Dave Restivo’s first brush with gelato came a decade ago. His great grandfather was born in the Italian region of Sicily, and Restivo was on a sojourn to trace his lineage across the Mediterranean countryside. His first stop after getting off the plane in Rome was at a little gelato cart.
His first experience with the Italian delicacy was a coconut-flavored one, paired with Nutella.
“You always hear about how great gelato is, how good the texture and flavor and everything else is compared to ice cream,” Restivo said. “When I was finally in Italy and had authentic gelato, I got it. It hit me that, ‘oh gosh, everyone is right. This is great.’”
After that first taste, Restivo sampled “anything I could get my hands on” for the remainder of his trip, eating two or three gelatos a day.
Chocolate hazelnut? Heavenly. Pistachio? Enticing. Stracciatella (white cream studded with dark chocolate shards)? Divine.
“It’s like having a carnival in your mouth,” Restivo said. “The texture is different, it’s served at a warmer temperature and that hits the tastebuds in a different way. It’s just this amazing experience.”
While Restivo returned home, his thoughts stayed next to the vintage gelato carts he visited on the streets of Italy. “My immediate thought was just a hope that I could experience gelato again,” he said. “There’s got to be some place in the U.S. I can find it.”
Time passed without finding an adequate gelato experience. One day, during a rough work week in Yellowstone National Park, a coworker asked Restivo what his perfect job would be in a world without restrictions. His answer was immediate.
“I thought why not try to make people happy?” Restivo recalls. “Why not use gelato as a tool for that, and why not serve it out of an old-timey vintage milk truck.”
With a renewed determination, Restivo enrolled in a class in North Carolina taught by Italian chefs. Making gelato, Restivo learned, is both a science-experiment and an art form.
Creating the creamy dessert involves math and science to divine the exact proportion of sugar for a given quantity of milk, cream and stabilizers. Different ingredients can skew the ratios and if one is off by even a little bit, the final product’s texture — that crucial pillar of the gelato-eating experience — will be amiss. It might be too soupy or lessen its degree of scoopability.
Then there’s the flavor, which should contain multitudes. The higher serving temperature of gelato — roughly 9 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to around 0 degrees for American ice cream — means the taste buds function more intensely, sending stronger signals to the brain about the flavor experience.
As a final project, students were tasked with making their own recipes to present to the instructors. Restivo created a blueberry basil, thinking it would be a fitting trial run for a huckleberry concoction upon returning to Montana.
He recalls the instructor walking down the line of students to sample each recipe, scooping a spoonful of his gelato, then continuing on to the next student before stopping in her tracks. She turned to Restivo, asked him what the flavor profile was, and proclaimed it the best in the class.
“I felt that was the affirmation I needed,” he said.
For seven years, Restivo tested out gelato recipes.
“I just sat in my kitchen tinkering around with what flavors might go well together and balance each other out,” he said. “That’s the fun part, where you get to be really creative with the pairings and try any combination that comes to mind.”
While Restivo nailed some flavor combinations right away — his huckleberry-basil immediately became his personal favorite — some had a stronger learning curve. He remembers the first time he tried to make a mint chocolate chip, where rather than steeping mint leaves in milk, he blended in the raw mint. The result was so strong the batch’s taste tester couldn’t make it past the first bite.
“I spent seven years doing that before getting the stage where I felt I could begin building up the kitchen piece by piece and finally decided I was invested enough to really do this,” Dave said.
Restivo launched his gelato business in June 2022 (he still works full time for the National Park Service directing the agency’s digital strategy). He found a vintage gelato cart for sale in Italy and had it shipped to Montana. The blue-and-white cart, which can be attached to a bicycle, has six refrigerated wells from which to dispense gelato.
Making gelato is a time-intensive process. Restivo estimates that to fill his cart requires 12 hours in the kitchen, not counting a 24-hour “aging” process that occurs in the middle. Gelato’s notable texture is due to the higher milk and lower cream content than American ice cream — which also makes it slightly healthier. There is also about 20% less air whipped into gelato compared to ice cream.
Restivo also makes sorbetto, the Italian equivalent to sorbet, which is juice-based rather than milk-based, offering the same eating experience for those with dairy limitations in their diets. He hopes to expand on his offerings for different dietary restrictions this year, and spent the winter taking classes on making gelato with non-dairy milks.
Each batch of gelato Restivo makes is served within 72 hours. Any longer and the product will begin to break down and lose its “gelato-ness.”
It’s akin to operating a bakery, Restivo said. “You make gelato fresh daily, and you make the quantity you expect to serve in that one- to two-day window. A loaf of bread sitting out past that isn’t fresh anymore, and neither is gelato.”
That daily devotion to the craft is one reason Restivo thinks gelato hasn’t gained widespread popularity in the U.S. Another is what he sees as the lack of understanding of the delicacy — he often hears comparisons to soft-serve ice cream, which is an “entirely different mouthfeel.”
While there are a few flavors that are mainstays in Dave’s Gelato cart, he continues to experiment, and always strives for the highest quality ingredients.
His most popular, huckleberry basil, combines the locally harvested distinctive purple fruit with one of Italy’s most prominent herbs. The decadent salted-caramel varietal features Bequet gourmet caramel from Bozeman, as well as Mediterranean sea salt shipped from Italy. In the fall, he’ll take freshly grated nutmeg and locally sourced pumpkins to bring pumpkin spice to the masses in frigid form.
His fruit-based offerings are also seasonally based — a recent bumper crop of blood oranges, and another of kiwis and bananas, led to two bright pastel offerings at the June 1 Columbia Falls Community Market, where his gelato cart is parked every Thursday.
It’s those experiences that are fulfilling the dream Restivo first spoke out loud in Yellowstone nearly a decade ago.
“The goal has always been to use this as a tool to make people happy, because people have rough days sometimes,” he said. “And I’ve never met anyone who’s unhappy while eating gelato.”
What: Dave Restivo has crafted more than 50 gelato flavors. His vintage Italian gelato cart is always full of six of the freshest gelato and sorbetto offerings.
Where: Dave’s Gelato Cart can be found at the Columbia Falls Community Market every Thursday through September; and at Whitefish Huckleberry Days on Aug. 12-13.
More information: www.davesgelato.com or @davesgelato on Instagram