A little bit of Italy opens in Homer
On a trip to the Spit one can find freshly cooked seafood, gift shops, fishing charters, tourists from a variety of places and, now, gelato.
Nestled in between AK Starfish Co. and Alpaca Connection, Carmen’s Gelato serves up authentic Italian gelato, made by 29-year-old Homer native Carmen Ricciardi. Previously, Carmen’s Gelato existed as a cart that sold gelato on the streets of Anchorage, starting out when he was 25.
Ricciardi rented a kitchen in Girdwood and spent the nights producing batches of gelato and sorbetto before commuting into Anchorage to sell his unique product to Alaskans.
“For the last three years it’s pretty much been 18 hours a day, 7 days a week in the summer time,” Ricciardi said. “I just wake up, work, fall asleep when I feel like I’m done.”
Having a brick and mortar shop set up on the Spit makes life a little less hectic, though Ricciardi seems to be working just as hard. Though he no longer has to commute from his production kitchen to where he sells his gelato and he has employees to serve customers, Ricciardi devotes that newfound time to producing more of his product, he said.
Ricciardi rotates gelato and sorbetto flavors depending on the time of year, availability of seasonal ingredients, and even the weather. The gelato menu regularly features Tahitian vanilla, old-fashioned chocolate, K-Bay Dream Blend espresso, salted caramel with Alaska sea salt, and maple brown butter pecan with Alaska sea salt. It then rotates two Italian classics — hazelnut and pistachio — depending on the day, and other flavors, such as amarena cherry and limoncello cheesecake. Sorbetto, which is dairy free, might be flavors such as lemon, raspberry, strawberry and chocolate noir. Later in the summer, Ricciardi plans to swap out lemon for lime, and play with local berries and fireweed.
Ricciardi sources his ingredients from a variety of places, both in Alaska and around the world.
“I use all fresh, organic fruit and I have to order it at least a week out and that comes from down in the states and they source it from wherever it’s best in season in the world. I only use seasonal fruit, whatever’s in season at the time,” Ricciardi said. “My flour that I’ll be using for waffle cones comes from Italy. My vanilla beans that I use are from Tahiti and they’re the best vanilla beans in the world. My chocolate, I get from my chocolatier up in Girdwood, Chugach Chocolates. He’s a fourth generation chocolatier. His great-great-grandfather was actually one of the first in the country, before Hershey’s, so I get my chocolate from him. All my nuts I import. I roast my own nuts, make my own paste so it’s all done from scratch … I get my (organic) milk from a place in Anchorage because I have to get a large quantity. You can’t get organic milk down here in large quantities.”
The shop is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., 7 days a week, through the summer season. Ricciardi says he intends to keep the shop open until Labor Day, and then reopen next year around Memorial Day weekend. Since the boardwalk shop his store resides in has the water shut off in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, he cannot operate in the winter.
Ricciardi was raised in Homer and started working in restaurants around the age of 14 or 15, he said. He worked for some of Homer’s iconic restaurants, including Fat Olive’s and Little Mermaid. He had his heart set on attending culinary school, and originally planned on Portland’s Western Culinary Institute. However, his friend Beau Schooler, now chef-owner of Juneau’s The Rookery, Panhandle Provisions, and The Taqueria, encouraged him to go to the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy.
A couple months into his time in Italy, Ricciardi tasted gelato for the first time. Already a self-described ice cream lover, gelato was a new and exciting experience.
“We made it from scratch, all fresh ingredients. Most of it we picked out front. We were picking lemons and blood oranges and figs right off the trees, fresh herbs growing everywhere, cactus fruit … it was all grown right there,” Ricciardi said. “I said wow, I’m going to bring this to Alaska.”
Gelato, especially made from scratch like the kinds he experienced in Italy, is rare in the United States, Ricciardi said. In Alaska, it was non-existent. Ricciardi decided he wanted to bring both the product and spirit of Italian gelato shops to Alaska.
“Most of the gelato in the country is made of the premade mix or a base. And the word artisan is a pretty broad term,” Ricciardi said. “Every time I went into a gelateria in Italy, there was always good music playing and everyone was leaving happy and smiling and that’s kind of what I wanted to bring back here. Everyone comes here happy and everyone leaves happy. It makes a lot of people’s days better and that’s contagious. You serve hundreds of people a day, hundreds of people smiling, and then they’re going to take that with them everywhere they go.”
Though he always thought he would open up a storefront in Anchorage before coming to Homer, fate had other plans. While three years of searching Anchorage for a location was fruitless, a spot on the Homer Spit opened and Ricciardi snatched it up.
“I always wanted to have a spot on the Spit,” Ricciardi said. “Anchorage is just kind of the transit center for the rest of Alaska. Homer’s more of a destination and it’s a much funner place to be in the summertime.”
Carmen’s Gelato opened up on June 11 and plans to do a grand opening event later in the summer after he gets his espresso and waffle cones up and running. He will serve K-Bay’s Dream Blend Espresso, the same he uses in the gelato flavor.
Though his love for gelato is strong — Ricciardi eats it everyday — his plans in Homer are bigger than frozen treats. Slowly, but surely, he wants to continue to bring traditional, artisan Italian products to Homer to fill a void that he sees in the Alaska food landscape.
“The first step was the cart, the second step was the gelateria, and the third step is where I get back into artisan Italian breads and pastries, which nobody in Alaska does,” Ricciardi said. “I haven’t seen anybody in the country do it right. There are a few places, but they’re few and far between. And eventually, if I want more, then I’ll go for the restaurant. As of right now, I have my hands full with gelato.”
Anna Frost can be reached at email@example.com.
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