t’s high noon in Studio City. I’ve spent nearly ninety minutes in traffic – the price one must routinely pay when traveling from Orange County to the cusp of the San Fernando Valley when the sun is still out. I step inside Fatamorgana, the Rome-based gelato shop that’s been honing a cult following here since opening its doors last September. I’m in dire need of refreshment. Fortunately, Fatamorgana Head Gelato Maker, Maryana Humenchuk has my back.
“What would you like to try?” she says, gesturing to about a dozen chocolate-colored troughs. One flavor instantly seizes my vision.
“What’s this Kentucky tobacco chocolate flavor about?” I ask. Her bright, charming smile informs me I’ve said some magic words.
“Let’s get you a taste!” she says, scooping a tiny ripple upon a plastic spoon. The gelato is creamy, the chocolate luscious. Then it hits – a nuanced burst of tobacco tickles the back of my throat. There’s a touch of umami and a spark of heat, but neither overwhelm. It’s trippy and delicious.
I sample a few more of their 66 options, including a few more esoteric treats like tomato sorbet, pear and gorgonzola, and whiskey-infused chocolate. They aren’t funky for funk’s sake. They’re extraordinary expressions of the flavors advertised, packaged in unmistakable gelato form. Thoughts of my traffic-laden drive dissipate through the air.
Under Maryana’s guidance, Fatamorgana’s flavors are exquisite because they’re a product of scientific-like composition. Like the other locations in Rome, the Studio City address houses a lab where new flavors are concocted and perfected. The lab is a wonderland of natural and organic ingredients, ranging from classic vanilla bean to nuts culled from Italy’s Piedmonte region. There is nary a thickening or stabilizing agent in sight. This philosophy of keeping it real stems directly from Fatamorgana founder Maria Agnese Spagnuolo, a former Italian actress whose ongoing bout with celiac disease compelled her to create gluten-free gelato with all-natural ingredients. This initial necessity dovetails quite nicely with the store’s desire to use its lab to its fullest capacity. “Because we’re a gluten-free gelato, we naturally have to divest from thickeners and artificial additives,” explains Alessandro Jacchia, who owns the Studio City location with wife Katyna Mercenari. “This is a good thing for us because it helps inspire our creativity. It’s allowed us to play around with a wider range of real ingredients, including things we might not have otherwise tried.”
He’s not kidding. Some of Fatamorgana’s epicurean mischief involves unorthodox elements such as tobacco and whiskey, but they also include Mexican ingredients such as chamoy, mamey, and guanabana – a deliberate nod to L.A.’s rich Mexican culture and Mercenari’s Mexican heritage. Regardless of ingredients used, Jacchia stresses the importance of using them in the correct manner. “Some places will say they use natural ingredients, but that doesn’t mean what they’re making is all-natural,” Jacchia explains. “If they add a slice of fruit on top of a scoop of gelato, that slice may be the only natural ingredient used. We don’t want to do that. We started out as gluten-free and all-natural by necessity because of Maria. Now, it’s by choice, and people really appreciate what we’re doing. Since we opened, we’ve had gluten-free customers tell us we’re allowing them to enjoy things they haven’t been able to have in years, like cones.”
Jacchia and Mercenari’s path to becoming American stewards of Fatamorgana’s gluten-free, all-natural treats contains a touch of serendipity reserved for a film script – fitting, considering Jacchia was a producer in the Italian entertainment industry for 34 years. “I’m in this golf tournament in Rome,” he states, “and I had started talking about how I needed to go by Fatamorgana for a party later that night, and that it had to be Fatamorgana because it was so great. A guy hears me and asks me if I really liked Fatamorgana that much, and I said yes. It turns out the guy was Maria Agnese Spagnuolo’s husband. We get to talking, and he says they were looking at opening a shop in Los Angeles. We were planning to move from Italy to L.A. at the time, and so our conversation became this opportunity to take the gelato we loved with us.”
This begs the question: Why did they pick Studio City, and not a more prominent spot in, say, West Hollywood or Silver Lake, where a focus on gluten-free, all-natural gelato would be a slam dunk? While part of the rationale may be logistics – Jacchia is also a professor at relatively nearby CSU Northridge – the answer was primarily a decision that may look like a lab-worthy experiment. “We deliberately chose a spot that put us within 500 yards of two very popular ice cream shops, Salt & Straw and McConnell’s,” he says. “We did that because we thought, if we could survive next to those giants, we knew we were doing things right.”
They’ve skipped past the surviving part of the strategy and advanced straight to thriving. Jacchia is quick to point to Humenchuk as a prominent reason for Fatamorgana’s success. The diminutive Humenchuk has been critical to the success of the shop from front to back, from tracking the ingredients in the lab to making sure each gelato produced meets the exacting standards Maria would expect from her renowned Roman shops. “Maryana is a pillar of the company,” Jacchia gushes. “She takes care of everything in the store – making the gelato, the machines, the staff, everything. She could probably do my job better than I can if she wanted.”
Humenchuk knows how to treat customers well. Her knowledge as gelato maker helps me decide on eight scoops of deliciousness that she packs into a compact Styrofoam container. I nearly go with the pear and gorgonzola, but the carrot cake proves too luscious to pass up. I fit the package snugly in the portable cooler I brought along and walk away very pleased. It’s one thing to tell the family the gelato was worth the drive. It’s another thing entirely to provide them with demonstrative proof.