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At the Gelato World Tour Grand Finale this weekend in Rimini, Italy, 36 gelato masters from around the globe will face off, entering flavors such as Gorgonzola-pear, apple sorbetto with caramelized speck, and smoked chocolate with bourbon. Among them will be Cocco Sogno, a coconut gelato with dark chocolate and almond brittle from Angelo Lollino of Elmwood Park and his team, Ali Caine Hung and Lollino's son, Giuseppe. Last year the trio took first place in North America and second in the Americas at the regional semifinal competition, held in Millennium Park, with a Rocky Road variation called Chicago Pothole that included chocolate sauce, chocolate chunks, caramelized pecans, and meringue in a chocolate base.
"A lot of competitors are using their same flavor [from the semifinals] to compete in the final," Lollino says. "But while Chicago Pothole works here, we didn't feel it would work in a European country." The reason, he says, is that Europeans tend to appreciate simpler flavors. "Having chocolate on top of chocolate and pecans and more sugar" felt a little too decadent. Instead, they went austere—relatively, anyway—with a vegan base that uses coconut puree in place of milk and cream (gelato traditionally doesn't contain egg yolks). "To be able to balance a flavor out without using a lot of cream is not easy," Lollino says. "But amazingly enough, with the oils and the fats from the coconut puree, the consistency is dynamite."
Lollino's first instinct, he says, was to go even simpler and more traditional: hazelnut or pistachio. "It's intimidating [choosing a flavor] because going into Italy, you're going into the lion's den, where gelato is king." The 45-year-old is hardly new to gelato-making, however: both his parents are from Italy, and his father taught him the craft when Lollino was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. "My father was a master coffee roaster, one of the first to introduce espresso coffee in this country. He had a wholesale coffee company and cafe [where] we made our own gelato," Lollino says. When he was ten years old, his dad brought a gelato master from Italy to work for them for a couple years. "While he worked for us, he lived with us," Lollino says. "He was really, really good, really passionate. He inspired me to do some of the stuff we do today."
By the time Lollino turned 16, making the gelato for the shop had become his job. "Everyone really liked my gelato. It always lit me up, made me happy. You get that validation from your parents and customers, it makes you feel good. It makes you want to do better and create more stuff. I was always creating new flavors." In the mid-90s Lollino opened a Schiller Park cafe and gelateria called Fratelli with his brother, and a few years later, he and his wife opened Massa Cafe Italiano in Elmwood Park. The latter is still going strong, serving panini and other classic Italian dishes in addition to house-made gelato.
Lollino is also behind the Vero Coffee & Gelato locations inside each Mariano's store. "About ten years ago, Bob Mariano reached out and told me he was planning to expand back into the Chicago market," Lollino says. "My first impression was, Wow, there's no room for another grocer here. But I believed in him, I liked his vision. We started with two [stores], we got up to 42 locations yesterday."
All of those locations are currently serving Chicago Pothole, and will have Cocco Sogno in the next few months. For those who can't wait, though, Massa Cafe already has both for sale.