Pick an aphorism: Small is beautiful. Less is more. A little goes a long way. There are plenty of expressions to praise the merits of minimalism, but few venues can illustrate the point that big things come in small packages more succinctly than Legato Gelato, the deliciously diminutive scoop shop in Edgehill Village.
When it comes to thinking small in the restaurant business, there are many benefits. A short menu is less likely to have ungainly, unsuccessful dishes. A simple recipe is less likely to have extraneous, unappetizing ingredients. There is, in short, less room to mess up. Less rope with which to hang yourself, as they say. But in the case of Legato Gelato's dozen frozen flavors, four Italian sodas, handful of cookies and espresso drinks, owner Terri-Ann Nicholls isn't trying to play things safe. She's simply playing them smart.
The beautiful intelligence of her 600-square-foot jewel box of a store has as much to do with what's not in the mix, so to speak, as what's in it. In Legato's mix, for example, there is nothing artificial. There are no dyes or hormones. There's no egg. (Much of Legato's sorbetto repertoire is vegan-friendly.) In fact, there's not even much cream to speak of.
This is after all, gelato, not ice cream. The traditional Italian frozen confection differs from ice cream in that it is made predominantly of milk and served at a comparatively warm temperature, where the dessert achieves the custardy consistency that you can usually only get by putting ice cream into the microwave for just the right amount of time. Meanwhile, without all the butterfat to coat your tongue, the flavors of the add-ins really pop.
If you ask around for the proper term for a person who makes gelato (Is it a gelatist? A gelaterista?), you might just get this pithy response: An Italian. As it turns out, Nicholls is a native Jamaican who grew up in New York City and came home to Nashville with her husband Berchaun. An emergency room doctor, Berchaun helped bring the business to market, and Terri-Ann's mom, Esmin Miller, often works with her behind the counter.
A gelato-maker (Nicholls cites the term gelato maestro) who employs so few ingredients better make the most of the few inputs she uses. Nicholls built her business around a local milk, from the Gammon family in Orlinda, Tenn. Now she's experimenting with other local dairies to expand her network of suppliers. The keystone ingredient is showcased in Legato Gelato's sweet milk flavor, a riff on the Italian classic fior di latte. Literally translated as "flower of milk," it contains simply milk, sugar and a touch of cream.
The stainless steel pans in Legato's freezer case hold both milk-based gelato and water-based sorbetto — what we call sorbet in these parts. Legato's milk-based flavors include such novelties as lavender-and-goat cheese and such classics as hazelnut and pistachio, made with nut pastes imported from Italy. Don't be looking for anything bright-green. Legato's pistachio relies not on food coloring but on the rich roasted nuttiness of pistachios from Sicily to convey its flavor.
There's also stracciatella, riddled with light flakes of chocolate that simultaneously crack between your teeth and evaporate across your tongue as you savor a cool, creamy bite.
The pan of peanut butter-and-honey was laced with an amber thread of liquid Tru Bee honey from Franklin, and the taste sensation was a dead ringer for the school lunches of childhood, minus the slabs of white bread.
That fine brown-speckled flavor next to it ... that's not vanilla bean. That's coffee. But it's not brown, you say? No, because Nicholls grinds beans from roaster Counter Culture and pours them directly into the pot of warm milk as she's preparing the gelato base. The grounds infuse the milk with their caffeinated earthiness and impart a fine-grained grittiness to the finished product.
Nicholls prepares 12 fresh offerings a day, with flavors such as lemon, banana, mango, grapefruit, Bourbon Madagascar vanilla and pineapple-basil. "Pan by pan, flavor by flavor, day by day," says the self-taught gelato-maker who traveled to Italy, Seattle and North Carolina's Carpigiani Gelato University to learn the tricks of the trade. Such labor of love can be positively athletic when it comes to producing a recipe such as cucumber-lime sorbetto. For a 4-liter batch, Nicholls juices 35 limes and four pounds of cucumbers. The result is a zesty palate-cleanser that tastes like — quelle surprise — cucumbers and lime. And unlike the pistachio gelato, it is green. Because, unlike pistachios, cucumbers and limes are green! Suddenly, it all seems so simple.
Legato Gelato's elegantly simple roster includes a quartet of Italian sodas, made by mixing carbonated water with flavored syrups. Imported from Jo Snow in Chicago, the preservative-free elixirs include grapefruit-rosemary, blueberry-lemon, ginger-passion-fruit and hibiscus-basil-orange-blossom.
Counter Culture beans find their way into a concise list of espresso drinks, including cappuccino and affogato, a decadent hot-and-cold collision of espresso poured over a 2-ounce dollop of gelato. For that combination, Nicholls recommends a traditional milk-based varietal, such as sweet milk, Bourbon vanilla or chocolate. (Be warned: Legato Gelato carries only caffeinated coffee. Also, the shop opens at 11:30 a.m., so don't plan to swing by for your early-morning shot.)
A tight assortment of goodies lines the display case, including Olive & Sinclair chocolates, chocolate-covered nuts (the dark-chocolate chipotle almonds crusted in crunchy brickle were particularly good) and cookies from Dozen, which would make a good take-home treat with a pint of gelato.
Now, enough about the gelato. Let's take a moment to discuss the interior design of the spot that once housed Fat Straw bubble-tea shop. On my visit to Legato, the first two people entering the space made the same wistful comment: "I want my kitchen to look like this."
Pale-blue walls, white subway tiles, black-and-white marble counter tops and schoolhouse lights accent a space that is at once refined and industrial, with acid-washed concrete floors, banged-up barn doors, a reclaimed European biergarten table and an oversized oil painting of an Italian scooter on a unframed wood panel. With the help of architect Brad Norris and the designers at Epiphany Design Studio, Nicholls has created a balance of modern and retro, rustic and chic, European and local that recalls the bygone design store Nest, which once graced the same retail strip. It's the kind of crisp aesthetic that shows up in the pages of shelter magazines. Or on the virtual bulletin boards of Pinterest, where an image of Legato Gelato might appear under a search for "scoop shop" or "exquisite kitchen" — or under a more conceptual hunt for "small spaces, big ideas."
Legato Gelato is open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
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