The Artisan Behind Artisen Gelato
By Brianna Melanson
Hundreds of years ago, the indigenous people of Ecuador would climb to the top of the inactive ‘Imbabura’ volcano and come down with blocks of ice and ‘frailejon’ or paramo straw. Then they would lay a bronze pot, called a paila, in a bed of the straw. After crushing the ice, they would mix it with natural fruit juice and then stir the mixture in the paila with a wooden spoon until it became a rich, creamy consistency. They had created gelato. Ramón Riofrio was taught this special culinary skill when he was just 12 years old from his grandfather. Ramón found a way to use today’s technology to help him make the same delicious gelato at his Matthews, NC gelato shop, Artisen.
Gelato is the European way to say “Ice Cream.” The gelato recipe that he has been using for the past 35 years is closely guarded by his sweet wife Marcia, a few family members, and trusted, longtime friend and business partner Daniel Araujo. Marcia works in the store front and happily helps you sample a bunch of the flavors before making your tough decision. Artisen offers 24 flavors of gelato for sale at a time, but they have the formulas for more than 80 unique flavors that Ramón can rotate each week. Blackberry, passion fruit, mango, coffee, and chocolate are the flavors that have been on the Artisen menu since day one. The latest popular flavors are raspberry chocolate, lemon, mandarin, and tiramisu. As with all creative minds, Ramón constantly invents new flavors to introduce at the shop. He’ll wake up at 2am and write down the idea, then the next morning he brings the flavor to life. Once his family and friends approve, it goes into the rotation for sale. Ramón explains, “Behind every product is innovation and an investigation on how to do it better.”
Ramón was willing to share a couple of secrets that make his gelato unique and taste great. First, what makes the gelato taste so luscious when there is no dairy cream used? It’s all in the way Ramón breaks the crystal, or the top layer, of the ice. It has to be cut in a very specific way in order for the gelato to be perfectly smooth and creamy. Otherwise, it would be ice with flavor, like a coarse snow cone. Second, why does the mango gelato taste so sweet? Ramón only buys the 100% natural mango puree from Ecuador. Mango from Ecuador are very robust in their tropical flavor and aroma because the equator runs right through the middle of the country. The sun’s intensity ripens the fruit to tasty, sweet, juicy perfection.
All Artisen gelato is vegan-certified, made with coconut milk, and free from common allergens; it is gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, treenut-free, egg-free, dye-free, and soy-free. This dietary profile coupled with the great taste attracts a broad clientele, including those with allergies or dietary restrictions. It is gratifying to Ramón when he sees how happy a child with allergies is when their parent tells them they can have anything they want. Recently he started making waffle cones from scratch to accompany the gelato. Now Ramón can say with certainty and confidence what the ingredients are in his crisp cones. Artisen has partnered with the Charlotte Allergy Society, who takes a trip there once a week for gelato, and they offer kosher products for the Jewish community.
To maintain this high-quality standard, the team is very selective on where they get their ingredients. The vendors must have the same mission and strict rules as the Artisen team does. The strawberries and tangerines are sourced from local farmers, when fresh fruit is available. Most of the exotic fruit comes from Latin America, and the mango is, of course, always from Ecuador. Daniel says, “It’s as if you get a mango, peel it, and take a bite.” These strict culinary guidelines and simple ingredients mean that Artisen gelato delivers a bright, refreshing flavor in every creamy spoonful. Professional French chef Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” Ramón has always been inspired by this particular quote and strives to provide the highest quality gelato for his customers.
In the front corner of the Artisen shop, there is a historical set-up showcasing a scene of how the gelato would be traditionally made by the Ecuadorian people. When scheduled in advance, guests can see Ramón make the gelato in the bronze paila exactly the way his grandfather taught him. Every month or so, a group of forty people from one of the local retirement homes enjoys an outing to Artisen for this very special presentation. You too can share in this experience; give Ramón and Marcia a call to schedule time.
Artisen, open every afternoon and evening, offers a welcoming and relaxing, spacious spot reminiscent of a cozy coffee shop. Customers are encouraged to stay a while, enjoying their gelato and the free WiFi. In the near future, Artisen plans to introduce coffee and espresso offerings to compliment the gelato. People travel from all over Charlotte and the surrounding areas to savor this incredible, hand-crafted gelato. Artisen’s popularity, stemming from success in their storefront, is now encouraging Ramón to expand into selling pints of the gelato in local grocery stores. Check the website www.artisengelato.com or Facebook page @ArtisenGelato for availability near you.
Artisen is sure to become your favorite gelato spot this summer.
301 W. John St. Matthews, NC
Mon-Sat: 12pm – 9pm
Sun: 12pm – 8pm