Cecilia Casarini still remembers the long line that formed outside Ilary Biondo’s gelato store in Sicily, Italy, when the couple first met in the summer of 2021. “The line was from the door to two blocks away, every single day,” Casarini, Biondo’s wife, recalled. “She was just doing everything, making the gelato, serving people.”
Now, Biondo, 36, the Italian ice-cream master, is ready to reproduce that scene in the Mission starting this Saturday at 951 Valencia St., formerly Xanath, the 13-year-old gelato shop that closed during Covid-19.
The new store is called “Hila,” Biondo’s nickname. It brings the number of ice cream stores in the Mission to nine.
On Wednesday evening, Biondo was busy preparing the ice cream for her new venture as the chef, owner and only employee of Hila.
Her target for Saturday’s opening: 705 pounds and 24 flavors of gelato, from traditional to characteristic, using everything flavors such as hazelnut, matcha, saffron and olive oil. Eight of the 24 flavors will be vegan.
By Wednesday, she had made only one-tenth of her weekend goal, and had blocked out Thursday and Friday for nothing but making gelato.
Biondo has her own Sicilian recipe, and enjoys making it herself. She has not hired any help yet, and is up for how she managed her store in Sicily: Doing everything.
For Biondo, -14 °Celsius is the optimum temperature for storing and eating gelato, she said, scooping up a spatula of chocolate chip gelato. When you shake it, she explained, “it should not fall and, at the same time it should not freeze or crystalize.”
For Biondo, gelato is a fusion of art and science: Art in being a blend of good taste and an innovative mind for new flavors. “I can make gelato out of everything,” said Biondo, “even plastic.”
“That was an exaggeration!” Casarini added quickly, laughing.
And it’s also a science — of milk and sugar, temperature and humidity, trial and error. Ten grams of sugar will alter the best temperature for storage, while the spinning speed set for the ice cream machine will affect the end product’s texture and volume. Accuracy matters.
Biondo pauses and thinks, experiments and adjusts, localizing her Sicilian recipe with domestic machines, tools and produce. Unlike many of the Mission’s nine ice cream stores, she does not use Straus as a base.
“You don’t necessarily need Italian ingredients to make Italian gelato,” Biondo said.
A love story
So how did Biondo end up in San Francisco? Love.
Biondo and Casarini fell in love soon after their Sicilian gelato encounter. Since then, Casarini laughed: “None of my friends ever paid for gelato.”
Coming from Reggio Emilia, a small town in northern Italy, Casarini works as an acoustic engineer in San Francisco. In 2021, she went back to Italy to renew her U.S. visa, but the U.S. embassies were shut because of covid so she took the time to travel to Sicily.
“I met her, so I cannot complain too much about the immigration system and the covid,” Casarini said of the visa delays, smiling.
But when the border opened later, Casarini had to return for work.
In 2022, after trying to maintain a two-continent relationship, the couple decided to reunite for good. Biondo left her home and the 10-year-old gelato business for the new destination.
Last September, they registered for marriage in Hawaii, at a sunny beach, resembling Biondo’s hometown and the birthplace of their love in Sicily. Later, Biondo received her H-4 EAD work permit, which allows her to work any job legally in America, including starting her own business.
“In Italy, it’s not the best moment for the economy and the business,” said Biondo.“Maybe it’s good if we go to the U.S. and take that challenge.”
They have settled in the Mission, which they love for its energy and sunshine. “We wouldn’t live in another neighborhood,” said Casarini.
“Also, it’s sunny, right? So it’s perfect for gelato.”
When Juan San Mames, the owner of Xanath, who also owns the building, offered them the opportunity to take over the store, along with the ice cream, coffee machines and freezers, Biondo went for it.
Their passion for gelato has been a plus for neighbors.
Two months ago, Biondo was experimenting with her gelato recipe at home at Bartlett and 22nd streets and made too much ice cream. So Casarini wrote an email to her neighbors in the building to come and help with eating gelato: “It will be free. Or, you can also bring a plant, because we love them. But if you don’t, no worries.”
One minute later, Casarini recalled, “I opened the door: It was a line! And some people had this small plant that was so cool!”
The two are now thinking about doing that again; maybe a “Plant Friday.”
The nicest part for them was how this little incident helped bring the neighbors closer.
“Before, people don’t say ‘hi’ too much, but now,” Casarini said with a big smile. “Every time we take the elevator, everyone’s like ‘Hi! How’s the ice cream shop going? When is it opening?’”
Adjusting to the new land
Biondo calls her mom every day at midday. Sicilian children are dependent on their mother, Biondo said, and she’s one of these children.
Coming to the “land of dreams,” Biondo is still learning the lay of the land. In Sicily, she could easily source fresh produce like strawberries, bananas and olives from familiar farmlands. But here, she has a full network of new relationships to build, and a whole range of fruits and vegetables to study.
Californian strawberries, for example, are distributed a little early for Biondo — she has to wait for a couple of days before turning them into gelato. Also, while she’s been buying all sorts of fruits from various farmer’s markets, Biondo has not familiarized with farmlands nearby enough to source the best produce and have them delivered to Hila.
“It’s a matter of adjusting,” said Biondo.
Another challenge for Biondo that is beyond her control: Graffiti and vandalism.
Initially, they planned the opening to be earlier this week, but two weeks ago, one of the store’s big windows was broken. They had to fix it, and also add a protective film on all the windows to make cleaning graffiti a little easier, a trick they learned from Mames, the former owner. All together it cost $3,000.
Come what may, Biondo will open on Saturday.
“I’m opening, even if I don’t have windows anymore,” she said, with her eyes shut, chin up, and a slight grin. Casarini was looking amused.
“It’s supposed to be a summer story, right?” said Casarini, looking at Biondo. “But then it couldn’t end.”
Hila is open from noon to 8 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday, during the soft opening, starting tomorrow. In addition to gelato in two dozen flavors, it also supplies Italian-style baked goods and beverages. Updates on the menu and opening hours can be found at their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages: @hilagelato.