Chef on the Grill: Jon Snyder

Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

Before there was Grom or Van Leeuwen, there was il Laboratorio del Gelato, and before il Laboratorio there was Ciao Bella. Native New Yorker Jon Snyder launched them both. In two weeks, ice-cream season or not, he’s relocating il Laboratorio to a swanky new storefront six times the size of its original Orchard Street plant (188 Ludlow St., at Houston St.; 212-343-9922). Along with more production space, there will be seats, later hours (midnight on weekends), and serious coffee, plus a granita inspired by Rome’s Caffè Sant’Eustachio. Here, Snyder gives us the scoop on his new digs and attempts to answer the big questions, like the difference between ice cream and gelato, and where he stands on frozen yogurt.

You’ve traded one landmark Lower East Side neighbor (the Tenement Museum) for another (Katz’s Delicatessen). What do you like about this neighborhood?
I liked the location by the museum; it gets a nice mix of tourists and locals. And I love the great food history with places like Katz’s and Russ & Daughters. We just moved my mom into an apartment in the same building as the new store. She helps out a lot—stemming the herbs, like lavender and mint, and she writes out all the labels. My mom has beautiful handwriting, maybe because she’s from the pre-computer generation.

Can you tell us a little about the new space?
It’s very open, a bit of a showroom so the public can see what we do, and a more comfortable space for chefs to come visit. There will be bench seating, enough for about fifteen people. No tables.

How many flavors will you serve?
We have twenty now that get rotated, and in the new place it will be 48.

How has the New York ice-cream scene changed since you got into the business?
I started Ciao Bella in 1983, when I was 19, and sold it 21 years ago. At that time the dollar was strong, and a lot of people were traveling to Europe. They’d come back with a taste for the gelato they’d had in Italy. That’s what happened to me. In the last five or ten years there’s definitely been a lot more interest in really good ice cream, in keeping with the interest in local, artisanal foods in general.

Is gelato ice cream?
One hundred per cent. Gelato is simply the Italian word for ice cream. I had a bit of a fight with a chef once about this. She said it had to be one or the other, but I don’t agree.

How do you define it?
It’s not heavy, and somewhat low in butterfat, usually around 3 to 10 percent. The genius of the Italian method is that you use less fat, so you can eat more of it. Gelato is slowly churned and dense, and has a great consistency. Texture is so important for me.

What’s your favorite flavor?
I can’t answer that, but I will say I’m a big chocolate fan. I really love the mocha—dark chocolate with a big boost of espresso.

You’ll also have an espresso bar?
We’re getting a great machine—a Synesso from Seattle. Café Grumpy will roast all of our beans, for the bar and for our espresso gelato, plus an espresso granita, which I’ve been interested in for a while.

In light of recent competition, have you considered alternate-sales methods and delivery systems, like trucks or satellite carts at parks or the Brooklyn Flea—or a membership club, like MilkMade?
Nope. We’ve had a model for eight years focusing on NYC’s culinary community, and that doesn’t need to change.

What do you think about the frozen-yogurt craze?
I’m a fan of anything cold, sweet, and frozen. I’ve been known to go to Red Mango every now and again. We make a yogurt-flavored gelato, a buttermilk. It has a yogurtness, a sourness to it.

Any opinion on your competitors—Grom and such?
I’ve had some good stuff at L’Arte del Gelato. The problem with Grom is that they source their mixes and everything from Italy, which you end up paying for. And I think ice cream is better closer to the cow.

Chef on the Grill: Jon Snyder