It’s a surprisingly mild, but unsurprisingly grey morning in November – not the kind of weather you’d typically associate with eating ice cream. Nevertheless I’m on my way to the opening of a new gelato shop and cafe – Unico Gelato and Caffe – in Bromley, Kent and it involves at least an hour of driving.
While I’ve been known to go more than the extra mile for excellent ice cream, that’s not the only draw. I’m also just a little bit curious to meet Unico’s owner and co-founder, former Chelsea footballing legend Gianfranco Zola.
When I tell my 13 year-old football-mad son (Man United, sorry!) that I’m meeting Zola, his immediate response is: “back of the heel, mid-air goal from a corner against Norwich City, 2002 FA Cup final”, which I take to mean he’s very impressed – he’s a bit of a football geek like that. I asked for a translation but it was clear this effort had used up his allotted ration of words for the day and he quickly returned to being his normal uncommunicative teenage self. So I turned to Google.
Gianfranco Zola OBE began his playing career in Italy before moving to Chelsea in 1996 where he helped the team win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Supercup, two FA Cups, the League Cup and the Community Shield. He was voted Chelsea’s greatest ever player in 2003. Capped 35 times for his home country Italy, he appeared at the 1994 World Cup and Euro 1996. In total he played 628 games and scored 193 goals. He hung up his boots in 2005 and began his coaching career a year later, first managing West Ham United, then Watford and Italian side Cagliari before moving to Al Arabi in Qatar.
Zola apparently once said of his fellow Italians that “football is all their life is” and with a biography such as his, you can understand why. Well, he’s clearly had something of an epiphany since then. If Unico is anything to go by – life’s certainly all about gelato too.
There’s quite a crowd and a buzz by the time I step through the glass door, windswept and cold, to be greeted by a scrum of journalists, bloggers and PR people, more akin to a rugby match than a football field. But there in the centre of the room is Zola, smiling, shaking hands, and radiating a warmth that makes me slightly concerned the gelato might melt. Not to worry, the PR people say, gelato needs to be served slightly warmer than regular ice cream. So, that’s alright then.
On first inspection, today’s guests seem to be divided into those who are either a little bit crazy about ice cream and those who are absolutely nuts about football. You can tell the football fans instantly – there are audible gasps as some of Zola’s friends and former Blues arrive, namely footballing heroes Roberto di Matteo, Dennis Wise and Andriy Shevchenko.
Rather helpfully I’m sitting next to Adam Newson (@AdamNewson_Wat), the Watford FC reporter for the Watford Observer, who kindly fills me in on who’s who. It took Adam 1.5 hours to get here this morning – see what I mean, nuts about football. He wants to ask why Zola left Watford FC (his story is in today’s edition of the WO). I’m more interested in what Zola’s favourite ice cream is. What’s clear is that by the end of the morning – football or ice cream fan – after hearing Gianfranco talk passionately about his latest venture, we’re all just a little bit crazy about both.
Gianfranco jokes that he started Unico with his friends, Elena Manfroni and Leonardo Ragazzi, because they grew fed up of having to go back to Italy to get good ice cream. Having your own gelataria on your doorstep certainly saves on air fares. Zola chose Bromley because he’s a local – he lives “just round the corner” and he’s really passionate about ice cream. Why? “Because I am a big kid. Ice cream is for kids and big kids!” he smiles.
Whether you’re a homesick Italian or just want to pretend you’re anywhere but Britain on a grey November morning, Unico is a little sunny slice of Italy on the corner of Bromley High Street. The vibe is friendly and laid back as you’d expect, the interior is clean and warm and well designed.
And then there’s the gelato. And here I’m going to adopt hushed and reverent tones: it’s good, very very good. Like, a little bowl of heaven good.
There’s quite a staggering selection: the decadent Tortino (chocolate ice cream with chunks of zabaglione chocolate cake); Nettuno (almond custard gelato with crumbled amaretto biscuits and caramelised almond); Stracciatella (cream-based gelato infused with shards of fine chocolate) as well as the simpler flavours of lemon, strawberry, coconut, peach and pear, to name a few.
I tried Pistacchio made with Sicilian pistachios, and Magic Box a delicious salty-sweet gelato of pine nut custard and toasted pine nuts. Definitely a favourite and I later found out a favourite of Zola’s (see, I got the answer to my question), along with Bacio (chocolate-hazelnut gelato with whole crunchy hazelnuts).
Zola says that Unico prides itself on quality. All the ice cream and cakes are made fresh every day. And here’s something I didn’t know. There is a very real difference between ice cream and gelato, one that will make you feel a little bit better about letting your kids have this as a treat.
Unlike commercially produced ice creams, gelato is made using more milk than cream and so has less fat. It also tends not to use egg yolks unless for a specific flavour. Because there’s less fat, gelato has a more intense flavour (fat tends to deaden taste), and therefore needs less sugar and other additives. Look on the ingredients list of most ice creams and you’re likely to see a lot of sugar, additives like starch, egg or milk protein, and natural stabilisers like guar gum and carrageenan. Unico’s gelato has none of that: just slowly-churned milk (the slow churn gives it its dense silky texture) and natural flavours.
While you’re never going to have to twist your children’s arms to persuade them to come to Unico, with my Meals Our Kids Love hat on, I’m here to find out whether 1) this is a good place for parents to bring their kids and still relax, and 2) what the menu offers for children and families.
So, what’s it like to bring your children here?
I happen to be sitting next to Jenny from CookeCrumbs who as well as being a blogger, is a local resident. Jenny is a regular at Unico and says the staff couldn’t be more welcoming. She says it’s become a popular haunt with parents since its soft launch in August. “It’s definitely a place you can relax. The staff are really lovely. They’re happy to give you different flavours to try and are great with the kids”.
I ask if there are high chairs – currently there aren’t, but I’m told they’re working on that. In the meantime, there’s plenty of room to bring in a buggy or two. And in the summer months you can sit outside and at least pretend you’re in more exotic climes.
Menu-wise, as well as gelato, Unico sells great coffee, sandwiches, pastries and ice cream cakes, so there’s plenty of choice. You can even get ice cream to take away.
By the time I get to sit down with Zola he’s been on his feet for at least a couple of hours, fielding questions from a long line of journalists, tackling some of the thornier questions about his career maybe, but still has a winning smile and is just ever so kind and nice. After we’ve chatted, he’ll go on to talk to more journalists and then serve ice cream to customers from behind the counter. By this time there’s a curious crowd growing outside and the waiters are serving them little pots of ice cream. He’s giving ice cream fans what they want, a dream…
I ask Zola which he would rather do – be here talking to journalists about ice cream or back on the pitch at Wembley. His eyes light up and he shrugs. An unfair question perhaps. After all, to some, and perhaps to Zola, ice cream like football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s much much more important than that.
Where to find Unico: