An Interview with Piccolina’s Sandra Foti

When Sandra Foti was a young girl, her Nonna affectionately called her “piccolina.” In English, piccolina means little one, and to Sandra the name brings back fond memories of a happy childhood, eating honey that her Nonna would collect fresh from the beehive.

When she opened a gelateria many years later, Sandra chose the name Piccolina, to pay homage to her much loved Nonna and these happy memories.

Piccolina Gelateria is unlike any other gelato shop; the gelato here is made using time-honoured, Italian recipes that have been handed down through generations. Sandra Foti practiced many of these recipes when she started making gelato with her dad about 15 years ago. Sandra’s dad had learnt the art in the south of Italy from a family steeped in gelato-making tradition.

While the process was somewhat of a hobby for Sandra for many years, it was not until a recent trip to Italy that things changed. Sandra met, and began working with, a pastry chef whose family had been making traditional Italian gelato for more than three generations.

As she immersed herself in the family’s talent, Sandra learnt more and more about this traditional method until finally, she was hooked, “I thought, this is incredible – I need to open up a gelateria in Melbourne using this traditional method of making gelato.”

And so she did. Sandra opened Piccolina in late 2015 to a warm welcome likely due to the uniqueness of her gelato.

Sandra follows traditional recipes to make gelato that is entirely natural, made from fresh cream, milk, sugar and a selection of raw ingredients. There are no artificial flavours, additives, gelatines or thickeners in Piccolina’s gelato. This in itself is unique and it comes through in the smooth, creamy texture and intense flavour of Piccolina’s gelato.

Sandra firmly believes that each flavour should be made separately, following its specially formulated recipe. Sandra explains that while you can add, “a bit of this and a bit of that” when making something like pasta sauce, making gelato in this way is extremely formulaic – just one mistake can ruin the finished product.

Sandra has learned how to balance raw ingredients – anything from mascarpone and ricotta cheese, to mint, passionfruit and natural cacao powder – with the sugar and fat levels in the cream and milk.

Sandra combines the appropriate amount of milk, cream and sugar with flavours of her choice and then places the mixture into a machine to be pasteurised. This impressive process takes only 20 minutes, after which fresh, smooth and delicious gelato oozes out.

The incredible taste will stick with you. “Ingredients are everything. If we don’t have good quality ingredients, you taste it, because there’s nowhere to hide,” she explained. With no toppings, no sauces and not much on top of the gelato, the flavour itself is truly alone in the spotlight.

To ensure the best quality, Sandra only uses seasonal ingredients to create her flavours. This means, for example, that you will never find mango gelato at Piccolina in winter. Likewise, you won’t find mandarin in summer.

You might call Sandra pedantic – especially when you discover she makes even the chocolate chip from scratch, using cacao butter and dark chocolate – but she doesn’t see it this way. Sandra knows her methods are time consuming but for her, the quality of her product is something she won’t compromise. “I don’t want to take the easy option; for me, it’s not about making money or anything like that, it’s about the art of making gelato traditionally,” she said.

Sandra’s obsession with the art of traditional gelato making won’t make sense until you try Piccolina gelato. Using only fresh ingredients and 100 per cent natural flavours means the gelato carries an intense, smooth and irresistible flavour.

Pistachio is evidence of this – while many gelaterias will use a premade pistachio paste (made from any number of ingredients) Piccolina uses only pistachio nuts, so understandably, the flavour of the pistachio gelato is incredibly powerful.

“Of course, because we roast the nuts and grind them into a paste and do all of that ourselves, there’s no comparison because we’re putting one hundred per cent, beautiful pistachio nuts into the gelato and that’s why you get that ‘oh my god!’ flavour, that really full taste,” said Sandra.

This is Sandra’s entire philosophy in a nutshell – use natural, whole ingredients to create flavoursome, authentic and delicious Italian gelato, which she has well and truly done at Piccolina Gelateria.

Originally published on Smudge Eats as ‘ Meet the Maker: Sandra Foti’.

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