The cold, sweet taste of Italy on South First Street

Italian threesome go native, organic at Dolce Neve

In incalculable ways, gelato sweetened the childhoods of the three Italians who have opened Dolce Neve on South First Street.

“I ate gelato every day, especially in the summer,” says Marco Silvestrini, 33, a former management consultant. “After dinner, our group of friends always went to the local gelato shop.”

His sister, Francesca Silvestrini, 36, a former finance expert, liked the soft, thick Italian version of ice cream so much as a child that her family gave her a gelato machine as a gift.

The children of highly educated parents, the siblings grew up in Fabriano, a town of 32,000 in the province of Ancona in east-central Italy.

“We had five or six gelato shops in our hometown,” Francesca says. “My favorite flavor was dark chocolate with whipped cream.”

Her boyfriend, Leo Ferrarese, 40, a former software engineer, is the third partner in Dolce Neve, which translates into “sweet snow.”

His hometown of Lissone, near Monza, is actually larger than Fabriano, counting 42,000 inhabitants. Yet his family lived nowhere near a gelato shop.

“In summer, my father took me on his Vespa to get gelato in a very small shop on the road,” he recalls. “I loved strawberry. Today, we know our gelato and we eat our gelato.”

Long way home

So how did three bright-eyed, loquacious adults with degrees in business, finance, mechanical engineering and information technology end up wearing aprons while serving the sweet stuff to lines of gelato lovers — some trying out their Italian vocabulary — in Austin?

Marco was a very quiet, diligent child who studied in Milan, New York and Chicago and consulted on business management in New York.

“My education actually pointed to what I wanted to do in life,” says Marco, whose beloved flavor was pistachio, made at Dolce Neve without the usual green food coloring. “At the end of the day, I wasn’t happy. I asked: Why do I have to do this my entire life?”

Two years ago, he considered all the potential options.

“I want to do something with food, something you eat for enjoyment,” he says with a winning smile. “And I felt it’s my duty to bring a product that’s so well known in my country to this country.”

New York wouldn’t make a good starting point for a new business. It already supported many established gelato shops.

“I was looking for a more relaxed environment,” Marco says. “A place where people were more friendly.”

He visited Austin in August 2012 and fell head over heels for the city and its people.

Three months later, he had convinced his sister and her boyfriend to move here, where they have taken a house in the Bouldin Creek area with a yard for a new golden retriever and space for a longed-for garden.

Francesca, like her younger brother, was an excellent student. Lithe and outdoorsy, she played volleyball and first studied English in middle school.

“There, you learn English with an Italian accent,” she says with a laugh. “All the TV and movies are always translated into Italian, so you don’t learn English that way.”

Francesca was working on her Ph.D. in finance when her brother got the irresistible gelato urge.

“I was happy when I was cooking Italian food, from pizza to dessert,” she says. “Every kind of Italian dessert. So I was happy to join Marco. I knew it was a risk, but a manageable one.”

She also was ready to make the switch out of academia.

“If things go well here,” she says. “I’m done with finance.”

Ferrarese, who wears a bushy beard, was raised by a factory worker and a homemaker. His youth differed from the Silvestrinis’.

“I was a little lazy in school,” he admits. Still, he earned a degree at the Polytechnic University of Milan and succeeded as a software engineer.

“I loved my job, but at the end of day, I felt more tired,” he says. “Francesca told me that Marco was opening a shop. I love to make food. So I said yes. Me, too.”

Location and process

Once Austin was chosen for the new venture, the threesome couldn’t figure out where to plant it.

“There’s not much turnover on South Congress,” Marco says. “Second Street has parking problems. South First has a lot of new restaurants. The foot traffic isn’t too crazy, and there’s parking. But even here, nothing was available.”

So they did something that residents and business owners have long done in destination cities: Contacted owners directly. In May 2013, a former jewelry shop near the corner of West Annie and South First streets went on the market.

“We signed the contract that day,” Marco says.

They chose the name because, according to tradition, gelato was originally made from snow. From the start, they agreed not to use mixes, which are commonly employed in other American gelato shops.

“We make everything here,” Francesca says. “The milk comes from County Line organic dairy. The organic cream is from Iowa. We buy fresh products from local farmers.”

The peeled hazelnuts, however, are imported from Italy, and the organic pistachios are brought in from California. Repeat customers hover over the ingredients as they go from bins to mills on the gleaming, ultra-clean surfaces and then into the large gelato machines.

“We roast and grind the pistachios ourselves, which makes them very flavorful,” Ferrarese says. “Customers also like our tiramisu, which we make with real lady fingers, real espresso and real mascarpone.”

The trio is grateful that neighborhood eateries, such as Lenoir and Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop, are sending clients their way. Meanwhile, the joint and its inviting patio always seem to be jumping with would-be Italians.

“We share our lives with our clients,” Marco says. “People like to talk with us. They know we are family and they are curious about how we interact.”

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