The temperature in the parking lot of the Dolce Vita Gelato factory was pushing 110 degrees on a recent Thursday afternoon. Inside, however, was a winter wonderland of frozen deliciousness. In the mildly air-conditioned main room, chef Luciano Pellegrini and his staff were churning out creamy vats of mango-peach sorbet and peanut butter gelato. A walk into the deep-freeze storage room revealed dozens of other flavors. Knowing my love of good beer, my host asked someone to grab me samples of his two new beer-infused gelati, one made with Blue Moon, the other with Guinness. It took 15 minutes for them to warm enough for me to enjoy their creamy texture, but each was delicious: one with a sharp, citrusy bite, the other with a deep stout flavor.
In fact, everything I sampled during my tour was delicious. But I couldn’t help but find the entire experience ironic. I spent more than a decade dining at the chef’s former place of employment, the greatly missed Valentino in the Venetian, where he wowed me with everything from wild boar ragout and white-truffle risotto to lamb’s brain ravioli. In the final edition of my book Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants, I successfully lobbied my co-authors to declare Valentino one of the Top 10 restaurants in Las Vegas. Yet up to this point, I can’t recall any of the desserts he’s ever served me.
That’s probably because I’m generally not big on desserts, and Pellegrini isn’t a pastry chef. He’s a James Beard Award winner who spent 28 years working for Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino Group, including 14 years as executive chef at Valentino. It was there that he first entered into the gelato biz in 2010.
“The gelato thing started out as a pet project,” he explains. “The pastry chef at the time [Alessandro Stoppa] was bored and said, ‘Can we make gelato?’ Because Stefano Ripamonti, who owned [the Venetian coffee bar] Espressamente, was a friend, and he wanted to propose making him gelato.”
The products they created for Ripamonti were a hit, and before long they were supplying gelato to other restaurants throughout the Valley. By the time the restaurant closed its doors late last year, the desserts were a quarter-million-dollar-a-year business, and Pellegrini wasn’t about to let it slip away. He bought the equipment from his old boss and set up his own shop with a business partner.
“It was one of the busiest five-day stretches of my life,” the chef recalls of Dolce Vita’s opening. “Valentino closed November 4, 2013, a Monday. On that Saturday we did the last gelato production at Valentino. We disconnected the machines on Sunday, rented a truck and I picked everything up, brought it [to the new location] and went back to work. On Monday we reconnected all the machines, and had inspections from the health department and the Nevada Dairy Commission. And then on Tuesday, we started production.”
Less than a year later, the company is now supplying desserts for Espressamente, Zio Gelato and Tao in the Venetian; the Palazzo’s Lavo; Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet; the Linq pizza shop Flour & Barley; and popular off-Strip spots such as Ferraro’s, Marche Bacchus and Paymon’s.
Despite his sweet success, the chef seems determined to get back into a restaurant kitchen. “I call this my one-year break,” he says, “which wasn’t a break, because I’m still working my tail off.” But he promises that whatever he does next, Dolce Vita’s 90-plus flavors of gelato and sorbet will keep flowing.