—Gelato Vero Caffé quietly marked its 25th anniversary recently as San Diego’s premier gelateria—and one of the County’s most singular coffeehouses. The tiny shop has long been the center of first-class gelato making and has created no end of legends, both for its staff and customers.
Founded in 1984 by Henry Rabinowitz, a former teacher who fell in love with gelato on a trip to Italy, Gelato Vero occupies the site of an earlier coffeehouse named Sidney’s that existed from 1978 to 1983. The corner shop at India, Andrews and Washington Streets has always been a place of offbeat wonder and fascination; before Sidney’s, the corner held a record store that specialized in jazz, before that it was a bead shop, a porn bookstore and was the first site of the San Diego Jazz Festival in 1974.
When Gelato Vero opened, few here knew what gelati are. Most thought it merely ice cream and Rabinowitz developed a short and pithy speech to inform the curious about the flavorful, rich in butterfat and relatively low- calorie concoctions that he specialized in making. Gelato not only relies on fresh and excellent ingredients—it requires a high degree of hands on labor and excellent sense of timing and is not made in huge production runs. Gelati is made by the batch and Gelato Vero’s sizes in equipment and area are made for a single operator. Rabinowitz changed the perception of Gelato soon enough, encouraging his patrons to expand their tastes and feeding them no end of samples. His clients paid back the favor by going out of their way to patronize his house, and soon enough, wholesale orders flowed in from the better restaurants that required signature gelati from the shop. The flavor offerings are never ending and Rabinowitz created hundreds of unique gelati for restarants and other clients that held their flavors exclusively; some for almost twenty five years.
The curiously small back room, just behind the café counter was and still is ground zero for gelato making. A second room the size of a small garage exists uphill from the café and houses a second mixer and freezer. From this small space, perhaps hundreds of tons of gelati and sorbetto are made yearly for the coffeehouse’s customers and wholesale accounts.
Right from the beginning, Gelato Vero drew an incredible wealth of creatives of all kinds as its core clientele. This may have had something to do with Henry Rabinowitz’s personality that was warm, engaging and genuinely curious about people, and that the café staff was a mirror of the kind of people who came there. Gelato Vero has a long reputation for staffers who, while competent and capable, are not tolerant of insolence, meanness or conspicuous rudeness from the clientele. Though this hasn’t always been easy for those caught in the cultural crossfire, Gelato Vero has anchored its place as a culturally inclusive and engaging place where many different kinds of people feel welcome. For many of its regular clients, Gelato Vero is a second home.
Perhaps the house’s layout has something to do with that feeling. Gelato Vero comes in three parts; inside, outside tables on the street, and upstairs. The three sections are very different and the preferences of some for one of them is a defining characteristic of some who visit regularly. Inside is often where the new visitors, families and first dates sit. The café is cramped; there are only a handful of tables and these become cluttered quickly. Outside is where the local observers reside, readers of newspapers and books and those who want conversation with whomever is available. The upstairs was once the haven for smokers and nothing was finer than savoring a cigar on the upstairs deck on a sunny afternoon watching the street go by and seeing the sun shimmer off the bay. Unfortunately, complaints by some of the public ended that pleasure for smokers and now the upstairs is a place where solitary figures read, or more likely camp on their laptops. On chilly nights heaters edge off the chill for the serious types who catch up on their work. Otherwise, the wind breezing through the canvas awnings over the upper deck are a sensation all their own.
Henry Rabinowitz ran his business daily until April, 2006 when he suddenly died of heart failure while on the job. His son Aaron runs the business now and works to expand the wholesale gelato business and take the café side forward. Aaron seems to be as adept as his dad was and is ever developing new and uncommon flavors for his picky restrateurs. In the last few years, several new gelaterias have opened and have gained a good following. All of the newcomers have Gelato Vero Caffé to thank for their initial ease of entry into the market. The comfortable, inviting and infinitely appealing little shop that Henry Rabinowitz created in the summer of 1984 has become a signature place that defines the flavor of San Diego not only in gelati, but in coffeehouses, too.
We look forward to the years to come at Gelato Vero Caffé.