On a recent sweltering midsummer's afternoon, midweek, closer to dinner time than lunch, Santa Fe's newest espresso joint, Ecco, is hoppin.' And, although the bright, welcoming space is pumping out an intoxicating distillation of black caffeinated aromas, it isn't just the java that's packing "em in. The clientele is a widely varied crowd, from mothers with small children and whole families to tourist couples and packs of savvy teenagers, each holding a dish of what looks like ice cream. But it's not.
It's the low-fat gourmet Italian alternative, called gelato (meaning "frozen") and, according to 26-year-old owner Matt Durkovich, there's a world of difference between the two.
"Ice cream and gelato are made with exactly the same ingredients," he explains, "but ice cream is mostly heavy cream with a little bit of whole milk, and it's 40 percent air by volume. Gelato, on the other hand, is mostly whole milk with a little heavy cream and it's only 15 or 20 percent air, so it's denser and creamier as a result."
Presiding over the gelato case, Matt offers his customers free samples of any of his flavors, dipping his metal spatula in and out of the containers of happy-colored gelato with panache and flair, filling each sexy pink or purple fluted-edge dish in turn and presenting it, along with a tiny pink plastic spoon, with a flourish. The young Audrey Hepburn would've been right at home here.
"Our most traditional Italian flavors are three of our bestsellers," Matt tells me, so I decide to try all three. The chocolate hazelnut is a subtle blend studded with chunks of nut; the pistachio is pungent and clean; and the stracciatella is similar to chocolate chip, with ribbons of dark chocolate broken up when served. Each one's a winner, so I try a few more-the refreshingly eye-opening ginger and the lavender with honey, fragrantly flirtatious. There are so many to choose from, each strange and wonderful-sounding: strawberry habañero, green tea, balsamic and olive oil, plum and sake. Typically, customers can order several flavors in one dish, combining such exotics as sesame cinnamon, which Matt describes as being akin to baklava, with midori melon, light and crisp, almost a sorbetto.
Matt's not Italian-in fact, he grew up in Albuquerque-so how's he know so much about gelato? "I studied with Luciano Ferrari, who's one of the best," he tells me.
In Italy? "No, at Frozen Dessert University in Islip, outside New York City."
Is this a joke? "I know, it sounds like Burger College or something, but it's true. They teach the full-on hot process where we repasteurize the milk, reheating it to 145 degrees and then cooling and aging it. The first gelato I ever tried was the first batch I made."
In Santa Fe, where Matt sees too many of his generation with nothing much to pull people together as a group, Ecco, meaning "Behold" or "Here it is" in Italian, is already living up to its name. "We had a night in here recently where the store was full at 10:00 on a Friday night. That doesn't usually happen unless it's a bar, and this was a blend of all ages, including kids."
With a background in sales, Matt likes to take care of people and exceed their expectations. "We underpromote," he says, "and overdeliver."
Ecco is located at 105 East Marcy Street in Santa Fe. 505.986.9778. Monday-Thursday 7:15am to 8pm, Friday until 11pm. Saturday 8:15am to 11pm, Sunday until 5pm.