News Column

Couple combines love of color, texture, flavor in 'Little Bee's Italian Ice'

June 11, 2014

By Marta Hepler Drahos, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

June 11--SUTTONS BAY -- Tony Pazzi and Jennifer Giesler were living in Chicago when they decided to make a break for northern Michigan.

"We just kind of really were tired of the grind of the cities and we wanted to be in a beautiful place," said Pazzi, adding that the couple also has lived in Seattle and Kansas City, Mo. "We're struggling artists so we figured we might as well be struggling artists in a beautiful place."

There was just one problem: how to weather the seasonal nature of their adopted region.

The couple came up with a plan that combined their love of color and texture with their love of flavor. Now they're both artists and artisans as owners of Little Bee's Italian Ice. The cozy business in downtown Suttons Bay is part "ice cream" parlor and part art gallery.

"We love gelato, we love Italian ice and sorbet. And we wanted to have something that's different from the dairy places," Pazzi said. "We also wanted a job that would complement who we are: the decoration, the presentation, the way we scoop the gelato and put it all together.

"The other thing is we like it that it's a seasonal thing, so we can make art in the winter."

The couple opened in June 2011 with classic fruit-based Italian ice and sorbet and gradually added gelato in response to customer requests. They named their business after Pazzi's Italian grandmother, Berlinda, who died in March at age 102.

Giesler, a painter, created their soft, vintage-look logo from a childhood portrait of "Little Bee" with a large bow in her hair.

"The thing with her is she was such a sweet lady, and kind and nice, and she had a great sense of humor. She represents who we want to be, too," Pazzi said. "And it encompasses who we are and what we try to do here. She worked hard her whole life. Her father was a coal miner. She was a nurse's aide in World War II."

The business also is a nod to Pazzi's Italian grandfather, who, as a boy, sold ice cream from a horse-pulled cart in the New Mexico coal-mining town where he met Pazzi's grandmother.

Pazzi and Giesler use modern-day freezers to craft their Italian ice cream. But their classic treats take many customers -- both locals and visitors -- back to their childhoods.

"Everything we do is based on what we knew as children," said Pazzi, who added Neopolitan gelato to the menu because it's something his grandmother always kept on hand.

Giesler said the couple learned by trial and error. Their first "coffee" gelato, made with locally-roasted Higher Grounds coffee, came out "a little strong."

"We wanted it to be very flavorful but we didn't want to keep people up for three days," she said.

Now coffee is one of their most popular "mix and match" flavors, along with pistachio, double chocolate, creamy vanilla, strawberry with local berries and salted caramel with house-made caramel. The gelato is made with half the butter of American ice cream and is churned slower, Pazzi said.

Ices include lemon, watermelon and tart cherry; sorbets -- made with water, local fruit, when available, and cane sugar in carefully balanced amounts -- include mango, peach and raspberry pomegranate "for a little tang."

"We're constantly trying to perfect them and make them better," said Pazzi, adding that the couple tries to keep the sugar content as low as possible so it won't take away from the flavor of the fruit.

Their formula hits the sweet spot with customers, whose Facebook, TripAdvisor and guest book comments run the gamut from, "I love Mango Tango," to "Brava -- Il gelato È buonissimo!"

A large board offers suggestions for "combinations" like "Cafe Mocha" (coffee and chocolate gelatos) and "Creamsicle" (mango sorbet and creamy vanilla gelato). It also lists floats and specialty drinks using coffee, tea, Perrier and natural sodas in old-fashioned flavors like root beer, cream soda and ginger beer. Lemon Italian ice and iced tea make an "Arnold Palmer," creamy vanilla gelato and Vernor's ginger ale make a "Boston Cooler."

The parlor reflects the couple's artistic touches, from the painted gray tongue-and-groove counters with white beadboard trim to the white cottage-style cabinets that display Pazzi's figurative sculpture in clay and porcelain and Giesler's oil, watercolor and pen-and-ink landscapes of local scenery. Sliding doors from an old Chicago warehouse separate the dining room-gallery from the kitchen, where the couple whip up heir treats in small, four-quart batches every day.

"It is a little confusing because you're not expecting to see art," Giesler said -- the couple met in 1999 at the Kansas City Art Institute. "But I think some people appreciate the blend."

Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., becoming 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. later in the season. But the couple and their handful of helpers also plan to take Little Bee's on the road. Look for their sunny yellow cargo trike loaded up with treats at places like the Suttons Bay Farmers Market and the Bay Theatre.


(c)2014 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

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Source: Record-Eagle, The (Traverse City, MI)

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