According to Japanese popular wisdom, no matter how small your project or enterprise is, if it’s really good people will eventually take notice.
This seems to be especially true for anything food-related: In a country in which every conversation seems to lead to food talk, word of mouth about a deserving place spreads like wildfire.
This is exactly what happened recently to Il Brigante — a tiny backstreet ice cream parlor in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. For about three years, its owner and gelato master, Emiliano Vommaro, has quietly perfected his craft without really caring about publicity, but since this spring the place has been featured on three TV programs and picked up by countless magazines, websites and blogs.
Vommaro’s delicacies are anything but cheap, but during an interview at the shop he is constantly interrupted by requests from an endless stream of customers.
“Brigante” is Italian for bandit or rascal, and the motor-mouthed Vommaro, 38, has the dark looks and wicked sense of humor of both, exchanging jokes and greeting passersby in Italian and Japanese.
By the tone of their banter you can tell many of them are regulars. Even though Il Brigante is just a tiny counter with no tables or chairs, people like to hang around, chatting with Vommaro mainly about Italy, some of them in passable Italian.
Born in Corigliano Calabro, in the deep south of Italy, Vommaro worked 11 years in an insurance company. His real passion, though, was gelato. So at the age of 29 he left the company to become an assistant at a local ice cream shop. He worked there four years while at the same time attending several ice cream-making classes around Italy.
“This is something you create day by day,” says Vommaro. “Theory is nice, but the only way to really master gelato-making is doing it day in day out, always experimenting and striving for perfection.”
Though ice cream is one of the most-loved foods in Italy, industrial ways of production have replaced the traditional recipes. “Sadly there are few really good places left even in my country,” he says. “Ice cream quality has gone considerably down in the last few years. Every time I go to Italy my friends are eager to take me to new parlors, but I’m invariably disappointed. You can see that stuff looks fake. It’s always worrying when ice cream doesn’t melt soon. It means they’ve put something in it.”
It’s only 3 p.m. and the most common reply the customers get from Vommaro is kanbai (sold out). Strawberry? Sold out. Olive oil ice cream? Sorry, sold out. “I don’t care about making tons of gelato,” Vommaro says. “I’ll always choose quality over quantity.”
Vommaro’s mission is to introduce people to the joy of “natural” gelato the way it was made 200 years ago. In other words, no additives, coloring or other “strange chemical stuff” as he calls it. “Making ice cream the old way takes time. Take coffee flavor. Every morning we make about 1 liter of espresso with our coffee machine and use it to prepare our gelato.”
Vommaro and his assistant, Mika Shikata, only prepare between six and 10 flavors each day, and generally don’t make more than a couple of tubs for each flavor. “This is artisanal ice cream. Whatever we don’t sell goes into the dust bin at the end of the day.”
In the meantime, more people show up at Il Brigante: a middle-aged Japanese man wearing a red Ferrari T-shirt and riding a red Italian scooter asks for “the usual,” then another man who speaks quite good Italian asks whether he can buy Vommaro’s ice cream wholesale for his restaurant, but the gelato master says no. “I barely make enough stuff for myself,” he explains. Vommaro greets all these people by name.
He speaks Italian with his two business partners: his assistant Shikata and his wife, Nazumi. Shikata attended a two-year course where she specialized in Japanese and French sweets. After that she worked at several ice cream shops and patisseries, but when she met Vommaro she decided this was the place for her and stayed for good.
He met his wife in Italy. “She was teaching Japanese culture in my town,” Vommaro explains. “We met when she came to my office for an insurance plan.” She ended up spending nine years in Italy. It was there that they got married.
At the time Vommaro was already planning to open his own parlor. “I was wavering between Rome and Japan, but when our child was born my wife decided that she wanted to send him to a Japanese school at least until junior high. So we made the big move about four years ago.” Now she mainly manages the administrative side of business but joins her husband at the shop when it’s particularly crowded.
Vommaro had no problems adjusting to his new life.
“Maybe the only hard thing at first was accepting the fact that here it takes time to build a close relationship. You have to gain people’s trust first. That’s why I’m trying to turn this shop into a meeting point; a sort of informal social club where people can stop and chat at leisure. It’s also a good way to improve my Japanese,” he adds. “I often do some sort of language exchange with some of my Italy-crazy customers.”
Vommaro confesses he is a food otaku with an obsession for ingredients. “I like to study and research them, and only choose the best, like Hokkaido milk, vanilla from Tahiti, pistachio from Bronte, Italy, and Varona cacao from Venezuela. We even use Sicilian carob powder as a jelling agent, not the usual artificial emulsifier.”
At Il Brigante, Vommaro stops joking when talking about gelato. He is very strict about flavor combinations — another of his obsessions. “If someone chooses bitter chocolate, I’ll suggest vanilla or almond milk. No way I’m going to put lemon in the same cup with chocolate.”
Above the counter there is even a small sign listing some of the forbidden combinations, like coffee and fruits. “I’d rather not sell it. ‘No compromise’ is my motto,” Vommaro says without a hint of a smile.
At the risk of resembling the Soup Nazi from the American sitcom “Seinfeld,” he even insists on the order in which his customers should eat their gelato. “You see, if you eat a strong flavor first, you can’t properly enjoy the weaker one.”
Vommaro likes his role as “gelato sensei.”
“People must be educated about food culture. Unfortunately for some people it’s difficult to understand. For this reason once in a while we get a negative review from a magazine or website.
“We follow very strict production rules. We start by pasteurizing the base, then we put it aside for 24 to 48 hours. As for flavors, we fly the flag of Italian cuisine so at Il Brigante you won’t find green tea or sweet potato — just to mention a couple of flavors many shops sell in Kamakura.”
Vommaro has found in Kamakura an ideal place to live and work. “First of all my hometown in Italy is near the sea and I can’t live without it. Also, in many respects this is a livable, people-friendly town. People here take it easy.
“I usually leave home at 5:30 a.m. and start working 15 minutes later. We have to get everything ready before opening time at 10 a.m. We stay open until 4:30 to 5 p.m. during the week, 6 p.m. on the weekend, or until we run out of ice cream. This is another thing I like about Kamakura. If I worked in Tokyo I should stay open until 11 p.m.”
Il Brigante doesn’t have fixed days off. “For instance, when it rains we stay closed because ice cream is sensitive to atmospheric conditions and when humidity levels are high it’s difficult to make it right. That’s why we are always adjusting our recipes. As I said, if I can’t produce something I’m proud of, I’d rather not make it at all.”
For more information about the shop, visit www.ilbrigantejapan.co.jp