In the culinary battle for Australia's best foodie city, I've always felt that Gelato Messina was a massive feather in Sydney's cap, and one that Melbourne just did not have as good an answer to. For those who have not been fortunate enough to try Messina's exceptional gelato, their aesthetic is best exemplified by the process that goes into the making of their famous Apple Pie Gelato, where pie pastry and apple pie filling are made from scratch, giving their gelato a reality of flavour that simply cannot be found in lesser, essence/extract based ice cream. With an artistic, almost Heston Blumenthalesque drive to discover new wild and wonderful flavours, Messina are probably the best gelateria in Australia, and the opening of a Fitzroy branch in 2013 gave serious leg up in the Sydney/Melbourne intercity rivalry.
Alissa and I frequented the original Darlinghurst store while I was in Sydney for work two years ago, and endured the long queues snaking out the front of the relatively small shop for a taste of ice cream excellence. Thankfully the Fitzroy branch on Smith St features a more open plan layout, with a curving glass display fridge that is a marked improvement for viewing over the straight display of Darlinghurst, with the trademark orange pattern background now a sort of curved bulkhead hanging above.
Another nice touch expanded upon from the original store is the kitchen with the glass display window showing staff making new batches of ice cream before your very eyes.
Another improvement is the crowd-friendly sitting area, with long snaking couches and round tables filling out the right side of the store. Included in the space is a board showing the rotating menu of monthly specials that Messina are famous for.
Which is not to say they are wanting for variety...
... with each display section featuring ten flavours...
...and four display sections...
...that's a whopping 40 flavours to choose from at a time! With so many options, selecting just one or two scoops can be quite a challenge, but the staff are always willing to help you find flavours that you like, ranging from old standby classics like Mango Sorbet, Choc Mint or Salted Caramel to something really off the wall like Watermelon Sorbet with Prosciutto or the infamous Nacho Libre flavour featuring avocado gelato, sweet tomato salsa and corn chips.
Being serious fans of ice cream in general and Messina specifically, Alissa and I decided the Misto was the best way for us to sample a decent spread of what Messina had on offer; five scoops served on a tray for us to share. The five we selected were mostly from their Special menu: Robert Baratheon (Chocolate Gelato with Red Wine Jellies and Fig Custard), So Wrong Its Right (Cream Cheese and Caramel Gelato with White Chocolate Potato Chips in Caramel Sauce), PBH Sandwich (Peanut Butter and Honey Gelato with Vanilla Soaked Brioche & Banana Jam), Nicciolino (White Chocolate and Hazelnut Gelato with Frangelico-soaked Sponge and Giandoia Ganache), alongside Messina classics Apple Pie, and Salted Coconut and Mango.
The first thing to note about Messina is the texture of the gelato itself; even the more straightforward flavours like the Robert Baratheon and the Salted Mango and Coconut reveal just how much better Messina do gelato than the competition, and all feature a smooth and soft texture that is a cut above the average gelato. Alissa has eaten gelato in Rome and says the texture is comparable to the best she had while in the Italian capital. What makes the gelato here all the more special is how considered some of the more complicated flavour combinations are; they truly are masters of making gelati that are truly memorable and wonderful. Our favourite scoop of the day was the Nicciolino; this was the best hazelnut ice cream either of us have had, and the sweet flavour of the Frangelico-soaked sponge really made it. So Wrong Its Right's use of potato chips may sound like the kind of crazed dessert thought up in a munchies-driven haze of marijuana smoke, however it works in the context of the white chocolate and banana jam that it combines with. And where most gelaterias would be content in making the Peanut Butter, Banana and Honey part of the PBH Sandwich equation, Messina go that extra step of adding the vanilla-soaked brioche to complete the experience; ditto the pieces of pie crust in the Apple Pie.
Alissa also went with some relatively standard Messina flavours - Italian Nougat and Bounty, both tasting like highly credible transmogrification of their namesake desserts in gelato form.
Just before leaving Melbourne we made one last visit to Messina, this time with our friends Jake and Tegan. I had hipped them to the fact that their sorbet selection was vegan and they were curious to try this place I've been raving about. Alissa tried the Apple Pie, Version 2 and proclaimed it to be better than the original version, and I enjoyed the decidedly non-vegan Budadaboopi's combination of rockmelon and prosciutto as well as the Pina Colada.
But I was most interested to see what their impression of the sorbets would be, and they were blown away. Choosing the Chocolate Sorbet and a fruitier flavour, Tegan proclaimed; 'you're showing us all the good food in our own city!' as we'd just come from a satisfying lunch at the nearby Shop Ramen, and Jake chipped in, 'oh man, I think I'm gonna have to make side trips to Smith St on the way home now'.
The Verdict: Exceptional
Liquid nitrogen ice cream may be all the rage right now, but I seriously doubt that any other gelateria or ice creamery of any description can truly challenge Messina's dominance as the greatest, most inventive makers of ice cream in Australia. With a constantly rotating roster of specials thought up in their research lab in Sydney, there is always something new to try, but they back up their most wildly ambitious flavours with a mastery of form and texture that make even the most basic flavours taste amazing - and most of their sorbet flavours are vegan friendly, too. With branches in both Sydney or Melbourne it doesn't matter which city you are visiting; this should be high on the foodie East Coast travel itinerary.