In a world of faceless conglomerates, it’s nice to know that some people still take pride in doing things the old way. Stella Luna Gelato Café, in Old Ottawa South, is the realization of a dream for owners Tammy and Alessandro Giuliani. Gelato has been their passion since they met – and immediately fell in love – in Rome. Busy since opening day, and open less than a year, Stella Luna has quickly become an important part of the community. Located on Bank St. near Sunnyside, this slice of Rome invites people to relax and to sample Tammy’s artisanal gelato, European coffees, and panini. During an unseasonably warm week in March, Tammy could only talk with me in the morning, before everything got rolling. And so, I found myself on a bus – watching the sun rise on what would become another record-breakingly warm day – looking forward to speaking with the creator of the best gelato in Ottawa.
Tammy and Alessandro’s vision is evident in every detail of the café. From the custom-built tables and gelato bar, to the rescued church pews along the wall, to the photographs taken in Rome by Alessandro’s cousin, it’s clear that the Giulianis wanted to create a very specific experience for their customers. As I settled in, the chipper staff was getting ready for the day, bringing the pans of gelato out to the freezer case. Tammy was talking with Alessandro before he went to work at the Italian Embassy for the day. A pair of regulars, Rob and Chloe, were in for their customary morning cup of sorbet, and Tammy was discussing new flavours with them to find out if her latest fruit combination was successful. Tammy’s short, red hair seems fitting for such warm weather, unlike the black clothes she and her staff wear. As Tammy and I talked, she kept an eye on everything going on in the café but never once rushed our conversation. She has the quiet confidence and pride of someone whose work is meaningful and fulfilling. The keen intensity of her eyes and willingness to discuss her life surprised me at first, but as we spoke, I realized that her intensity comes from her passion. I began to feel the energy and drive that she and Alessandro instill in everyone they encounter.
You’ve been busy since the day you opened the doors – more so than you expected – and you’ve got a family with the man of your dreams. Do you feel settled? Or is there more you still want to do?
You never know what’s around the corner … but you always have to have a vision. Stella Luna is the birth of a vision that we’ve had for over a decade. This is a huge step and I’d be happy just to plateau for a little bit and try to make this work really well. I think the secret to success is always having that dose of humility and being open to evolving all the time. The dream right now is really just to be able to balance home life with business life, and that’s where our biggest challenge is.
After the day is done and you’re getting ready to go to sleep, what are you thinking about?
I’m thinking, usually, about all the things I did wrong, all the things I would have done differently. I guess that’s part of where the humility comes in. … It’s more than just the gelato, it’s a whole vision that we had to allow people to have a certain experience when they come in. In order for that to be real, you have to be a real person, and a real person has strengths and weaknesses. I think what makes us so well connected to our customers is that we share those weaknesses with them. I blog often about the challenges that we face and I blog as if I were writing a letter to a friend because we do form very strong relationships with the people that come in here.
I was surprised at how inviting the writing is on your website, it’s not a corporate façade; it’s very open.
That’s our whole idea here: this isn’t a corporation, this is a family business. … Because we are in a world that is so fast-paced and so filled with the big-box stores that are very impersonal, people crave that one-on-one [connection]. It’s what I always tell my staff: when a customer comes in the store, you make eye contact and drop whatever you’re doing. … That’s who makes you or breaks you: the people who come in your store, and so there has to be that overwhelming sense of gratitude.
You’ve already built a large collection of community ties: people and businesses that you’ve partnered with, or local musicians that come and play. Was that part of your goal for Stella Luna?
I think it’s who we are. Being in this neighbourhood is coming back to our roots. My grandmother was born and raised in Old Ottawa South, so it’s always been the neighbourhood in Ottawa that we’ve best connected to. When we moved back from Italy, we lived here before we made a choice to move out to the country … to raise the children. It wasn’t until we knew that we were getting ready to open that we moved back.
A lot of what you do seems driven by your passion for life, for the flavours, and for making gelato.
And that’s what the driving force is in anything anybody does. We struggle to do things we don’t have a real connection to. When something is your passion, then it becomes just an extension of your life. It’s not something that you struggle with, it’s something you do and you get excited about it every day that you do it.
What is it about Rome and the passion there, compared to Ottawa?
Ottawa and Rome can never be compared because one would always outshine the other, depending on what you were talking about. There are things about Rome that could never be replaced. There is a romance about Rome, it’s electrically charged but yet it’s very soothing. … There is such a tie to the past in Rome, it’s so ancient. … Canada’s so new, but it provides opportunities for the future; it's a country full of hope. … Ottawa is such a friendly place to live, it’s a place where you can set a goal and accomplish it, and that’s what we were looking for for our children. … If I could make a utopia, I would incorporate things from both.
I’ve had your gelato a few times, and it’s unbelievably good.
Thank you, I’m a product of the teaching and I had some of the finest masters in Italy … who taught me artisan methods. Artisan methods take longer, cost more, and your bottom line is not as big. … You’re not mixing powders. You’re doing things from scratch, right from the basics. But there’s great pride in doing that. With the exception of my amazing equipment, the methods that I’m using are the same methods that have been used for a hundred years.
Do you have a favourite gelato memory?
Yes. I had just arrived in Rome and [Alessandro and I] had the tiniest little apartment. … We didn’t have a couch, we only had a bed, and it was actually two single beds put together with twist-ties to keep them from separating. We used to go out at night on his motorcycle, and we would get a litre of vanilla. We would get into bed, and lean up against the wall – we didn’t have a headboard. We would pour amaretto on top of [the gelato], and sit there and eat it with a spoon right out of the container. We’d reminisce, he’d tell me about things in his childhood and I’d tell him things about mine. Gelato’s an experience.