Nestled between a hair salon and clothing store is a shop that gives off the seductive scent of sugar and fresh cream.
That shop is Carmela, a new parlor that opened its doors last week on Third Street near The Grove. Cute inside and out, the store offers ice cream enthusiasts an alternative selection of flavors than that of a traditional creamery. Co-founders Jessica Mortarotti and Zachary Cox offer organic-based flavors, and it’s obvious they know their stuff when it comes to the ingredients they work with.
For about six years, the married couple sold their product at various farmer’s markets in the city. Little by little, they gained a following for their unique flavors and they eventually set up their first shop in Pasadena. In 2009, Los Angeles Magazine recognized Carmela as a “Best of LA,” and in 2011, LA Weekly named them the “#1 Ice Cream Shop.”
On a sunny weekday, the couple greeted customers at their newly opened Los Angeles store. Curious passersby could choose to sample an assortment of flavors, ranging from salted caramel to Aztec chocolate.
But despite their current success, neither Cox nor Mortarotti envisioned opening Carmela one day. As much as the couple knows how to sell their creations today, a few years ago they just started making ice cream as a spur-of-the-moment idea.
“We were like ‘What do you wanna do?’ ‘I don’t know, let’s start a business,’ Cox said. “‘What business?’ ‘I don’t know — ice cream.’ And we were like ‘Yeah, sounds good.’”
The co-founders knew each other through their fathers, whom attended school together. Both grew up in the suburbs of Berkeley in Northern California; Cox eventually attended USC and Mortarotti later found a job in Los Angeles. Once they decided to open their own ice cream joint, a bigger question loomed: How does one make ice cream, anyway?
The two found out about Penn State University’s “Ice Cream Short Course,” which trained renowned ice cream titans such as the makers of Ben and Jerry’s and Dreyer’s. They decided Mortarotti could take those lessons and come back to Los Angeles with her newfound knowledge.
“We flew her out there, she came back and she was like ‘I have no clue how to make ice cream,’” Cox said.
After that idea flopped, the two decided to try it out on their own.
“We started experimenting at home and taught ourselves, essentially. That’s the main reason we teach lessons at our Pasadena location,” Cox said. “We teach people how to make ice cream with a home mixer.”
They eventually worked out of a kitchen in Downtown Los Angeles, introducing their concoctions at farmers markets. All of the flavors contain organic ingredients, which they often find at these markets. The couple didn’t just want to make good ice cream — they wanted to make something deliciously different.
“Our concept from the beginning was to do rich, creamy ice cream but with garden-inspired flavors,” Cox said. “The first flavor that Jessica worked on was a rose-petal ice cream. We like to take a lot of produce from the farmers markets: Our mint chip ice cream is fresh mint we steeped in milk.
The name Carmela comes from Mortarotti’s grandmother, who instilled in Mortarotti a fascination for cooking at a young age.
“She was a baker, so some of my childhood memories are of me sitting on the counter with her making chocolate cake or whatever,” she said.
The idea of cooking scrumptious food in the kitchen carries on into the decisions Mortarotti makes when conceptualizing her next ice cream flavor. Many of the flavors carry a hidden kick at the end — the lavender honey leaves eaters with a light, sweet aftertaste and the Aztec chocolate, which does not taste spicy right away, but leaves the eater’s throat tingling. The unique combination of flavors transforms a simple scoop of ice cream into something similar to a bite of a delicious meal or a sip of tea (Carmela carries an Earl Grey tea flavor).
“I just tend to look at what kind of flavors work together in other applications, not just necessarily ice cream,” Mortarotti said. “For example, the brown-butter sage flavor … works really well in pasta dishes and other types of food, so it does translate to ice cream. We also do a lot of jam recipes that kind of work with the sorbet recipes. I always want to find ways to combine herbs and spices with fresh, seasonal fruits. That’s a big part of what we do.”
Another part of what they do? They work to retain a strong sense of local community within the shop. At one point, a customer walked in and remarked she recognized the couple from farmers markets and congratulated them on their new location.
With Carmela’s warm, welcoming atmosphere and its decadent desserts it is easy to imagine the shop becoming a Los Angeles institution.
Like Los Angeles itself, though, the shop is always changing; new flavors pop up based on the season and a wealth of other factors. But no matter the choices, Carmela will make you think twice about buying that same-ol’ supermarket ice cream.