel hasn't lost sight of his eventual goal -- to run a standalone heladerías just like those back home in Buenos Aires -- he's focusing for now on growing his business and constantly experimenting with new flavors.  His staff of four helps him in this pursuit, assisting him in creating and delivering the gelato.  However, it's important to note that Kreindel still does most of the delivering and creating himself; he is adamant about never being removed from these processes, as he says they help him learn and grow.

Lately, he's been experimenting with unusual pairings and exotic fruit.  Some of the pairings -- such as strawberry lavender -- have proved so popular as to be put into constant production.  Others, such as with pear with hazelnut and caramel, raspberry with rosewater and yuzu with orange blossom water, have been requested by clients (in this case, Jackson Hicks) and used at parties and events throughout the city, but aren't yet in the rotation.

His clients have also been instrumental in obtaining exotic fruits for him to experiment with.  Kreindel's favorites at the moment are lucuma, chirimoya and guanabana, tropical fruits from South America that he's confident will prove popular with Houston's multicultural palate.  And therein lies the secret behind the perfect pairing of Kreindel's gelato and his adopted hometown: "I love the openmindedness of people in Houston.  They love to learn new things and try new things.  People here will not only try new flavors but also appreciate them, too.  The people make the city beautiful."

Trentino Gelato can be found at local retailers such as Spec's and Rice Epicurean, restaurants and coffee shops like D'Amico's and Coffee Groundz, at Discovery Green on Sundays and at farmers markets throughout Houston.

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Katharine Shilcutt