426 Main St., East Haven, (203) 203 691-7367, polopaloilgelatoitaliano.com
On a stretch of Main Street in East Haven, Polo Palo stands out from the other storefronts. It's not the color scheme, which matches the tricolor apizza joints and pastry shops in the historically Italian area. Instead, it's the slick, continental looks: clean plate glass windows frame the gleaming appliances inside. While Polo Palo pays homage to a history of peninsular desserts, this is not your nonni's gelato shop.
Under a display case at the front of the store are two dozen flavors of gelati, arranged in a palette ranging from cream to blood red. Rather than tubs, though, each flavor is a stack of identical forms, molded into a popsicle and pierced with a wooden handle. Yes, this is gelato on a stick.
Behind this innovation is an emerging franchise. Polo Palo is an imprint of Europe's Fruendi chain of upmarket fast-cafes, branded for the Western Hemisphere. East Haven's Polo Palo is the first of its kind in the region, soon to be joined by a sister shop in Caracas. To ensure quality and consistency, 100 percent of the shop's equipment was delivered from Italy, and all of its gelato ingredients are imported as well.
It's a winning model. Choosing a gelato can be daunting, thanks to the enormous variety. Polo Palo boasts 500 distinct flavors of gelato, prepared and served in daily rotation. There are familiar (if gourmet) varieties, like mango and pistachio, as well as imports like gianduia, croccantino al rhum, and even tomate de arbol, a tangy Colombian fruit that still exists in relative obscurity in the U.S. There is also vanilla. Then, of course, there are the toppings. Polo Palo offers three dipping sauces along with six crumbled toppings, from hazelnuts to Oreos. Choose your flavors wisely, as gilding the lily like this can be either revelatory or complete overkill.
After a quick sampling, one thing becomes clear: Polo Palo is shockingly good. Panna cotta gelato, dipped in dark chocolate and encrusted with chopped pistachios, brings to mind a cannoli's frozen cousin. The taste of simmered heavy cream in this Piedmontese dish actually shone through, and never had to compete with sugar. The blackberry and mango varieties are true-to-taste as well, as if someone had pulped the fruit straight into a mold. Actually, this is close to the ingredient profile for most flavors. There is no additional sugar added to any of the fruit gelati, and no high-fructose corn syrup to be found in anything Polo Palo sells.
In a sea of pop-up frozen yogurt chains and gimmicky ice cream parlors (I'm looking at you, Cold Stone), Polo Palo distinguishes itself. Rather than marketing itself on novelty, the shop focuses on not ruining a good thing, which means sourcing directly. Even the decision to slap the product on a stick seems more like a design improvement than an intentional quirk. Oh, and this all comes surprisingly cheap. Note to the skeptical: consider investing $2.50 in changing your ice-cream paradigm.