Fatamorgana Makes Mexican-Inspired Gelato in L.A.’s Best Ice Cream Neighborhood
There are eight Fatamorgana gelato shops in Rome. There is one Fatamorgana gelato shop outside of Rome. It opened in Los Angeles around the end of last summer, on buzzing Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. And it has solidified Studio City’s status as the best ice cream neighborhood in L.A..
McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams and Salt & Straw are both within two blocks of Fatamorgana, making it easy to stroll from one to another and then another. (Local favorite Sweet Rose Creamery is also in Studio City, but it’s about a mile and a half away from the three-shop freezing frenzy.) Visit this stretch on any given night, and you might see lines at all three scoop shops.
The story of how Fatamorgana was born and eventually made its way to L.A. is unlikely in many ways, but let’s start with why you should visit. The Studio City shop has more than 350 gelato recipes and offers 66 different flavors every day. There are usually at least eight different kinds of chocolate, like Madagascar chocolate, Venezuelan chocolate, Kentucky tobacco chocolate, wasabi chocolate, chocolate with single-malt whiskey, chocolate with smoked black Lapsang Souchong tea and chocolate with coffee and roasted hazelnuts.
There are inspired flavor combinations like walnuts, dates and gorgonzola; honey, fennel and licorice; almond and cardamom; a refreshing and powerful flavor Fatamorgana calls Thought, which is ginger, horseradish, lemon peel and pink grapefruit; and a revitalizing flavor called Panacea, which is ginseng, mint and almond milk.
When I drop by Fatamorgana with L.A./Hong Kong taco king Esdras Ochoa recently, he’s astonished to find gelato made with black zapote, a relatively obscure Mexican fruit.
“Is this place Mexican?” he asks.
It turns out that Katyna Mercenari, who opened the Studio City Fatamorgana with her husband Alessandro Jacchia after the couple moved from Rome, is indeed the Mexican co-proprietor of a gelato shop in L.A.
“I am Mexican, so since we are in L.A. and it’s full of Mexicans, I wanted to do recipes with some of the wonderful fruits in Mexico,” says Mercenari, who goes shopping for produce at downtown’s Grand Central Market. “We’ve done mamey, guanabana, guayaba, zapote, chicozapote and tuna, which is the prickly pear.”
She’s also, not surprisingly, working on a Mexican chocolate flavor.
All of Fatamorgana’s gelato is gluten-free and made without processed ingredients because founder Maria Agnese Spagnuolo has celiac disease and wanted to make ice cream she could eat. Her dream was to become an actress, but her father insisted that she have a backup plan, so she studied food chemistry in college. Her acting career never took off and after a weekend where she found herself battling depression, she wanted to make herself a treat. Creating gluten-free gelato without thickeners, stabilizers or additives changed her life. (All of this history and a lot more, including an explanation of how Fatamorgana refers to “an unusual form of complex superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon, at sea,” is posted inside the Studio City shop.)
Eating Spagnuolo’s gelato changed Mercenari and Jacchia’s life in ways they never anticipated. Mercenari tells me a story about how their marriage was in crisis, and how they started seeing a therapist and went their separate ways after each session. Mercenari would always ride her motorcycle around Rome. One day after couples therapy, about eight years ago, she was on her motorcycle and happened to see a Fatamorgana shop. She went inside.
Tasting the flavors, including Thought and all the chocolate, stunned her. Soon, she and her husband would serve Fatamorgana gelato at dinner parties in their home. It became the only gelato they would eat.
One day, Jacchia was playing in a golf tournament and mentioned that he needed to go buy gelato for a dinner party and that this gelato was unlike any other gelato in Rome. One of the strangers in the tournament happened to be a Fatamorgana owner, and this ultimately led to Jacchia securing a franchise agreement and opening Fatamorgana in L.A.
“You know, it was meant to be, maybe,” Mercenari says.
The couple were already planning a move to California. They intended to retire. Jacchia previously worked as a television producer, and Mercenari was a costume designer who also organized events. They had no plans to get into the food business before they fell in love with Fatamorgana’s gelato.
Now they’re planning to open more Fatamorganas around L.A.
“We want 10,” Mercenari says.
“We were planning to retire,” Jacchia says and laughs. “And then we decided it was absolutely necessary to pull our sleeves up and get into battle. And now our objective is to establish the brand in this city by opening a few other establishments.”
The Westside could be next. They might buy a ice cream truck, as well. Meanwhile, Jacchia also has a gig in L.A. teaching television at a university. On the Saturday I visit, a group of his students are eating gelato in the shop while I speak to Mercenari.
I ask Mercenari if she’s really saying that Fatamorgana helped save her marriage.
“Yeah,” she says. “You can say that. It’s a nice story. It’s incredible, and that’s the true story.”
Jacchia picked Studio City for their gelato shop because he wanted a neighborhood that has lots of families as well as people who’ve traveled the world and appreciate different flavors.
“As I settled on this location, I realized it was in the ice cream triangle with Salt & Straw and McConnell’s,” he says. “Then I said, you know what, that’s really good -- because if we can make it here, it’s going to be very strong and very powerful.”
There’s definitely a demand for all three shops.
McConnell’s, which is based in Santa Barbara, serves wonderfully dense, stabilizer-free ice cream made with milk from its own dairy. McConnell’s excels at seasonal flavors: Its winter citrus collection includes chocolate orange blossom, key lime pie, vanilla grapefruit and Eureka lemon with marionberries.
Salt & Straw, which is based in Portland but has a history of collaborating on flavors with L.A. chefs like Roy Choi and Michael Voltaggio, attracts big crowds for its creativity. Salt & Straw’s L.A. flavors include avocado with Oaxacan chocolate fudge as well as black olive brittle with goat cheese. A new vegan collection includes Donut Friend’s MC5 Spice, which combines Salt & Straw’s own blend of Chinese five-spice with coconut ice cream, vegan white chocolate bark, toasted macadamia nuts and toasted donut pieces.
One of the many reasons Fatamorgana, McConnell’s and Salt & Straw are popular is that they’re constantly busy working on new flavors. There’s always a good chance you’ll see something you haven’t tried before when you come by. That’s why sample spoons exist.
The experience, in fact, isn’t so unlike Mercenari’s visits to Fatamorgana in Rome years ago.
“I saw these flavors, and they were so original,” she says. “I tasted the flavors and I was crazy about them. I brought my husband, and we became addicts of this gelato. All the ice cream places and gelato places do stranger flavors now. But eight years ago, Maria was really a person who was doing something new. I didn’t know anything [about how it was made]. I just thought it was delicious and different from everything I ate before.”
Fatamorgana, 12021 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818-606-0273
McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, 12073 Ventura Pl., Studio City, 818-308-7789
Salt & Straw, 12180 1/2 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818-358-2890