Some students arrive in Bologna, Italy, with just a secret indulgence without shop locations, business plans or $70,000 on hand for must-have machinery. They head to Carpigiani Gelato University to learn how to turn sacks of sugar and crates of oranges, kiwis, lemons and persimmons into spoonfuls of earthly bliss.
Gelato is the ultimate refinement of a Mediterranean flavored-ice tradition that supposedly dates back to the ancient Egyptians. In the past half-century, Italians have designed machines engineered and produced in the same region as Ferraris and Lamborghinis that can produce ever tinier crystals of ice, allowing for less water, less air and more taste.
For three weeks every month, 20 to 30 students from the world over gather in Bologna inside a tiered lecture room in a Jetsons-style building erected in the early 1960s for the brothers Carpigiani, who perfected the first electric gelato machine. There, a gelato maestro shows them how to transform lowly buckets of cream or bags of fruit into cold, concentrated flavor that often has half the fat of American ice cream.
Besides the secret of perfect gelato, many students are attracted by the sweet dream of self-employment. Gelato is a major growth business worldwide, a cheap luxury defying the recession as people turn to smaller pleasures. And despite the $1,052 tuition for a weeklong session, so far this year enrollment at Gelato U is up 87% compared with the same period in 2008. Who's signing up? "Mostly 40-year-olds looking for a new life," says Patrick Hopkins, director of the six-year-old educational offshoot of the Carpigiani company, which produces a majority of the world's gelato machines.
"About eight years ago, I got the idea" to become a gelato artisan, says a 45-year-old student, a European executive who asked not to be identified by name or even home country for fear of tipping off employers to a possible midcareer switch. "I figure I have about 15 years of energy left. Do I want to spend it climbing the corporate ladder? Or do I finally do this?"
Maestro Gianpaolo Valli whips such students into shape. "You need to know what makes a strawberry!" he shouts. His lively lectures, delivered in deliriously Italian-cadenced, non sequitur studded English, cover such topics as how to identify a fruit's sugar content and how to do the surprisingly complicated math of balancing sugar (an antifreeze) and fat (the opposite): "You increase the fat content, but it freezes. So you need to compensate with sugar. You say, 'Maestro, not possible!' Yes, it is possible! I show you!"
Students attending Gelato U aim to build their gelaterias in far corners of the globe. They know that real gelato is a delicate thing that cannot survive being taken out and put back into a freezer, that it is best consumed where it is made. That's what Melissa Green, 36, an HR manager in Tampico, Ill., learned in September during her first trip to Italy, when she consumed her first gelato. After a few bites of green apple, a light went on, illuminating her future: "I tasted this, and I was like, We have got to bring this back home."