In a master gelato maker, THEO PANAYIDES finds a cultured man unimpressed with the sweet in Cyprus, and doubtful over the future of Limassol

We talk about migrants and ice cream, not necessarily in that order. The latter is inescapable – since we are, after all, at Gelatofabio, owned by Italian ice-cream maker Fabio Gallo. The former is also inescapable, since Gelatofabio is at the old port in Limassol, next to the marina (there’s a second outlet in Oroklini), and we chat a week after the anti-migrant protest that wreaked havoc in the area. Was he here during the violence? Yes indeed, replies Fabio in fluent but non-native English, “I had also a nice guy who grabbed me from my neck!”. More on this later.

That said, most of our conversation revolves around ice cream – or gelato, the superior Italian version. “In my area,” he muses, “we basically used to make two things: ice cream and eyewear.” He’s from Pieve di Cadore, a small mountain village in the north-east of Italy, near the border with Austria – and his personal style does seem closer to central Europe than the voluble Italian stereotype, being deadpan and dryly humorous; he’ll often deflect with a joke, as if to place some distance between himself and the question. ‘Is this the happiest time of your life, now that you have your own business?’ I ask, somewhat naively. “My best time was when I was 13,” he replies without cracking a smile. “I was very successful with the girls.”

The question isn’t totally naïve: he’d always wanted to run his own business. As already mentioned, ice cream and eyewear are the local traditions (Luxottica, the world’s biggest eyewear company, was founded down the road from his village) – and Fabio spent most of his working life “in the optical field”, a nine-to-five job in a big eyewear company as an assistant to the production manager. How old is he now? “What a bad question!” he protests light-heartedly. “I just turned 58.” On the wall behind us is a diploma from the Libero Istituto dell’Arte Gelatiera, confirming Fabio Gallo as a ‘Master Gelatieri’. The diploma is dated 2016 – so it’s fair to assume that turning 50 was a factor in his decision, pushing him to recalibrate his life and make the sideways move into gelato.

Gelato, yes – but where? The Italian market is far too competitive – and besides he wanted to go south, where you also risk getting bothered by Mafiosi. A South American friend suggested her hometown, Cartagena in Colombia, but it just seemed too far; he thought about Athens and Lisbon, but worried about not being able to speak the language. “And then I saw Cyprus, and I thought ‘Why not Cyprus?’.” Everyone speaks English, and it’s also “the extreme border of Europe before the Middle East, so it could be interesting… I came, I tried the ice cream. I found the ice cream,” he chuckles briefly, “not good. So let’s say there is a possibility.”

Why did he want to go south so badly?

“Because I’d spent all my life in the rain, in the snow. And I like the sea.” Not for any specific reason, he goes on, “I just love the sea – maybe because it gives me the idea of possibilities… You think at any time you can take a boat and go.”

Actually, it’s the opposite. The sea is precisely why islands feel so isolated.

“Yes, this is the point of view of the island people. They feel probably isolated – and maybe even threatened by what is coming from the sea,” he adds, raising the spectre of migrants again.

profile2He himself was something of a migrant, of course – and soon found himself in “a situation more difficult than I was expecting. Because I realised that the Cypriots, they are not so open-minded”. You’d think ice cream would break down all barriers – and it’s true, “in other countries, when an Italian opens a real gelateria, everybody’s going to check. Here, no!”. Fabio reckons locals have been spoiled by what he calls “the British-American tradition” of fancy flavours and elaborate toppings, not to mention viewing food through the lens of social media. Gelato doesn’t look like much; he offers around 20 flavours, none of them especially photogenic. “I had experience one day of one couple,” he recalls: the woman had a look and shook her head, saying in so many words that “I want something also for Instagram”. The man bought two scoops anyway. “And then they left – and after maybe one minute she came back, and bought two scoops. Because she tried it, and she understood that maybe it was not so fancy for Instagram – but for the mouth it was much better than the usual.”

In the end, it was fellow migrants who came to the rescue. “The Russians,” he explains. “The local Russians, the ones who live here. They are medium-upper level, they travel a lot, they have money to travel – and they appreciate quality… I was surviving because of the Russians.” Ice cream is funny that way; possibly because it’s a luxury, it tends to provoke reactions that border on the irrational. The Russian population has shrunk in the past two years, and been replaced by Israelis – but Israelis mostly stick to their own ice cream (the biggest ice cream company in Israel just opened a shop in Limassol), as if equating the act of eating ice cream with nostalgia and patriotism. The Russians, on the other hand, would often approach Fabio’s gelato with an almost religious fervour. Last year, for instance, “I ran out of the pistachio that I’m bringing from Italy, and I bought some pistachio from a local supplier… and one Russian lady came to me and said: ‘OK look, if you’re going in this direction, maybe to save money, you will lose a lot of customers!’.”

Sounds a bit extreme; then again that’s the point of gelato, the ingredients. The diploma on his wall isn’t from a university, it’s a two-week training course. The actual gelato technique is pretty simple, it’s what you put in that makes the difference. “Now we have a new manager,” says Fabio wryly, “and he was shocked the first time he came to the kitchen and he saw the quantity of strawberries and mango I was putting – the buckets were full of fruit! I use between 40 and 50 per cent of real fruit… Usually they put, I think five to 10 per cent – and flavouring, and colouring, to give the nice colour. But this is not good. And then I use fresh milk, fresh cream…” Back home, he adds, he knows someone who uses raw milk, straight from the cows on a nearby mountain; contrast that with the likes of Haagen-Dazs, where the milk is reinforced with fat and sugar so it can travel. “I tried a famous American brand,” he shrugs, “which is also maybe tasty – but it’s incredibly heavy… I cannot eat more than a small scoop.”

There’s a slight air of superiority about Fabio Gallo, magnified by his rather dry style. He has the reflexive disdain for American culture of many continental Europeans of his generation – but he’s also against ostentation and nouveau-riche-ness in general. His conversation is studded with memories of “tasting some high-quality wine”, or going to a village with local friends for some “real souvlaki – you know, these simple things that are really good”. He’s well-travelled (he used to spend a month each year travelling, when he was still at the corporate job), and at one point mentions that he’s currently reading Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (“I’m almost at the end”). He adores theatre, and would always go to Sicily for the annual festival of ancient Greek tragedy – at least before he moved to Limassol and started working 14 hours a day. He’s obviously a cultured man, with a cultured palate. Is he also a food snob?

He mulls over the question thoughtfully. “Look – food is first of all something to survive. I can eat very bad food to survive. I eat pizza from – you know, American companies, and I don’t mind.

“But I think there are some things that are not necessary for living – like ice cream. I need to eat something to survive, [but] I don’t need ice cream to survive. If I want ice cream it’s because I want to do something for myself, it’s a cuddle to myself. So I want it to be good! I don’t even care about healthy, not healthy – must be good! I want to feel that it was a pleasure. For 10 minutes that I took to eat my ice cream, I enjoyed life.”

profile3The flavours on offer at Gelatofabio are mostly classical, though he does experiment. (He came out with a cucumber and lime sorbet over the summer.) The shop’s Facebook page even touts it as the “#7 best ice cream in Europe!”, a ranking from some online magazine called Big7Travel in 2019 – though the list is actually alphabetical by country, so #7 doesn’t really mean seventh-best. Fabio does regret that he waited so long to change his life, then again running a small business (it’s just him, the manager and the girl behind the counter, plus an unseen business partner) is not for the faint-hearted; it helps that he’s a bachelor, having never married or even come close – “I made a lot of mistakes, but not that one!” – but he’s still at the shop every day from late morning till past midnight, seven days a week in summer. (He takes a month off in winter, goes back to Italy “and basically I sleep”.)

The actual ice-cream making, as already mentioned, isn’t too complicated – but “each machine is a little bit different, each display has some problem. You need to learn how to deal with practical things”. Then there’s dealing with suppliers, plus the various problems currently besetting small businesses. “Last year was a shocking year,” sighs Fabio; costs shot up, from energy to shipping to raw materials. (This year is a little bit better, though the price of oil appears to be rising ominously.) And there’s one more thing: “You know what’s the biggest problem here? To find staff. You don’t find anybody who wants to work.

“And the only ones who want to work,” he adds slyly, “are exactly those that some people want to kick out of the country.”

There it is, the migrant issue – which brings us to the previous week’s rioting, and the hooligan who grabbed him by the neck. “Yeah, because I came out to shout at them – because they were taking my chairs. They took all the chairs from the neighbourhood, they were throwing them at the police.” Did the guy knock him down? “No, I’m still solid enough,” replies Fabio (he was also holding a chair at the time, for use as a weapon). “He just told me something like ‘Don’t mess with us’, then they ran away.”

Is he shocked by what happened?

“I don’t understand the sense of it,” he replies carefully. “I don’t agree on the point of ‘OK, why do you bother the people?’. There’s no point. But it’s a general climate in all Europe, I think. There is fear for the future, and the answers to these problems are too complex for the people” – especially, he adds, the less-educated ones, who see migrants as competitors. “And if you don’t get answers from your government, from Europe, you try to find an answer by yourself. Which is usually not a clever one.”

It’s reductive, of course, to call Fabio himself a migrant, indeed it’s a little silly. He’s not exactly a refugee: he’s a man of the world who could’ve gone anywhere, and chose to come here. He is, he admits, in two minds about Limassol. “I don’t know. I see people going in very noisy places, to drink. Nothing more than this,” he replies a little sniffily when I ask about the lifestyle – and he’s also unimpressed, for instance, with how the old port was simply demolished (he’s seen pictures of the way it used to be: “There is a character”). I suspect the city’s messiness offends his taste for the classical, for simplicity and a sense of proportion. It’s like making gelato, he explains: “You don’t need to be talented – it’s such a simple thing. But I think you need to be a little bit precise… I like well-done things, so I try and try until I get to the point that I say ‘OK, this is good’”.

The future looks bleak, even a humble gelato maker knows that much: ballooning costs, political instability, far-right violence. Still, I note – trying to lighten the mood – people will always crave ice cream. “Ice cream and love. This is the solution!” agrees Fabio Gallo with a big laugh. I leave with a small, brim-full cup, already starting to melt in the heat: watermelon sorbet over scoops of pistachio and vanilla – the latter, he informs me, with a dollop of egg in the mix, for extra richness. Decadence.