Immigrant finds sweet success

Gelato: An entrepreneur brings a frozen treat from Europe to the United States, with his sights set on expansion.

Small business

March 06, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Gelato is thought to have started in Florence nearly 500 years ago, but it took a homesick Italian immigrant to bring the frozen treat to Columbia last fall.

Now Boris Ghazarian hopes the Aromi d'Italia gelato parlors he owns in Annapolis and Columbia will become the first in a nationwide chain.

"I really think Americans accept European mentality and culture very well," said Ghazarian, 40, who moved to the United States 13 years ago and lives with his wife and two children in Woodbine. "When they see something nice, they appreciate it."

Gelato has been around in the United States for a while, enjoying an upswing in popularity in the 1980s as Americans clamored for super-premium ice cream.

Still, the frozen dessert is new to many.

"A year ago I didn't know what gelato is," said Howard Keyser, who manages the restaurant at The Mall in Columbia. Now lines of patrons stretch down the hall, and Aromi d'Italia is happy to oblige them with free samples on tiny plastic spoons.

Gelato's 2 percent to 7 percent fat content is lower. Still, that doesn't mean gelato is without guilt -- a small serving contains 120 to 160 calories.

Aromi d'Italia in Columbia offers 24 flavors at a time, ranging from vanilla and strawberry to exotic chocolate-and-nut combinations with names such as stracciatella and gianduia.

Ray Imonti of Columbia aims to try them all. Although he is working his way through the list, he praises the melon and Romeo and Juliet made with Italian cream and chocolate. "It's got a real fresh taste."

Ghazarian, the son of Armenian parents who moved to Italy when he was 2 months old, learned the gelato business in a round-about way. While a teen-ager working in his family's refrigeration business, he was introduced to Christiano Ferrero, one of Italy's major suppliers of gelato flavorings.

He went on to help open more than 200 gelato parlors in France, Spain and Italy.

In 1987, Ghazarian moved to Maryland to work in his family's heating, cooling and air-conditioning business.

"I was very homesick," Ghazarian said. Then, relatives took him to Annapolis, and he fell in love with the city's European flavor.

Annapolis was Aromi d'Italia's first location. Ghazarian was less certain that he should open his second outlet in Columbia, but his business partner, David Bookoff, was confident in The Mall's ability to draw customers. They chose a spot sure to be visible: near entrances to Nordstrom, Hecht's and Restoration Hardware.

Now he aims to franchise the business and expects to see 30 outlets in the country next year. He hopes within three years to open a manufacturing plant in Howard County that will supply the gelato ingredients.

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