by Holly Madrigal
It’s a cool 55 degrees inside the aging room of the Pazzo Marco Creamery, and the humidity is about 93%, mimicking the traditional cheese-aging caves of France. It is impossible to tell that a teeming summer forest is alive outside. In here, the smell is hard to describe—almost earthy, but with a pale sweetness, the smell of the wooden spruce planks tinged with the barest hint of natural ammonia. Rounds of hard cheeses in orderly rows fill the shelves to the ceiling. The unique climate of the cheese-aging shed feels almost sacred.
The creamery is located amongst the trees on Fish Rock Road near Gualala. Two small buildings house the entirety of the cheese and gelato operations. Marco was a software engineer in a previous life. He and his partner, Paul, started looking for something creative that would challenge their brains a little bit, as well as something that used local ingredients. Given Marco’s Italian heritage and the proximity of the Stornetta Dairy nearby, they decided that gelato fit the bill.
The duo is largely self-taught. Marco, who speaks Italian, lived in Bologna in 2007 to study at a gelateria. He explains, “Pazzo in Italian means crazy, and Paul affectionately calls me Pazzo. So when we were trying to decide on a name for the company, he said ‘Let’s call it Pazzo Marco!’ I said, ‘No, people will think I’m a crazy person.’ But everyone loved it, so we kept it. But often when we are at market and Paul is standing right next to me, I introduce myself as ‘Marco, and this is Pazzo,’ and he says ‘No, it’s not!’ And I joke, ‘Hey, at least your name is first!’”
Paul and Marco wanted a hyper-local, small-scale focus for their new endeavor. Gelato came first, and they eventually expanded to crafting cheese. “We intentionally scaled our business to be local, and our machine only makes a gallon and a half at a time,” says Marco. Once a week early in the morning, they drive about an hour down Highway 1 to Stornetta Ranch to pick up 500 lbs of milk, filling old-fashioned milk cans, to transform into cheese or gelato. They drive slowly, so as not to jostle the milk on the country roads. (Jostling the milk causes the molecules to get smaller, which results in seeping when the whey is drained off and a much lower final yield.) The milk straight from the cow is about 104º, and it cools to around 88-90º on the drive back from the dairy to their creamery in the woods.
Wondering about the difference between ice cream and gelato? Ice cream uses much more cream, resulting in a higher fat content, and it is whipped to incorporate air. In contrast, gelato is more dense and rich. It is not whipped, which allows for a creamier and more luxurious mouthfeel. “You could say that gelato is better for you!” says Marco. “Gelato is more intense, sorta like Italians” he adds. “If you get a good gelato, it tastes so good you don’t need to eat that much of it. You are satisfied by the third or fourth bite. Ice cream has so much air in it and more fat coating your tongue, so you don’t taste the true flavors. And because it has more fat, it needs more sugar so that you can taste it and it will freeze properly.”
Most gelato makers use a pre-made gelato “base,” but Pazzo Marco makes everything from scratch so they have much more control over the sweetness and flavor. A refractometer allows them to finely tune the amount of sugar in each recipe. “This is where my software brain comes in handy,” Marco laughs. “If we have homegrown strawberries to add to the gelato, I puree them and use the refractometer to gauge the sugar content.” He has developed a spreadsheet for his recipes using the science of flavor. “I plug the brix [sugar levels] of those strawberries into my spreadsheet to see how much sugar is needed. In this way, I maximize the contribution of the sugar from the fruit and not from anything else.”
Pazzo Marco gelato is sold at farmers markets, Surf Market, and Bird Café, among other locales. They have developed over a hundred flavors, making five flavors per week and rotating them in and out with the season. Almond Chai Spice is very popular right now. Liqueur of Amarula (a nut grown in South Africa) is a flavor full of rich caramely depth. “We created a Local Huckleberry, a Balsamic Basil, and I am working on a recipe right now for Honey Lavender and Chevre,” Marco explains. They also do retro stuff like malted milk chocolate, and they make two signature gelatos for Anchor Bay Thai—Matcha Green Tea and a Coconut Pineapple non-dairy sorbetto. Sorbettos don’t include any milk fat, but their Italian gelato machine ensures that it comes out with a silky-smooth texture that is not at all crystalline.
After a few years of making gelato, the two had a fair amount invested in the creamery. They wanted to stay small, and when they started looking around at what else they could do, they settled on cheese. “I love cheese even more than I love gelato,” laughs Marco. His eyes light up, indicating the freshly made cheeses covering every table surface, and he describes the complex alchemy of artisan cheese-making. “Milk is around 87% water and 13% solids,” he explains. “When you make cheese, there is a yield of 10%, so it takes 100 lbs of milk to make 10 lbs of cheese.” They add the milk to the cheesemaking vat, heating to whatever temperature is needed for that particular cheese. They then inoculate it with a lactic acid bacteria, which changes the acid level in the milk. Over a period of about 24 hours, they lower the pH to start forming the cheese. This fends off unwanted bacteria. They add rennet, which interacts with proteins in the milk to form a network of molecules making cheese curds. They use blades to gently slice the curds into small squares, releasing the watery whey, which is drained off. The loose curds are then placed into forms and pressed into shape, removing even more of the liquid, and formed cheese is moved into the aging room to sit for three months to a year, depending on the type of cheese. They are flipped once a week and washed or rubbed with olive oil to help build the rind.
Marco displays the first batch of a new wash-rind cheese, called Serafina, that he is developing—similar to Cowboy Creamery’s Red Hawk, but like an Italian Taleggio. Once the Serafina rind forms, the cheese will be washed in Gowan’s hard apple cider. The alcohol keeps unwanted molds or bacteria at bay, as well as providing a food source for the desired molds. “It’s like gardening, if you think of your milk like your soil. You are tending it to be the perfect balanced microbiome,” explains Marco.
For now, Pazzo Marco, helmed by this dynamic duo, is exactly the size and scale they want to be. The work keeps them in creative and problem-solving mode, and the learning never stops, according to Marco. Pazzo Marco welcomes visitors by appointment and relishes the community that has formed around the Gualala Farmers Market. If you want to taste their delicious—can we say healthy?—creations, stop by and say hello. Tell them Word of Mouth sent you.
Holly Madrigal is a Mendocino County maven who loves to share the delights of our region. She’s fortunate to enjoy her meaningful work at Leadership Mendocino and takes great joy in publishing this magazine.