The Gelato Festival World Masters competition takes place in Italy in 2021, culminating a years-long, continent-spanning search for the best artisan gelato makers in the world. The final battle in 2021 will winnow 5,000 entrants worldwide to the top 36. In the gelato world, that’s as elite as a fight gets. And Paterson native Mike Guerriero, 27, wants to win.
Owner and head chef of Gelotti Ice Cream shops in Caldwell and Montclair, Guerriero competed for the first time at the 2018 Gelato Festival America competition in Jersey City in August, where he won the Technical Prize for a rosewater- and saffron-infused gelato he called “Persian Paradise.” But he lost the popular vote, which taught him an important lesson as a gelato chef. “When I went to Jersey City, I was being something I wasn’t,” he says, a mistake he wouldn’t repeat.
Guerriero followed the seven-city Gelato Festival to Santa Barbara in October, where he competed again and won big. “The flavor I won with was Blueberry Basil,” he says. “New Jersey grows the most blueberries per capita of any other state.” Guerriero packed blueberries with sugar and flew them from Jersey to California. “And the basil—it’s what I grow in my garden for pasta.”
He wasn’t grubbing for authenticity points. “At the end of the day, it’s really hard for me to get away from my roots,” he says. No surprise, after his win, “the first phone call I made was to my Nonna.”
A self-described Oompa Loompa, Guerriero traces his gelato roots back to when he got a job at Gelotti in Paterson when he was 14. The mini-chain started with less pomp and more elbow grease by Sal Sigona, who became Guerriero’s mentor after he got in trouble and was punished by, well, working at Gelotti.
As Guerriero recalls it, he was living with his uncle when he got in trouble at school. “My Uncle Phil was a strict disciplinarian. I came home from school and he said ‘Get in the car.’ I thought we were going for ice cream! But instead of the front door, we went in the back. [The manager] looks at me and says ‘You start on Monday.’”
Mike started sweeping floors and scooping hundreds of tartufi. He didn’t fall in love, per se, but he did stay at Gelotti into business school, when something pivotal happened. In 2012, Guerriero asked his business professor if he could miss upcoming classes to attend a gelato festival in Italy with Sal and his family. “In the middle of class, my professor stops and said ‘What are you doing here? You have your passion and your dreams.’”
That trip to Italy in 2012 was to SIGEP, the “International Trade Show of Artisan Gelato, Pastry, Bakery, and the Coffee World.” Now in its 40th year, it’s a massive, multi-football field-sized expo of sugar-coated, uncut entrepreneurial drive. “That really changed my perspective,” Guerriero says. “There were guys wheeling gelato into the parking lot on a little ice cream cart. The entrepreneurial spirit was so different there.”
It was a spirit Guerriero brought home with him, immediately filing for his first LLC at the ripe age of 20 to start a mobile ice cream catering business called “Ice Cream Social.” It was a success, but Gelotti seemed like his future. In 2014, Guerriero took over the then new Caldwell location. In 2016, on his 25th birthday, he opened the doors to Gelotti Montclair.
Now, he looks forward to participating in the international gelato competition in 2021. “My first competition, I was there competing on behalf of Gelotti, and [with the win], I enshrined our name, what we’ve done in 34 years. Now, I’m gonna keep competing for the U.S., do everything I can to get to the competition in 2021. I think whoever we send to Italy in 2021 needs to represent this country.”
Mike Guerriero can be found at any of the three Gelotti locations, but he is the owner of Gelotti Montclair(571 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair; 973-509-1607) and Gelotti Caldwell (194 Bloomfield Avenue, Caldwell; 973-403-9968).