Dolcezza gelato master Robb Duncan chills out

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Entertainment,Alexandra Greeley

If you have a sweet tooth and love the soothing chill of a scoop of ice cream, you might want to take over Robb Duncan's job. As founder, recipe developer, gelato taster and business mogul extraordinaire, this young man can look over the past decade and smile with pleasure: He has married his soul mate, he has two young children, and he has opened and developed a fast-growing gelato business in the D.C. area. The name? Dolcezza, which translates as "Sweetness."

A native of Portland, Ore., Duncan joined his dad, a history teacher focused on Native American life, at conferences in Brazil near the Amazon River. There the young man learned how local natives used plants for flavor infusions in their cooking. While at one of the conferences, Duncan met a young Argentine woman named Violeta. They struck up a friendship and kept in touch after he returned to Portland and his job as a software developer. "I planned to quit my job," he says, "and I returned to the Amazon region again, meeting up with Violeta. ... We really connected very deeply."

After the conference, the pair took an idyllic two-week boat trip down the river and later traveled along the coast of Brazil for two months. He returned to Argentina with her, and on the fifth day of his visit the couple went to a local gelato shop, Freddos, near her home. "It was the best frozen anything I have ever had," he says. "That was when our business was born."

Moving from Oregon to Buenos Aires, Duncan and then-fiancee Violeta delved into the local arts community. But when Argentina's economic crisis hit, the couple moved to the United States, settling in the D.C. area. After several trips to Buenos Aires, they decided to start a gelato business in the area because at the time, no handmade artisanal gelato store operated in town. "We jumped right in," he says, and the couple made small batches at home.

If you go
Dolcezza
» Where: 1560 Wisconsin Ave. NW
» Info: 202-333-4646; dolcezzagelato.com
» Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday

Duncan's in-laws decided to help the couple and took a one-week course in Buenos Aires on making gelato. Then they came to D.C. and helped the couple open their first shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown -- with their most popular flavor being dulce de leche. Duncan admits that neither he or his wife had had any formal business training, much less any experience in making gelato. When they started, he says, they had no clue what they were doing. "We were starting from zero," he says. "We were defining ourselves."

From complete novices to seasoned professionals, Duncan and his wife not only have four gelato stores (Bethesda, Georgetown, Dupont Circle and the Mosaic District in Fairfax), their product is carried in many of the city's top-tier restaurants. In addition, they also have developed a line of gelato that mirrors their eclectic view of life: Flavors include such singularly unusual flavors as lemon-opal basil, avocado-honey-orange and sweet potato-pecan praline. All gelatos are made from scratch using freshly delivered cream and milk from the Perrydell Farm in York, Pa.

Indeed, the couple are now a regular presence at several city farmers markets and insist on buying such ingredients as eggs, cheese, seasonal produce and herbs from their farming compatriots. "We use anything that grows here," he says. "Only the best fruit, vegetables, cheese and herbs that are in season." All this, says Duncan, has been something of a surprise to the couple.

Q&A

What is your comfort food?

Roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?

I love my cookbooks, I love the "Ad Hoc at Home" by Thomas Keller, and I also love "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" [by Judy Rogers], which is where my roast chicken recipe came from.

What is your favorite ingredient?

Sicilian blood oranges, which are around for only two months -- probably see them from March to May. These have the most exquisite balance of sweetness and bitterness.

Which is your favorite restaurant?

My wife and I have kids, so it is our super neighborhood restaurant, Buck's Fishing & Camping. ... We go there once a month at least.

What's in your fridge?

I have miso-marinated black cod with fresh ginger, eco-friendly prosciutto in the country, porchetta, chickens, pickles, we have a full, full fridge, plus homemade chicken stock. It is food as medicine.

Recipe:

Lemon-opal basil gelato

Duncan notes the following: "If you really want this flavor to pop, go to your local farmers market anytime from May through October and buy your opal basil. I swear by my farmer friend Zach Lester, aka my 'Biblical Vegetable Grower,' who grows our opal basil."

Also, don't juice the lemons until you are ready to produce this flavor. This way you will get a fresh, balanced citrus flavor from the fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Makes 8 to 10 servings

2 cups water

1 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup opal basil leaves

Make your simple syrup by mixing the water and sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved. Juice the lemons and strain out any pulp (pulp will make it too bitter) and mix with the simple syrup. Wash the opal basil, chop and mix together with the simple syrup and lemon juice mixture. Let opal basil infuse for 30 minutes and then strain out. Pour into ice cream machine, process, and enjoy this exquisite sorbetto.

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Author:

Alexandra Greeley

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner