cream of the crop
Ken Hoffman's bold taste test of the best gelato in Texas
Some work assignments are tastier than others. Like this one:
Recently Matthew Lee, the founder of TEO Gelato, was in my dining room, cracking open eight pints of ice cream for us (him, too) to devour, while Lee told me the story behind his gelato, now available at H-E-B supermarkets in Houston. To put it mildly, I got more than I expected or hoped for, and I'm not just talking quantity.
Yes, I ate some of all. (The things I do for you readers.) I even ranked the flavors. More on that, but first, a little history.
A few years ago, I was in Italy and visited a few gelato shops recommended in guide books. Wow! This stuff is wonderful. Forget the double scoop, make it a triple, okay?
Too bad we can’t get gelato like this back in Texas, right? Now we can. Right in our neighborhood supermarket.
TEO's slogan is “Austin Made, World Acclaimed,” and that refers to both the owner and product. Lee was born in Austin, raised in Houston, and later, watched his mother run the cooking school at Central Market. It took Lee a few years post-college wandering in the tech world before finding his way back to the kitchen.
“I was a high-tech executive for several startup companies, one of which was purchased by Microsoft. I'm a creative entrepreneur, not a desk jockey, and with increased bureaucracy, I realized I needed a change,” Lee says.
A visit to Florence, Italy propelled that change into high gear.
“I found myself eating gelato four times a day,” he recalls. “I loved ice cream and ate a lot of it, but if I had consumed the same amount of ice cream, I would have felt sick to my stomach. Intrigued, I started researching the product and began reaching out to several Italian gelato maestros to share some of their secrets. It took some time, but I was incredibly persistent, and was lucky enough to win the support of several mentors who began tutoring me in the craft,” Lee says.
A cool life change
Lee returned home to Texas and broke the news to his family. He was going all-in on his newfound passion.
“When I told my wife, who was holding our one-month-old child at the time, that I had just quit my high-paying corporate job to own a gelato shop, you could say she was speechless. It's proven to be a wonderful choice for our family, however.”
Lee opened a gelato shop, Caffe TEO, on 38th Street in Austin. The name TEO is from the nickname the Florence gelato lords gave him — it’s short for Matteo, which is Matthew in Italian. His gelato shop was an immediate hit.
In 2014, he decided to see just how his gelato stacked up against the best on Earth — the Gelato World Tour. There would be 1,500 entrants from countries including Italy, Australia, Germany, Dubai, and more. Most of the contestants would be from Italy, a home game for them.
“The Italians loved my gelato, even my fellow competitors. I was the highest-ranked American competing against the best in Italy, the best in the world, where gelato was created,” Lee says. TEO gelato was voted fourth best in the world, ahead of some of the most prestigious gelato brands in Italy even.
Gelato vs. ice cream, explained
In case you’re unfamiliar with gelato, it’s often looked upon as "Italian ice cream," but it’s not really ice cream. Let Lee explain:
“Gelato was invented by Bernardo Buontalenti (you might recognize the second half of his last name) in Florence, Italy around 1500 as a wedding gift to Catherine de Medici. Italian gelato is made with less cream and less air than ice cream. Less cream minimizes the fat, resulting in a heightened flavor profile and a more refreshing and satisfying finish. Too much of any ingredient can cover up other flavors, and we strive to create that perfect balance with TEO,” Lee says.
“We make our gelato from scratch every day, and more important, we make our own base, which is the key to managing the fats and sugars. We use fresh Texas milk and cream that is rBST free.”
TEO gelato even took the Grand Prize in H-E-B’s “Quest for Texas Best” in 2015, where 1,200 small food businesses compete for shelf space in H-E-B supermarkets.
TEO’s current flavors are: Dark Chocolate, Texican Vanilla, Cookies & Cream, Italian Peanut Butter Cup, Salted Caramel, Coffee Cookies & Cream, Peppermint Stick, and Goat Cheese & Cherry. In case you’re wondering, those are my picks, in order.
Here's the official ranking:
1. Dark Chocolate
I'm a chocolate person, the darker the better. TEO goes deep, the flavor is rich, the texture so creamy. It gives Vivoli, the super world famous gelato shop in Florence a run for its chocolate. Even better than Vivoli, you don't have to stand in line for half an hour. Now, if you'll just close the door and let me and Dark Chocolate have some privacy.
2.Cookies & Cream
Should be Cream & Cookies. TEO doesn't overload its gelato with mix-ins. Some brands use gelato as mere spackling to hold the broken cookie pieces together. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, TEO's ratio of gelato to cookies is "just right."
3. Texican Vanilla
Here's the problem with TEO. The label says "4 servings per pint." Fake news! Here's what it should say, especially this "homemade" (wink, wink) flavor. "Directions: open lid, insert spoon, serves one. Please dispose of the empty pint properly."
4. Italian Peanut Butter Cup
This was a bit of a risky flavor, since Italians aren't as nutty about peanut butter as Americans. What the gelato purists back in Italy don't know ... won't hurt them. The peanut butter cups are small, straight out of your Halloween booty.
5. Salted Caramel
It's the dessert crowd's new, hip flavor. I've was introduced to Salted Caramel at Fenocchio Maitre Glacier in Old Town Nice, France. You know how Pumpkin Spice is everywhere this time of year? Salted Caramel is like that 52/365. TEO's take is more subtle than the heavy-duty ice cream scoop shops in America.
6. Peppermint Stick
One for the kids. They'll think it's candy canes and Christmas by the spoonful. This is one of the TEO's stronger flavors. It's the only flavor in the arsenal that leaves your breath minty fresh.
7. Coffee Cookies & Cream
I'm not a coffee drinker, so this is lost on me. Al and Paula, my neighbors two doors down, said this was their favorite. Ain't that America?
8. Goat Cheese & Cherry
Full disclosure, I took one look at the label, scrunched my nose, and took barely a lick. I'm not a goat guy. Missed opportunity, if the label said "Cheese Cake and Cherry," I would have been all in.
If you’re in Austin, the newest flavor in the home base store on 38th Street is Pumpkin Pie with Garrison Whiskey. Lee highly recommends pairing it with a scoop of Bourbon Vanilla.