Photo by Cónal Thomas

Cristian Proca picks up an unwaxed lemon and squeezes. “See, look at that,” he says. Scents of citrus spray the air.

These lemons, grown on the Amalfi Coast of southern Italy, are key to flavouring his sorbetto, just one of a long list of recipes that Proca has perfected over the years at the Sorrento chipper on Arbour Hill in Stoneybatter.

Proca started to make gelato almost a decade ago. “I started from scratch,” he says. “Learning, learning, a lot of research, books, try and fail, try, try, try and fail. And, always take notes.”

By combining a chip shop and an ice-cream parlour, Proca is following a path many have trod before him.

Dublin to Dundalk

A local passes on the street outside. Proca jerks his right arm into the air and waves.

“Don’t treat your customer as your customer,” he says. “Treat your customer as your neighbour.”

Inside, the shop looks much like any other. Blue and white tiles on the walls. A chalkboard menu with the usual chips, burgers, sausages, and snack boxes.

But to the right of the counter is a stand of Proca’s rich, creamy gelato. Today’s selection? Blueberry, 72-percent chocolate, Peroni, mango sorbetto, and “Grandmother’s Custard”.

The last one was based on a recipe from the chef Silvia Jurcovan. “It’s very old,” says the 35-year-old Proca, showing a stained and battered book given to him by his father. “I’m trying to revive some old recipes.”

Italian-style ice cream, gelato, is known for its dense creaminess. Made simply with milk, cane sugar, and “a small amount of cream”, the possibilities for flavours are endless, says Proca.

As Proca tells it, classic recipes speak for themselves. “Of course, we can bend the rules, new technologies, a tweak here and there, but most of the time the old recipes don’t need improvement,” he says.

Proca has run the Sorrento chipper since 2010, having taken it over from an old Italian couple, Maria and Marcello, who have since returned to Frosinone in central Italy, where many Irish-Italian families trace their roots to.

Since 2012, Proca has been making gelato here, selling it out of his shop and at markets around Dublin.

He went to some lengths to get started. He had heard tell of a gelato-machine salesman in Co. Louth, and got up one morning at 7am to catch a ride out to Dundalk.

He was late, though, and arrived at the station to see the bus leaving. He found a taxi driver who quoted him €130, he says.

“But that’s 10 times the price of a bus ticket!” he recalls shouting. Something, though, was telling him to just do it.

He bargained a driver down to €90, arrived in Dundalk, and entered a room of others who were also eager to find out more about gelato. He bought his first machine. “I was the poorest guy in the room,” he says.

A Long Tradition

Over the years, many Italian-Irish families have blended the same two businesses that he has.

Many of these families who set up chippers here originally came from the same set of communes in Frosinone in central Italy, from villages like Casalattico.

“They all came from our town,” says Fino Fusco, whose chipper café on Meath Street opened in 1963. “Most of them came in the ‘60s. Then’s when a big, big load of them came over.”

In those days, most Italian families made ice cream to sell from their shops, says Fusco. But that faded over time. “They found there was more money in the fish-and-chips business.”

Teresa Borza’s father Donato came earlier, she says. He moved from Italy to Belfast in 1950, and then to Dublin in 1955, where he opened a chipper on Parnell Street, she says. “It was easier to buy a shop in the Republic than it was up North.”

Later, he moved his shop from Parnell Street to Churchtown in 1950.

She remembers how he would pull on a long white coat and pour milk into one of two round barrels. “It used to just spin and spin and spin around,” she says. Then, he would transfer it to a second barrel and serve it from there.

He’d learnt to make ice cream from his aunt and uncle in Newtownards in Co. Down, she says. “He’d always say to us, ‘Do you want la crema?’” Any Italian kid that you said “la crema” to knew it was ice cream.

Her father, who also co-founded the social club Club Italiano, made ice cream in his chipper up until the late 1960s, when he got a Carpigiani soft-serve machine.

“Everybody loved that, but he used to say, ‘It’s not the same as my ice cream’,” says Borza.

Still Learning

Proca waves to another local strolling up Arbour Hill in the evening heat.

He lives upstairs from the chipper he runs, and once the last of the late-night customers have left, he often steps into the kitchen to experiment with new recipes, always asking himself how he can be more creative.

“I try everything,” he says, curling a fresh scoop of chocolate gelato into a cone. “Now I’ll show you.”

He heads to the back room and returns moments later with a bag filled with 100-percent chocolate. “No sugar, no nothing.”

His chocolate gelato comes in three types: 72-, 85-, and 100-percent pure chocolate. Cones cost €3.80 a scoop, cups cost €3.50.

Today’s chocolate has a strong flavour that smooths out into a rich, creamy texture.

“I’m trying to create with what’s in season, what I can get my hands on,” he says, pointing to the five-kilo crate of fresh Italian lemons on the counter.

His recent creations include strawberry and Prosecco, raspberry and black pepper, raspberry and rosemary, and saffron and white chocolate.

Proca pops open a small container filled with fresh Iraqi saffron. “Best of the best of the best,” he says. “I’m always using different techniques. I’m still learning.”

He has learnt not to combine lavender and honey for gelato.

“I got greedy and used too much,” says Proca. “I’d to throw it away.” Or white chocolate and bergamot.

Although he is largely self-taught, Proca attended Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna for several weeks. “But they’ll never teach you what I’ve learned,” he says.

Making proper gelato is a constant education. Hours spent alone in his kitchen, testing new flavours.

And what’s Proca’s favourite? “I haven’t discovered it yet,” he says.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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