Gelato-espresso: Cafes bring Italy to town

If it weren't for jet lag, you could easily convince me that I'm still in Italy. Thanks to two new Italian-inspired venues, Dish couldn't dream of a better coming-home present.

Sleek, stylish Milano (named after the city famous for fashion and modern design) opened its glass doors in the new "Italian" wing of the Main Street Market on Tuesday, July 20. Owned by Italophiles Mark and Victoria Cave, this espresso and gelato bar was designed to complement the soon-to-open Verity blue home and garden store next door.

"Our primary goal in creating both Verity blue and Milano is to offer Charlottesville an authentic Italian experience," Mark Cave explains. "While Verity blue has a rustic, Tuscan aesthetic, we wanted to contrast that with Milano's more modern, industrial style. The bar we ordered from Italy looks very much like a racecar with its smooth curves and metallic textures."

In Italy, where table service costs double and is reserved for long and leisurely encounters, the bar itself is where everything from a quick espresso to a sandwich to a cocktail (aperitivo) is consumed. Standing up is quicker, more efficient (the espresso doesn't have far to travel, thus tastes better) and more social.

Though seating is available at tables outside, in the Market's galleria– and eventually on the roof deck– Milano gives us the option to taste coffee (in this case, four different blends of Lavazza espresso-based coffees served in ceramic cups and glasses) and pastries the Italian way. If you have to run, take-out service is also an option.

Cave says they hope to add aperitivo-friendly beer and wine in the months ahead, though the main focus will always be on espresso and gelato. Open every day from 7am to 7pm, Milano features gelato made by Palazzolo, one of this country's top artisans.

Speaking of gelato, Splendora's Gelato Café has already served thousands of cups and cones from its vibrantly renovated (by Bushman Dreyfus) spot on the Downtown Mall. The much-awaited gelateria opened to Fridays After 5 crowds on July 16.

"Charlottesville is crazy about gelato," co-owner Andrea Ayres told Dish a few days after opening. "We keep running out!" Apparently, more people have been to Italy than you think.

"We've been amazed by how many people are familiar with gelato," says the other owner, Fax Ayres. A former research analyst, Fax has transformed himself into a master gelataio (gelato-maker) in just under a year, churning out batch after batch of smooth, creamy, very authentic Italian gelato in Splendora's ample kitchen. Years ago, Fax made ice-cream for a one-cow farm (the "Cow-op") in Alaska. Let's just say he's come a long way from that one-cow town.

On the day we spoke (usually a gelato-making day), he was waiting for a delivery of dairy mix from a local farm. "I originally thought we'd be using only 50 gallons of mix a week, but it's actually closer to 150," he says.

Fax currently makes about 26 flavors, ranging from the pure Italian stracciatella, fior di latte, torroncino, (dark) chocolate, hazelnut, amaretto, and zabaglione to more American innovations like mint chocolate chip (made with huge chunks of dark chocolate), mango, and cinnamon. Splendora's also offers the option of topping cups or cones with an Italian touch of fresh whipped cream.

Open every day except Monday from 11am-10pm (11am-8pm Sunday), Splendora's features Italian coffees (Lavazza) as well as an increasing selection of desserts like tiramisù, profiteroles, and gelato topped with roasted fruits.

My body will soon acclimate to being home, but these gelato and espresso purveyors will keep me on Italian time, day after blissful day.

Milano's Mark and Victoria Cave