For all the glorious ice cream being scooped around southwest Michigan at spots like Treat Dreams, Blank Slate, Guernsey, Cook's Farm Dairy, etc., there's long been a noticeable hole in the landscape — gelato, Italian, or, one could argue, European ice cream. Let's face it, we call Detroit the Paris of the Midwest, but it's still the Midwest.
And that's a bummer because, when done right, gelato rivals its American cousin. Perhaps counterintuitively, it's both denser and in its best forms is much creamier. That's typically achieved by reducing the amount of air in the base. American ice cream is whipped and churned a bit harder and faster, which creates more air. Gelato gets an easier ride as it's churned, and if it got much denser, it would create an almost taffy-like consistency. Meanwhile, there's a bit less fat in gelato.
Fortunately, we have Momento Gelato and Coffee in Detroit. Owner Tom Isaia, who learned the craft during several 2017 trips to Bologna, Italy, uses skim milk powder, whole milk, and cream — that keeps the fat level down compared with ice cream.
Isaia's also a proponent of keeping things natural by not using "natural flavoring" like Ben and Jerry's and other popular ice cream companies. In the salted caramel, for example, the caramel is simply sugar melted in a heavy pan then poured into the base and mixed with some salt. That achieves a dark sugar flavor without anything lab-made, and that, folks, is how you do natural flavorings, and not "natural flavorings."
Also excellent is the pistachio gelato is made with pistachios ground in house with a nut butter grinder. The chocolate hazelnut's bits of nuts also provide some pleasant texture that breaks up the deep rich flavor, and a milkshake made with it was nothing short of intense and decadent. Other flavors in the ever-rotating mix included Michigan strawberry, vanilla bean, lemon custard, and butter pecan.
Isaia's approach carries over to the sorbet, in which he uses real fruit. Good, real fruit is the foundation of solid sorbets. My favorites of the bunch were the mango and strawberry, the latter of which has the amount of seed reduced to keep the texture just right. The mix of fruit, ice and sugar — no dairy or fat — is surprisingly creamy.
Continuing on the Italian dessert tip, Momento packs its cannoli shells to order, as doing so too far ahead of time can render the shells soft and limp. These are made with a traditional Sicilian style of ricotta and sugar that's light and sweet, with chocolate sprinkles and pistachios on each pole. The cinnamon makes its presence known, which I didn't mind, but a co-diner, occasional food writer and self-proclaimed "cannoli hound" Violeta Ikonomova, said she didn't love that element. "Copious cinnamon created a textural issue," she opined.
A prosciutto sandwich made with red pepper, spinach, provolone, and pesto is solid, and though I kind of assumed the coffee portion of the business was a bit of an afterthought and didn't try any drinks, Isaia clarified that the shop opens at 7 a.m. His list of espresso drinks includes affogato — with espresso and gelato — and an iced lavender latte.
The gelateria is Isaia's first restaurant, though he previously worked in wholesale coffee, and, decades ago opened the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, at which time it hosted blues acts. He sold it 1979, when it went more of a rock direction.
He chose to open shop in Corktown after seriously considering the Ilitch entertainment district, but opted for the former because the foot traffic isn't contingent on an event. The interior is clean and small, though there's a room with large windows and outdoor seating on a neighboring sidewalk.