Monday, October 23, 2017

Where to Eat: Judging Desserts @ The Gelato Festival America, Santa Barbara

Yours truly was invited to be a judge at the Gelato Festival America in sunny Santa Barbara this past Friday, so I headed up north for an afternoon of gelato, sorbetto and other tasty treats!

The Gelato Festival America is a brand new event that's hitting four cities in the States. Its sister festival in Europe has already been a huge success since 2010, with more than 60 renditions under its belt and drawing more than 50,000 attendees. With event organizers saying they hit it out the park with the Gelato Festival America kickoff at Boulder a couple of weeks ago, Santa Barbara was the second stop before closing out in Tucson and Scottsdale.

In Santa Barbara, ten competing gelato makers and a handful of other vendors dished out free samples to guests throughout the weekend. Technically, since all of the featured gelato were made with water and not milk, they weren’t really gelato; instead, they were sorbet, or sorbetto in Italian. Also, all options were completely vegan, fat- and dairy-free. Aside from the tastings, guests could learn all they ever wanted to know about gelato and sorbet by attending free mini-courses hosted by the Gelato University in the main tent.

While we as judges were recommended *not* to taste anything prior to the judging at 5 p.m., I couldn't help but to sample a few in advance. So I mixed, mingled and made my way around the stands where contestants showed off and shared their gelato with attendees.

What surprised me most was just how diverse the group of contestants were. Literally no one was from Santa Barbara — they came from nearby places like San Clemente and from as far away as New Jersey, Brazil, Spain and Italy. There were some, like Robert Sigona, who had been in the Gelato family-making business for years, and others, like Noël Knecht, who had aspirations to launch her own gelateria. Some contents used recipes they had perfected for years and others were literally offering recipes they hadn't tasted until right then at the festival. Others, like Bruno Couto de Matos, made a flavor specifically inspired by the Cali lifestyle; his “Fresh Love” (pictured below) featured beets, carrots, oranges and ginger.

Towards the end of the night, a panel of ten judges gathered in the main tent to do the very difficult task of sampling and rating all the different gelato. My fellow judges were other writers, journalists and bloggers, affiliated with travel, food and beverage outlets.

The process went like this: each competing chef had one minute (or two, if he didn't speak English and needed a translator) to "present" his gelato to judges, explaining the ingredients, the inspiration behind it and anything else he deemed important for us to know. Judges would then get to ask any questions as we sampled the flavor. We were asked to provide ratings based on three main qualities:

  1. Presentation (max. 10 points) – how well the gelato maker described his sorbetto in 60 seconds
  2. Flavor (max. 20 points) – Subjective, but how much we as judges enjoyed each sorbetto 
  3. Structure (max. 10 points – The most technical aspect, such as how much the vying sorbetto truly had the right characteristics, i.e., being creamy, soft, fresh and flavorful, and having the right consistency
Voting was confidential, except for the presentation component, where we'd all write our individual scores on our own handheld whiteboards and then flip the boards towards the contestant at the same time.

Our votes were only part of a larger process to find a gelato winner; our top scores were combined with the top scores from Saturday's kids jury. 50% of votes will come from these two juries and 50% will come from festival attendees' votes.

While one contestant in particular did come out victorious — Maurizio Melani’s“Sicily Orange Sunshine” took home the prize — here are a few of the noteworthy competing sorbetto that most certainly caught my attention and why: 

Best presentation: “Shade of Roses”
There’s no doubt of the passion that Salvatore Bonomo exuded when he talked about his “Shade of Roses” sorbetto, aptly named after his grandmother Rose. He was moved to tears as talked about how she was born in Pittsburgh in the 1940s and then moved to Italy, where she met his grandfather (and now, Salvatore runs a gelato shop with his grandfather!). Salvatore explained how he infused water with a blend of different roses and ginger and added orange and lemon, before mixing it all together with “wild, big ugly” peaches to make this super sweet sorbetto.

Best flavor: “Sicily Orange Sunshine”
Maurizio Melani’s sorbetto only comprised three main ingredients: blood oranges, the Indian spice cardamom and fresh peppermint. He shared that the sorbetto was meant to take us on a journey, starting with the sweet taste of the oranges and finishing with a lingering scent of mint. I immediately tasted the fragrant peppermint, which added a surprisingly delightful kick to the creamy sweetness of the sorbetto. 

Best scent: “Tropical Blast”
Smell might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about sorbetto, but the crisp, clean, fragrant scent of cucumber can’t be denied in Spin Mlynarik’s “Tropical Blast,” which also includes pineapple, apple and ginger. This flavor was refreshing and light, and was reminiscent of a palate cleanser. Spin shared how getting the right flavor is all about timing — the ripeness of the pineapples and the softness of the cucumbers. 

Best backstory: “Ode to Autumn”
Noël Knecht’s sorbetto certainly had one of the most detailed backstories and it was evident that a lot of thought had been put in everything from the names to the source of ingredients. It’s named after John Keats’ poem, “To Autumn,” and has a medley of fall-friendly foods like pears, cinnamon and cranberries. Speaking of cranberries, she sourced them from a Wisconsin farm for their flavor and even included homemade candied ginger. She likened making gelato to being “like a choreographed dance, bringing everything together.” The result was a very texturized sorbetto with a fragrant smell of autumn spices. 

Best overall sorbetto: “Roasted Green Tea with Crunchy Mango”
Hands down, my favorite sorbetto of the evening was Michele Brown’s “Roasted Green Tea with Crunchy Mango.” It excelled at everything — from presentation, to texture, creativity and taste. Michele made not one but two sorbettos — mango and green tea — that she blended together to create a colorful, creamy swirl of yellows and greens. She topped it off with a puffed rice garnish, sprinkled with chili lime salt. Ingredients like green tea and chili can be extremely strong on their own, but she managed to find the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. She shared that she typically makes more traditional flavors at the exclusive country club in Dallas where she works, but I love how different and fun this flavor is. There’s literally nothing like it!

Below is the entire list of competitors, their locations and entries:
  1. Maurizio Melani [Véneta Gelato Italiano, Spain] “Sicily Orange Sunshine” - WINNER
  2. Mattia Ortelli [Gelato-go, Miami Beach] “Spicy Green Paradise”
  3. Spin Mlynarik [Black Market Gelato, North Hollywood] “Tropical Blast”
  4. Noël Knecht [Colibri Gelato, San Clemente] “Ode to Autumn”
  5. Macello Mennone [Gelati Gioia, Tampa Bay] “Maiz Dulce Borracho”
  6. Bruno Cuto de Matos [Frio Gostoso, Brazil] “Fresh Love”
  7. Salvatore Bonomo [Nonna Rosa, Italy] “Shade of Rose”
  8. Robert Sigona [Gelotti Inc, New Jersey] “Blood Orange”
  9. Michele Brown [Brook Hollow Golf Club, Dallas] “Roasted Green Tea with Crunchy Mango”
  10. Antonio Carrozza [Latteria Italiana, Miami] “Vegan Pink Pear & Ginger”
So the next time you find the Gelato Festival in your city, make sure to stop by and try some of the flavors. See you at the next one!

For more information:

“Vegan Pink Pear & Ginger”

“Spicy Green Paradise”


  1. There was alot to judge I see! I bet it was hard as they all look delicious. This looks like such a fun event.

  2. These all looked so yummy! I wish I could have personally heard the backstory of the "Shades of Roses" sorbetto. Also, the concept of infusing roses into it is intriguing. I want a taste. #BLMGirl

  3. The only thing I think I'd enjoy more than a gelato festival is if Rihanna agreed to go on a date with me to a gelato festival. I might have to jump into her DMs next year and see if she'll fly me out.