[UPDATE: If you’re heading to Malaysia or The Philippines over the stifling hot summer, make a stop at Morelli’s Gelato for some soft scoop Italian ice cream.]
As a child Bibi Morelli use to watch her grandfather, father and uncles make ice cream at the parlour her great grandfather, Mario, opened in Kent. Mario’s father, Giuseppe Morelli, emigrated to the English seaside resort of Broadstairs in 1907 where, like many other newly arrived Italians, he set about making ice cream from a family recipe. He’d churn the fresh cream, milk, sugar and eggs the night before and the next day, when the ice cream was ready, he’d sell it from a cart attached to the back of his bicycle.
Morelli ice cream became a hit with the locals and eventually Mario took over the business followed by his son, also called Giuseppe, and then his son – Bibi’s father – Marino. Clearly she has fond memories of her childhood. “I remember when I was growing up we used to have pasta followed by ice cream for dinner – that was my favourite meal,” Bibi laughs.
Although she was born into an ice cream dynasty, Bibi had no thoughts of joining the family firm herself. “Absolutely not,” says the glamorous blonde who until a few years ago worked as a lawyer in the City of London. “I was quite happy working in the banking world and then my dad said he was going to retire. I thought: ‘It’s all going to end now, after all these generations,’ and that was really sad so I resigned from my job.” Bibi learned everything about the business in less than three years and has set upon an expansion plan that will see Morelli’s open in Las Vegas and Dubai [there are also now outlets in Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Subang]
Meanwhile, Morelli’s ice cream parlour in Broadstairs is a homage to retro. From the chrome and neon signage outside to the rattan chairs and Formica fittings inside, there’s no mistaking that this is a company with a heritage. At the time when hip new ice cream brands seem to be launching every week, the retro aspect is what marks Morelli’s out and Bibi has been keen to play on that. “The ice cream parlour was built in the 1930s and was last remodelled in the 1950s and I won’t let anyone touch it!”
Until recently the parlour still used its original 1930s silver: dinky ice cream pots, long handled spoons and elegant teapots. “But people started stealing them,” says Bibi. Not that the brand hans’t moved with the times. At the end of 2003, Morelli’s Gelato opened with Harrods Food Hall – an ice cream bar as slickly modern as the Broadstairs parlour is charmingly nostalgic [now closed]. But the recognisable touches are there – the ice cream comes in a glass sundae or Knickerbocker Glory dish, adorned with over the top umbrellas, pompoms and teddy bear wafers. And there’s a gorgeous old fashioned ice cream cart – a nod to the original one used by Giuseppe available to hire (price on application).
“Although we have the provenance I want to be contemporary as well,” Bibi emphasises. “We have everything from traditional to modern but there are elements that will never change. I want Morelli’s to be the Lamborghini of ice cream!”
Certainly the product is top notch. “Most people don’t realised there’s a difference between fresh ice cream and frozen,” says Bibi. “Frozen could have been hanging around for months. We make all our own ice cream on site and anything that isn’t sold at the end of the day is discarded.” Only fresh double cream, eggs, milk and sugar are used and ingredients are souped from Italy with Bibi herself making trips to her father’s homeland to deal with suppliers and seek out produce. “We get the pistachios from Sicily and the hazelnuts from Piedmont,” she says as we look at the tantalising range of ice cream on display.
Morelli’s makes some 60 flavours of ice cream and while vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are the most requested, their new creations include fig and mascarpone, Parmesan and pear, and Gorgonzola and honey. Then there’s the bespoke service where you can have any flavour you desire made for you.
With such exotic concoctions laid out before me I’m almost too embarrassed to admit that vanilla is my favourite flavour but Bibi confesses it’s hers too: “But ours is a soft vanilla, you have to try it.” Gino Soldan, who looks like a young Frank Sinatra and is the Morelli’s ice cream maker at Harrods, appears with a scoop of ice cream. It is absolutely divine.
“Try one of these,” Bibi urges as Gino slides a silver dish in front of me. It’s one of Morelli’s new ice cream truffles – a small chocolate sphere containing hazelnut ice cream. Again it’s a sign of Bibi’s forward thinking, taking hold fashioned Italian ice cream and wrapping it up in a sophisticated package.
Bibi is off to Italy this afternoon on another sourcing trip – to San Remo where her grandmother lives. “there’s a fantastic restaurant there where every dish uses mushrooms,” she enthuses. Obviously she knows and enjoys good food but surprisingly that doesn’t extend to her being diva in the kitchen. “If anyone who knows me reads me staying Enjoy cooking they’ll laugh!” she says. And then she dashes off to catcher her plane, and no doubt enjoy grandma’s home cooking.
[This piece was originally published in 2006]
Morelli’s Gelato has outlets in Manila at the Shangri La and Rockwell Mall as well as at Bangsar in KL and the Empire Shopping Gallery in Subang.