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[Lil’Laoban]: Alberto of Gelato Bello

“Then, we traded gelato for some potatoes. Like everybody did during the lockdown…”
2022-10-06 12:00:00
Lil’Laoban is a column series that shines the spotlight on independent entrepreneurs in Shanghai. We’re talking to them about their journey, wildest ambitions and how they’ve carved their niche in this city. The Lil’Laoban series is part of SHANG!, a grass-roots initiative founded by friends and businesses to celebrate the always-looking-up spirit of the city and everyone that calls Shanghai home.

Alberto and his better half are the purveyors of Shanghai's newest street-side gelato store, Gelato Bello. Trading in flavors of Feliniesque nostalgia and a really excellent coffee-baijiu hybrid flavor (yes), Gelato Bello has only been open for about five minutes on Yongkang Lu. SmSh! talked to Alberto about trading in a design job for a gelato scoop, building the shop during lockdown, and the importance of patience and positivity.

SmSh: Can you introduce yourself? Where are you from? How long have you lived in China?

Alberto: My name is Alberto. I am from a small city in Italy nearby Milan — 50 kilometers from Milan. So, I grew up there, studied at Milan University, majoring in interior design. After I graduated, I moved to Rome, where I lived for 8 years working for an advertising company. After that, I decided to be freelance but then the situation in Italy... the economy was not good. So, I started to search around for a new place. I always wanted to try new experiences and grow, you know. So, I got a job with an events company in Shanghai, a French one.

I came here five years ago. I worked there for two years now and then I decided to go back to more retail and design, freelance again, and then open the gelato shop as well...

"We've got some friends in the compound, we have a small gelato machine at home and we were like doing some gelato and asking people in the compound if there was anyone wanted gelato."

SmSh: What is your background in ice cream?

Alberto: My background is growing up in Italy... but also as a teenage in Italy, during the summer, in order to get some, you know, extra money to live a little bit, I was helping some restaurants as a waiter. And also I served gelato. I was the scooping guy — this kind of stuff.

I had to drop the F&B job after I got my design job, working 8 hours a day. But now I'm back...

SmSh: Can you introduce the shop?

Alberto: Okay, so we opened two months ago — basically, a couple of weeks after the lockdown. So, the inspiration was, me and my wife, who is Chinese, we decided to do this together. Because we think that, obviously Shanghai is the most international city, people here are more mentally ready to new things. And then we thought of gelato.

It's something that it's not as well-known as, for example, coffee shops. Maybe there was still room to grow the business. So, we decided to do that.

The inspiration is trying to bring some real Italian feelings. From the, let's say, the ‘70s. That's why this style, the logo and everything is mimicking the time when Italy was still you know, kind of Dolce Vita — this kind of feelings. That stereotype when people were happy and everything. And also some seaside feelings — that's the inspiration of the design of the store.

SmSh: How's it been? Have you got plans to grow?

Alberto: We just opened, this is what it is! But we already started to talk with other brands, restaurants for future collaborations. Maybe in the future...

SmSh: How did you come up with the flavors? Can you give us three gelato recommendations?

Alberto: Okay, so the menu, as you can see, we tried to have obviously some quite classical flavors like Vanilla, Tiramisu, Chocolate. Then, because my wife is Chinese, and also we are in China, we needed to also try to find something more local. So, that's why we did the Black Sesame, Matcha — or something that more maybe Chinese know already or they feel they are related to. So, that's why, basically, we try to have a mix between kind of classical Italian and something local.

Then the three highlights, I would say Salted Caramel, Coffee Liquor, and Lemon Sorbet. Because the salted caramel really from day one people try it. They were like, "this is so creamy, so amazing!" The caramel is like you can feel the saltiness and everything.

The Lemon is water-based; it's not milk-based. And it's really classical Italian, like something sweet after you have lunch or dinner. Just something to feel refreshed. And the thing is that we made it is really, just like you know the lemon juice is bitter. We were a little worried at the beginning about, because maybe it's the bitterness is too strong, but then people tried it and found this lemon tastes so lemon — they really love it.

Then the Coffee Liquor. Because my wife is Sichuanese, from Luzhou. So, we put a little bit Luzhou Laojiao [baijiu brand]. So in that case, it's a mix of the stereotype Italian drink-coffee with the Luzhou Laojiao, so it's like me and her together. When you eat it, you can obviously, the first bite, you can taste the coffee, but then, when you start to swallow it, you can get the little kick of the baijiu. Obviously, it's just a really small percent of alcohol. Like you cannot get drunk. You can keep driving and everything just fine. Just have a little taste.

So, these are the three most popular ones.

SmSh: How are you dealing with the pandemic / lockdown stuff?

Alberto: Honestly, I dealt with the pandemic by playing video games at home. [Laughs.] And just waiting because we started the renovation 10 days before the lockdown.

So, we told the construction company to postpone the plan.

They said, "Okay, no problems."

And then four days became two months, so I was frustrated. Everything was so uncertain. We lost those two months that we could've sold gelato because April and May, you know, it's time people start to go out actually, feeling like the summer is coming.

After the first month, it came like a feeling of I cannot do anything so I just need to find the bright side, so let's hope this things gonna finish as soon as possible.

Thanks to my wife, she was handling the suppliers because it was all in Chinese — she was handling all of those. When there was rumors saying that maybe going to open in a week or two, she would tell the suppliers like please as soon as we open, you can send us the fridge, tiles, and the decorations. As soon as we opened, we received all the materials. Also, the construction company, they wanted to finish the renovations soon too, so they could move to other projects. They were sending people, 24/7 to build because they also want to do something else.

After the lockdown ended, we were able to open so that's how we dealt with the pandemic, basically. Just the first month was frustrating the second month was like, we cannot do anything it's something beyond our power, honestly, so we just need to wait and try to you know be patient and find a way to be positive.

We've got some friends in the compound, we have a small gelato machine at home and we were like doing some gelato and asking people in the compound if there was anyone wanted gelato.

Actually, someone said, "It's my kid's birthday but we cannot get the cake. Can I buy some gelato?"

So, we went downstairs to make some and we traded gelato for some potatoes. Like everybody did during the lock down. That's how we survived.

SmSh: And what's your outlook like these days? Are you optimistic for the future?

Alberto: I'm trying to be. I'm happy our store is open now. From that part I am positive and optimistic. I hope to stay the same positive and optimistic to be able to go back home and see my mom for a couple of weeks and then come back.

SmSh: What's your favorite thing about living in Shanghai?

Alberto: Honestly, I would say, this neighborhood during spring. I really love it. I really think that when my friends are able to come to visit, I'm going to tell them: Come in spring. Because it's really nice just by walking around at the time. I traveled a lot, not extremely, but I saw cities in the world. This area in spring, the vibe is really lovely. That's one thing.

Obviously, the international vibe here, but you can find international vibes in Beijing and Tokyo. This area, I really really love it. This area in spring, I looking forward to every year. That's the favorite thing I love about living in Shanghai.