Robin’s Nest: Sweet and hot is what we’ve got
By ROBIN WOODS
For Montclair Local
Robin Woods is a local girl-about-town, writing about activities, stores, restaurants and
interesting people that catch her eye. She’s written memoirs and personal essays as well as music and fashion columns for various New York City newspapers. She received the Shirley Chisholm Award for Journalism in 2015. Got something you think should be in Robin’s Nest? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The weather is cool and crisp, but we still want our sweet frozen treats. Benvenuti means “welcome” in Italian, and Roger Mazzeo and his business partner, Matthew Brown, opened Benvenuti on Church Street on July 2, 2020, bringing a little bit of Italy to Montclair.
They planned to open earlier in the year, but the pandemic and equipment delays from Italy pushed things back a bit.
Mazzeo was born in New Brunswick but lived and worked in Milan, Italy, until 2016. An actor and commercial creator, he met and married his Italian wife, Barbara Marini, before moving to Montclair. Although he is also my neighbor, living just across the lawn from my home, we never met in person until a few months ago.
I’ve gained a new friend and a new place to enjoy gelato and great coffee. He works, lives and breathes business seven days a week, and said, “I’m a workaholic. I must be present, and know that we need to connect with people.”
I was hoping that he took his work home with him, and visited him to see if I could “borrow” a neighborly cup or pint of gelato from his home freezer. No luck, as he rarely brings gelato home, preferring to eat it fresh from the churns.
Like Mazzeo, Brown also has an Italian-born wife, and both families spend a lot of time together. He took annual trips to Italy with his wife and family until this year. He said, “My Italian-born wife feels that our business brings a bit of Italy back in her life.”
There’s a difference between ice cream and gelato. Ice cream is served at a lower temperature, which gives it a harder texture. Gelato is served warmer, which gives it more intense flavor. Ice cream has 10 to 18 percent butter fat, gelato has just 4 to 8 percent. Ice cream has 50 percent air, while gelato’s slow churning and 20-percent air volume gives it a smoother texture.
The vegan flavors allowed me to taste and enjoy what I would otherwise have to take a pass on, due to my allergy to dairy products.
Ask for a sample of any of the flavors before you make your choice. I sampled the vegan matcha tea flavor, which has a coconut milk base, as do all vegan varieties. I never was a fan of matcha tea, but this is just plain delicious, fresh-tasting and smooth. There are 10 constantly churning gelato machines working, so there’s no dearth of flavors to choose from.
Sorbetto is also on the menu, with pink lemonade and dark chocolate flavors as top customer picks. I grew up eating Italian ices, which is a frozen dessert made from sugar-sweetened water and fruit juice. It’s another vegan menu choice, but when I want a frozen treat, it’s not ices that call my name.
Other gelato flavors are flor de latte, strawberry, espresso, mascarpone, pistachio, dark chocolate and hazelnut. My husband, who is my dedicated taster and has a sweet tooth unrivaled by many, loves the hazelnut and vanilla with Hershey’s chocolate stracciatella. He keeps going back for pints to take home for his late-night snacks. Go adult and trendy with the salted caramel CBD flavor, too.
You know that my middle name is coffee. I sat outdoors at a safe, well-spaced table, and had one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever tasted, made with Lavazza coffee. Grab some freshly filled cannolis, ricotta pie or brownies to go with.
Masks and social distancing are required indoors and out. Look for Mazzeo’s punny slogan signs while waiting on line, such as “Please wait your churn.” He’s a comedy act and master gelato churner all in one.
FROM SWEET TO SPICY
For those of us who crave spices, the hotter the better, Master Pow’s Co. hot chili pepper sauce brings us a taste of Trinidad and Tobago. Like Benvenuti, Vernon Lee Pow Jr. also started his business in July, selling Jamaican hot pepper sauces online.
Vernon replicated the recipes put together 20 years ago by his father, Vernon Lee Pow Sr., who grew up in the islands and learned how to preserve the fresh fruits and vegetables from home gardens, using them as seasoning sauces.
“We call him the mad scientist. He tested out many types of chili sauce, and came up with the three levels of spiciness that we sell. Spices are like a religion to some people,” said Vernon Jr. The sauces go from Intermediate to Chili Head, with Caribbean Aji Dulce habanero pepper sauce a customer favorite. Everything is all-natural, using vinegar as a preservative.
Family matriarch and third-generation Montclairian Rose Lee Pow grows the vegetables used in Master Pow’s sauces in her 700-square-foot Elmwood Avenue garden. Vernon Jr. and his Colombian-born wife Jessica got the business up and running, and the sauces are made in a commercial kitchen where they maintain control over the quality, making sure that the recipe is the same, batch after batch.
“It’s handcrafted, sustainable sauce, farm to table. We even make the bottles ourselves, and write a handwritten note to everyone who orders from us, as a thank you. I want Montclair to be proud of me and my family,” Vernon Jr. said.
If you’re alarmed that one of the three varieties of hot pepper sauce might blow the top of your head off, try the green Diosa beginner sauce. Diosa means goddess in Spanish, and is medium-spicy, with habanero peppers in the mix. Go for the gusto with Original, made with scorpion, ghost, habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers. It’s hot and flavorful, the original sauce created by Lee Pow Sr. The Grand Master sauce comes with a warning: “To the beginners, novice and intermediate pepper sauce lovers, this sauce is EXTREMELY HOT. Please use with caution. Keep out of the reach of children.”
I’m always up for a challenge, so if you see me walking around town with my head on fire, you'll know that I’m a hot pepper sauce champion. Some like it hot, and you can always go for some gelato as a palate cool-down afterward.
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