Maria Macrina found the best gelato in Bologna and a way to bring it to Central New York.
A crowd of 50 or more people gathered at the bright yellow and orange storefront on College Street in Clinton, NY. Some sat on the colorful tiled bistro chairs out front. Others clustered inside near the counter lined with gleaming silver lids. They studied the artfully lettered chalkboard pondering which flavor to choose.
“Does anyone want a sample?” The shop owner Maria Macrina asked, and one by one they answered.
“Can I try the fior di latte?”
“I’ll try pistachio.”
“I hear the cantaloupe is delicious with raspberry. I’ll have that.”
They were there for more than a delicious treat. They came to celebrate the culmination of four years of hard work, research, testing, and risk, and to see a dream coming true at the grand opening on May 10 of The Cremeria, the first authentic Italian gelato shop in the Utica-Rome area.
Getting to this moment was a creative entrepreneurial journey with some interesting twists, turns, and pivots. Like many college students, Macrina wasn’t quite sure what her career would be when she began at Brown University in Rhode Island. As a top student at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School, she found herself steered into AP math and science courses. So she went to Brown as a biomedical engineering major. But after realizing during the first year that her major was largely theoretical, she began piecing together an eclectic course load including woodworking, computer science, and Italian language, completing her final project in furniture making. “I needed something more hands-on,” she said.
She graduated with a degree in design and took a job as an industrial designer for a small athletic equipment start-up in Rhode Island. Working in every part of the company from meetings with investors to product design to marketing, she was able to see how to grow a business.
“I liked putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” she said. As time went on though, Macrina, saw the long hours she devoted to the startup might be better spent on her own business. “I know I’ll continue to work my butt off no matter where I go,” she said. “So I may as well do it for myself.”
She began to consider her options.
She fondly recalled making desserts for her large Italian family gatherings. “I liked baking because it was like chemistry,” she said. For fun as a teenager, she deconstructed sfogliatelle and pasticiotti from Florentine Pastry Shop to discover how to make the pastries herself. But as she researched the idea of opening a bakery, she found several reasons not to.
Then she thought of the eight months she had studied art in Italy while she was a student at Brown. “Bologna is a big university town. It’s not touristy. And all the food is amazing,” Macrina said. “There are something like 300 gelato shops there. You can just stumble upon the greatest ones in the world. After a while, we realized there were these two places that were phenomenal. It was like a game to find better gelato than these two places had, but we never could. It felt like we were part of a secret.”
Just as she had with Italian pastries, Macrina began to deconstruct the best gelato in the world. Using Google Maps and YouTube, she zoomed in on photos of the two shops. There she saw the label on a particular piece of equipment both shops used. Using what she had learned in her college language courses, she was able to delve into websites written only in Italian to find out more about this machine and the gelato makers.
Her next step was to email one of the experts. “I said, ‘Hey Giacomo would you teach me how to make gelato?' He got back to me right away and said, ‘Sure come on out.’”
Then she returned to Italy for a week-long intensive apprenticeship with the best gelato maker in Bologna, Giacomo Schiavon. Later she also studied with gelato makers in New Hampshire and in North Carolina, which gave her a view of gelato in the US.
Finally, Macrina reached a point where she was ready to put her research into action. She knew she needed to buy the piece of equipment she had discovered in Schiavon’s shop, but where would she put the six-foot-tall, 700-pound machine and all the other items she would be using to make her gelato?
“I called restaurants all over Central New York looking for dedicated space in a commercial kitchen,” she said. “Finally I called Dibble’s Inn in Vernon and David Stirpe loved the idea because he could see it fitting in with his wedding venue.
For the next four years, Macrina made gelato there and sold it from her cart at local farmers markets, weddings, and other events. “I decided to start with a cart to test and slowly scale the business,” she said. Her bright orange cart also came from Italy because cooling systems for authentic Italian gelato counters have unique temperature requirements and there are not many manufacturers of them in the US. Now that she has the shop, she doesn’t plan to use the cart as much, but it won’t be completely retired. Her employees will continue to take it to the Clinton Farmers Market and other events.
“My strategy was to take the first stab, get it close, then tweak along the way,” she said.
“But in the end, the answer was always the shop.”
The new shop in Clinton is much more than a place to sell gelato. It’s also a studio where Macrina crafts her artisan product. Arriving at 8:30am, she makes batches of different flavors for the day.
“You want it as fresh as possible,” she said. “Fresh is the key.”
Part food science and chemistry and part art, gelato-making requires a sense of nuance and experience. Sourcing many of her fruit and nut purees from Italy and France and making others from scratch using local fruits when they’re in season, Macrina has created her own recipes on color-coded spreadsheets and precisely measures each ingredient using a scale in kilos. Her calculated combination of sugars controls the sweetness and the freezing point.
After pouring the mixture into the gelato machine, she closely watches it spin until the mixture reaches exactly the right temperature. She has come to recognize the moment when the texture is creamiest and has not formed any ice crystals. “Once you know how to use this machine, you are a legit gelato maker,” she said.
When the gelato is ready, Macrina puts it into tubs stored in the specially designed counter, also from Italy. Because gelato changes texture when the temperature fluctuates, it’s important to maintain a constant temperature. Hers varies by less than a degree. Gelato aged even overnight begins to separate and get icy, so she makes what’s leftover at the end of the day into popsicles which she stores at a colder temperature.
The result is a taste experience unlike any other, as customers at the grand opening affirmed.
“I like the intensity of the flavor,” said Elizabeth Collins, a librarian at J.D. George Elementary School in Verona. “I like ice cream too, but gelato is a whole new level.”
“It’s the smoothness,” Tim Tubia, Macrina’s uncle who lives in Herkimer said. “You eat it slightly warmer than ice cream.”
“The flavors are stronger than in ice cream,” added Rileigh Arrington, a Hamilton College student. She discovered Macrina’s gelato at the Clinton Farmers Market the summer she came to tour the campus and has been a fan ever since. As she savored her fior di latte paired with mango, she recalled that first taste and said, “It was a religious experience.”
Many customers recommended the affogato, a shot of freshly brewed espresso poured over creamy “sweet milk” gelato. It tastes like iced coffee, creamy, cool and refreshing with a bold coffee flavor, but without the brain-freeze.
Though gelato is the Cremeria’s main offering, Macrina also serves coffee - only Italian styles - brewed with Peak’s coffee roasted in Nelson, NY. Pastries from Silver City Baking Co. of Sherrill and the Desert Booth of Clinton round out the menu. Andrea Maranville owner of Silver City Baking Co. will soon provide brioche which when sliced and filled with gelato makes another authentic Italian favorite.
“The Village is excited about having Maria here,” Clinton’s mayor, Steve Bellona, said and Jackie Walters, Executive Director of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce agreed, saying, “She had a strong following at the Clinton Farmers Market. I’m glad she chose Clinton for her shop.”
That choice wasn’t a given. Macrina considered other places to settle, like Charleston, SC, and the Hudson Valley. “But I pretty quickly realized I didn’t want to be that far from family,” she said. Those places were not my home. People are what’s most important to me.” Plus her research had shown that gelato shops do well in college towns. “I just love Clinton because it’s artsy, and everybody is very friendly.”
Family and community support has been invaluable to Macrina in launching her business. Her mom Sarah Macrina brainstorms ideas with her and has sold gelato with her at farmers markets. Her dad Daryk Macrina has driven to New Jersey to pick up puree and rescued her when her cart had a flat tire. “Growing a business is not easy and they’ve been good sports about it,” she said.
Many neighbors and relatives came to the grand opening. “It was so sweet to see everybody truly excited. You don’t get that if you move away from home. That sense of community is so hard to build.”
Macrina admits she’s felt both excited and terrified during her four-year journey from business idea to grand opening. “I don’t think this is something that everybody should do. You have to be a little crazy. This has definitely been hard.”
But when she sees her customers enjoying a delight that she discovered in Italy and has been able to replicate, she knows the long hours and hard work are worth it. “The whole point is to share,” she said. “That’s such a huge part of it.”
Find current hours and other details on the The Cremeria's website.