A capital creamery: DC’s Dolcezza spins local flavors into artisanal gelato

Please welcome guest contributor and frequent Ethicurean commenter Emily Horton.

Emily writes about food, culture and sustainability issues in Washington, D.C., where she’s lived since last September. Before that, she lived in Atlanta and Chapel Hill, N.C., where she lost her accent for the first time and met people who wanted to know what a grit was. When she’s not writing, thinking about what to cook next or worshiping vegetables, she tries to sneak in some quiet time with Tin House.

Last week, it reached 82 degrees in Washington, D.C., and I pitched my first tantrum of the season. You see, from July until September, D.C. is a remarkably disagreeable place to live, and if that 80-plus-degree day was any indication, it’s turning ugly early this year. You would think, that having grown up in Georgia, the pit of the South, I would be prepared for living in a swamp. But, no. A D.C. summer is its own special sort of sticky purgatory.

So I console myself with gelato. Admittedly, I’m not one to need an excuse to eat gelato, and will happily eat it in the snow (and do). But when I feel like a cranky wench, gelato soothes me. I couldn’t do much better than Dolcezza, our town’s own Argentine-style gelateria, which just happens to rely on local and sustainable produce and dairy for most of its ingredients.

Dolcezza takes up a cute little corner spot at the intersection of Q Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, an area perhaps better known for its shopping than for the university just a little father west. It’s the primary reason to visit Georgetown, as far as I’m concerned. A few café tables line the storefront’s bay window, inside and out; on a weekend night, there’s never enough seating, and the line usually spills out the door onto the sidewalk as everyone plays the maddening game of Decision (maddening because you can only fit so many of the over two dozen flavors into one little gelato cup).

The gelato here is made in the Argentine style, meaning it contains no eggs but more cream (more cream!) than Italian gelato. It is, quite simply, some of the finest I’ve ever tasted — among the ranks of Capogiro in Philadelphia or the Bent Spoon in Princeton.

Better gelato than never
Dolcezza started in Buenos Aires, two years before Robb Duncan and Violeta Edelman left their home in the Argentine capital for D.C. They met at a Shamanism conference a few years earlier in the Amazon — she had grown up in Buenos Aires; he was a native of Atlanta working as a software engineer in Portland, OR. After the next year’s conference, they didn’t say goodbye. Robb quit his job, and he and Violeta set off on a several-month-long journey through South America that ended the way all good chick-flicks do. Married, they moved to Buenos Aires to live, where Robb found himself smitten with something else — gelato. Argentina’s large Italian population has fostered the growth of this most beloved export, and under the tutelage of a 30-plus-year gelato master, Robb began to learn the Art of Happiness.

“I saw how they were making it the old-school way, using their hands and the very best possible ingredients, and I knew that was the only way I wanted to do it,” he explains. They were in D.C. two years before opening Dolcezza in 2004, and have been spinning incredible gelato and sorbetto ever since.

Of course, I’m also a fan of Dolcezza because Robb and Violeta share the values and ideals I hold so dear: they are devoted to the local farming community, and handle the sustainably grown (or produced) ingredients they use with the utmost reverence. They are also seriously passionate (maybe even a teeny bit fanatical) about what they make. The flavors, often wildly inspired marriages of fruits and herbs, are focused, vivid and piercing in their intensity. Only the perfect balance of technique, sourcing, and inspiration can produce that.

Feeling leche-rous

Though Dolcezza’s sourcing isn’t exclusively local — citrus is brought in from the south in winter, and ingredients for traditional flavors like dulce de leche, nocciola, and noce di Sorrento are imported from Argentina and Italy — most of the gelateria’s ingredients come from within the Pennsylvania/Maryland/Virginia tri-state area. Pennsylvania dairy Perrydell Farm supplies Dolcezza’s cream; Keswick Creamery supplies ricotta and yogurt; and Blue Ridge Dairy (which also makes some killer mozzarella), provides mascarpone cheese.

Toigo Orchards, whose apricots I lust after in summer, provides much of the fruit used in Dolcezza’s gelato and sorbetto, and their strawberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, the aforementioned apricots, melons, apples, pears and quince show up in some truly phenomenal guises, particularly when they’re paired with herbs from Gardeners’ Gourmet, like the hauntingly aromatic, violet-tinted lemon-opal basil. I’m already coveting the lavender-scented strawberry that should make its fleeting appearance in a few weeks.

Next Step Produce, Quaker Valley Orchards and Westmoreland Berry Farm also work with Dolcezza; the one flavor I simply cannot get out of my head, in fact, features Next Step’s ginger: It’s vibrant and even a little fiery because of the ginger’s bite, but the cream cuts it so perfectly that the contrasting elements play off each other softly. Creations like this are why, though I am primarily a purist when it comes to eating fruit (i.e., out of hand), I firmly believe that the simple addition of cream is almost always an improvement, taming the acidity and making vivid the fruit’s less assertive notes. Chide me if you will, but I will be eating most of my fruit this summer with a dollop of crème fraiche … or in Dolcezza’s gelato and sorbetto.

Recently Robb rhapsodized about one particular flavor he’ll bring back this spring. Called dulce de leche dolcatta, it’s made using their Argentine dulce de leche as the base, with whipped merengue (from local eggs) and a strawberry compote folded through. I’m suddenly relieved that I’m no longer fat-phobic, because not being able to eat this would make me cry.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Dolcezza’s baking prowess, which every day yields fresh churros (little finger-shaped, not-too-sweet pastries) that, filled with dulce de leche and paired with the shop’s thick Counter Culture Toscano Espresso, make for a particularly choice late-morning breakfast. And then there are the alfajores, these ingenious cookies made by sandwiching together two sugar cookies with a smear of dulce de leche and rolling the edges in coconut. Dolcezza’s are baked daily by the Argentine mother of one of the shop’s employees. They’re flaky, buttery and faintly chewy from the caramel filling, and a torment to pass up.

A few weeks ago, Dolcezza made its season debut at the Dupont Circle farmers’ market I frequent on Sundays. It’s here, or at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market on Thursday afternoons where they also set up shop, where you’ll get the best glimpse of how Rob and Violeta work the local yield into their craft. Each flavor featured at market reflects the market vendors’ harvest, and it’s unbelievably inspiring to see (and taste) how these raw, very down-to-earth flavors materialize into artistry. The last couple of weeks, the tasting spoons have been flying with bits of lemon ricotta cardamom (with local ricotta), avocado honey orange (with local honey), cucumber honey vodka (with local honey and cucumber) and lime cilantro (with local cilantro).

Robb describes to me (and on his blog, gelato-ology), how exhilarating it was, coming away from the market that Sunday, to be a participant in what he sees as the middle of a huge food revolution.

“It’s a glorious experience, being part of the market. We’d always had a love of food, always shopped at the market and bought from the farmers for our store, but being a vendor at the market and getting to know all of the personalities there, it’s just amazing. The deeper in you go, the bigger it gets.”

The couple also recently helped host the first (and hopefully not the last) event in the FreshFarm Market film series, where attendees double-fisted cups of steaming cider and Dolcezza’s avocado-honey-cardamom gelato, then sat down in a small Georgetown theatre for three short films celebrating local, sustainable food.

And so I suppose one other reason I so admire Dolcezza is that it is owned by inspired, impassioned people who truly embrace and embody everything a community should represent. At the very surface, Robb and Violeta run a truly marvelous gelateria. But what they have created is so much more than that.

3 Responsesto “A capital creamery: DC’s Dolcezza spins local flavors into artisanal gelato”

  1. Had to show those churros, didn’t you??!! I will be distracted for the rest of the afternoon.
    While it is places like this that make me miss D.C., my hatred of suffering through those seemingly endless, sticky summers easily counterbalances it. Plus, I get to return several times a year for work and to visit friends.
    Of my 12 years in D.C., I don’t think I went to Georgetown more than twice after my first two years. It was THAT annoying. However, this place might just make it worth a trip on my next visit.

  2. LB Alfajore says:

    Awesome. I’ve been a huge fan of Dolcezza for years and it’s so great to read more about the loads of thoughtfulness they put into every single choice they make–ideas we average humans could never dream of!–which transforms into magic… flavors that are really, really, like nothing else you’ve ever tried in your simple, pre-Dolcezza lives.

  3. fann says:

    What a great review! The writing really brought this gelateria to life.
    I’ve been to the Bent Spoon in Princeton and hope to make a trip to D.C. soon to try out Dolcezza as well.
    Keep up the good work :)