Believe it or not, the human inclination for frozen desserts dates all the way back to Ancient Roman and Egyptian times. Before electricity had even been a thought, frozen desserts were made out of snow gathered from the mountain tops and kept underground to keep it cold. It wasn’t until 1565 that a Florentinian cook named Bernardo Buontalenti invented the “modern icecream”. Using Bernardo’s new recipe and innovative refrigeration techniques, a Sicilian fisherman named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli created the first ice cream machine. With Italy being the birthplace of both modern ice cream and Angelo Brocato Sr., it is no wonder that Angelo went on to open the most infamous ice cream shop in all of New Orleans.
Angelo Brocato was born in Cefalu, Sicily which is about 90 miles from Palermo. Due to the need to support his family during financially difficult times, he didn’t attend school and instead went right to work. At the age of twelve, he began an apprenticeship at an ice cream shop in Palermo. He and his brother worked in several pastry shops and gelaterias around the city and with time, young Angelo mastered the pastry and gelato trade.
It is important to note that Angelo began making ice cream before you could just pick up a gallon at the local grocery store, before ice cream was shipped across the country for mass consumption. Angelo was learning in a time that meant you had a connection to the dessert, and it was something that could be mastered. At the time, gelato was being made in large barrels and long knives were used to scrape and mix the cream as it froze, much like the “old fashioned” ice cream makers you can buy today. Gelato was poured into loaf-shaped molds and sliced for serving, rather than large pre-made cartons to be scooped. Italian ices were served as soon as they were made which meant they were fresh and soft. Sicilian desserts were made according to the calendar. Baked goods would be served until Easter and cold desserts would be served during summer months.
At the age of 18, Angelo joined the Italian Navy. As soon as he came out of the Navy he began cutting sugar cane on a plantation in Louisiana. As soon as he had made enough money to bring his family over, he moved to New Orleans and opened his first shop in the predominantly Italian area of the French quarter which at the time was on Decatur Street right off of Ursulines. The shop in the quarter stayed open until 1981 which is when they moved to their location on Carrollton in Mid-city.
Even amidst modern technology and commercialized ice cream, Brocato kept the traditional gelato and pastry making alive. Brocato made a rich custard based gelato, a multitude of biscotti, cassata cake filled with ricotta cheese and iced with marzipan, candied fruit and almonds, lemon-filled “grandmother” cake, torta della nonna and marzipan using “pasta reale” (royal paste). Although arduous and extremely time consuming, Brocato would candy his own fruit which consisted of apples, pears, oranges and cherries.
The first ice cream he made was a torroncino, which is a cinnamon and almond ice cream Which is still made and served the same today: in blocks and sliced. Although some of the traditional uses of ice cream and dessert making have died off, Brocato’s has impacted the meaning of ice cream in New Orleans and is and whether you’re heading to Brocato’s for coffee, cookies, spumoni or gelato, it is a timeless social staple for all the true dessert lovers out there.