The greatest gelato maker in New York has lived in the same tenement on Sullivan Street since 1976. Meredith Kurtzman has crystalline memories of seeing Patti Smith perform at St. Mark’s Church, WBAI’s Free Music Store, and CBGB, and of grocery shopping on Essex Street with her grandmothers. She claims blackberry as her favorite flavor, but dislikes cinnamon, scorns “goo-goo” desserts, and considers chocolate her nemesis. There are no awards or cookbooks with her name on them, no pints of ice cream bearing her signature, no eponymous chain of shops — or even a single property — in her purview.
There was barely a whisper in the food world when she first called it quits a couple of years ago, after more than a decade of churning fast-melting miracles at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, a foundational restaurant in what Kurtzman calls the “evil empire” of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, B&B Hospitality Group. Under her guidance, Otto became a destination for gelato, definitively putting ice cream’s smoother, more elegant sibling on the city’s dining radar in the early aughts.
In his 2012 memoir, Restaurant Man, Bastianich extolled the virtues of Kurtzman’s gelato: “It’s made by a crusty, West-Village hippy lesbian. She’s probably 60 years old. I don’t like her very much; she hasn’t been nice to me. She’s crotchety. But her ice cream is unbelievable — she’s obsessively consumed. She’s a genius, a true artisan in the classical Italian spirit. She uses only seasonal fresh fruit, and everything is worked by hand. The Otto ice-cream experience is truly amazing. It’s a work of art. There’s nothing quite like it. No one in the United States of America is even fucking close.” Even Jon Snyder, the competition over at Il Laboratorio Del Gelato, conceded that Kurtzman “has been a trailblazer in terms of bringing the Italian method of ice-cream making to the U.S.”
In the last few years, chefs like Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger (and, formerly, B&B‘s Del Posto), Nick Morgenstern of Morgenstern’s, Sam Mason of Oddfellows, and Christina Tosi of Milk Bar have all become known, by name, for their ice cream. But anyone who knows anything about frozen desserts will tell you that none of these relative newcomers — except Headley, who was briefly under Kurtzman’s tutelage — comes close to their unacknowledged forerunner. Pastry chefs rarely receive the same amount of credit, attention, or success as their savory counterparts. But in the face of overwhelming critical acclaim, and a small but crucial role in building the B&B domain, Kurtzman’s anonymity seems more remarkable than most — and, with true retirement looming, all the more glaring. After a reluctant return to the professional kitchen last year, moonlighting at cherished Park Slope institution Al Di La, she is set to put down her spatula again later this summer — this time, perhaps, for good.
At 66, Kurtzman is scrappy; she has a wiry solidness. She is 5 feet tall, with a frizzled halo of curls held back by a red bandana folded into a headband, and large, knowing eyes set off by graphic black-framed glasses. Not prone to outbursts of enthusiasm, she’s solemn, silently emitting a gentle but steady “get off my lawn” warning. Seated at the bar of Via Carota on Grove Street with a glass of wine and a small plate of deep-fried, sausage-stuffed olives that probably constituted her dinner, she seemed content enough as she traced her meandering itinerary from Manhattan’s Washington Heights, where she was born, in 1950, to her present-day stomping grounds on the other end of the island. “I’ve never lived a life where I had a plan,” she said. “I just kind of drift along. I’m kind of lazy, I guess.”
When Kurtzman was 4 years old, her mother got tired of carrying her up four flights of steps, and the family decided it was time to leave the city. “Flights of steps are a recurring theme in my family,” Kurtzman said. They moved to Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, New York, where Kurtzman would spend the next 12 years with three younger siblings. Her father, Harvey, was a cartoonist who wrote for MAD Magazine and produced Little Annie Fanny, a serial comic strip that ran in Playboy for 16 years. Kurtzman’s mother, Adele, was a homemaker who took a job as a short-order cook in her 50s; after that, she spent 25 years as a fundraiser at a school for mentally disabled children before retiring a few years ago, in her 80s.
“I was a bit of a loner, and silently suffered through my own share of bullying from my peers throughout my youth,” Kurtzman said. She became obsessed with wanting to “escape to New York as a teenager after taking a visit to MacDougal Street in the early ’60s, and seeing it as Oz.” She wound up at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan a few years later, then worked freelance as a fabric designer and silkscreen printer — “two things that are dying, or died” — for more than two decades. While the ’70s were a productive decade for her, after Reagan was elected and the economy took a nosedive, her textile commissions slowly dried up, and she grew to hate the work. By the mid-’90s, she knew that she needed to find another way to support herself, and after realizing that she “was cooking more and more at home to avoid working,” she landed on getting a job in a professional kitchen. But she also thought that a 40-something woman wasn’t suited to being a line cook, so she applied for a scholarship to learn pastry, and was given a small stipend to attend culinary school.
From there, Kurtzman secured an internship at Verbena, a restaurant opened in 1994 by Diane Forley, one of the early preachers and practitioners of seasonal cooking on the East Coast. “I did what I would never advise younger people to do,” Kurtzman said, “which is to be in charge of a pastry department right out of school.” During her two and a half years there, she “found that ice cream thing.” She noticed that Forley’s bases resembled those used for gelato — they called for more milk than cream — unlike a lot of New York City restaurants’, which had it the other way around. It’s “kind of disgusting, actually,” she said of high-fat, high-end ice cream. “It coats your tongue.” Gelato has a lower fat content than its American counterpart because it uses less cream and fewer egg yolks; it’s also mixed so it doesn’t have as much air whipped into it, resulting in a denser product with a more concentrated flavor.
Forley, who now owns plant-based Flourish Baking Company in Scarsdale, New York, and recently launched an online vegan confectionery, remembers Kurtzman’s determination and focus, and how seriously she took the task of selecting produce. “The Greenmarket was just getting busy. It’s not what it is now,” Forley wrote in an email. “But Meredith would always look for what was fresh in the market and the seasons — finding the ripest strawberry. Flavor was really important. You can’t really teach somebody that. You just have to have it.” Forley picked up on it in Kurtzman’s textile designs, too. “I understand that she’s so artistic, and she’s so humble that she doesn’t talk about it. But I remember seeing her work and thinking, that’s just insane.”
After Verbena, Kurtzman briefly worked at Bouley Bakery and got “very bored of making 300 of something,” then had what she refers to as a “few dark years” where she bounced around from “one failing restaurant to another.” Between gigs, she became a regular at Lupa on Thompson Street and found out from its co-owner, Jason Denton, that his business partners, Bastianich and Batali, were opening a seafood-centric Italian restaurant in Midtown, called Esca; they were feeling iffy about the pastry chef they’d chosen. “They were paranoid about stars, as they usually are,” she said, “and hired me last minute, just before they opened, while the other poor person was still there — I think she could have done just as well as me, but whatever.”
While Kurtzman characterizes her time at Esca as “one of those in-the-cellar-try-my-patience jobs,” it also took her to Italy, where she had “her first big-time gelato experience,” a scoop of mirto (myrtle) gelato on a slice of brioche, in Salerno, on the southwestern coast. “I was like HOLY SHIT!” she said, in a rare burst of enthusiasm.
Back at Esca, Kurtzman “really got in the groove” and started using “a funky little machine” to make small batches of 11 different flavors at a time. At the turn of the millennium, New Yorkers paid little attention to gelato and had few decent examples of the stuff to speak of — “an old Italian guy on Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street” and Il Laboratorio del Gelato, according to Kurtzman. Enter Batali’s bold, minimalist vision for Otto: an enoteca that would introduce diners to Roman-style pizza and, on the dessert side, focus singularly on gelato and Italian coupes. Kurtzman, recognizing the opportunity, agreed to start the dessert program.
To prepare for the gig, Kurtzman went back to Italy for more lessons, spending five days at a shop in Sansepolcro, a small town in Tuscany. The owner spoke little English and used a more industrial method than an “artisan” gelato operation would employ these days, but he also taught her something invaluable: how to break down a base into sugars and fats, and how to balance them correctly, so that they yield a final product that’s creamy, while maintaining structural integrity and expressing the essence of its flavors. “The other good part,” she added, is that “he had a whole pile of gelato magazines, which I took back to my hotel and read in the evening. And copied stuff. They were all in Italian, which I don’t speak still, but I figured out enough.” What she ultimately reverse-engineered was a sugar compound that would result in incredibly smooth gelato and sorbetto that was never too icy or too sweet.
Dextrose, a corn-derived sugar, is the key. In all ice cream (and, say, Frappuccinos), sugar is responsible for smoothness. Most American ice creams and sorbets use table sugar, simple syrup, or corn syrup as their sweetener, which produces icier results. But Kurtzman incorporates dextrose, which, in addition to having a “cleaner, brighter flavor” than the white granulated stuff, produces a thicker, more concentrated, jelly-like syrup that’s less inclined to freeze; the upshot is a creamy scoop that’s neither cloying nor leaves that “disgusting” coating in your mouth.
Classified dextrose formula in hand, Kurtzman returned to Otto. The pizza had its detractors — “this may be the kinkiest pizza the city has ever seen, and it’s not surprising that Famous Ray’s devotees are furious,” Robert Sietsema, now an Eater restaurant critic, noted in his review for the Village Voice — but everyone went nuts for what Kurtzman was doing. For many, this was their first taste of gelato: Lying somewhere between hard-packed and soft-serve American ice cream texturally, its flavors fuller and unobscured, it left no waxy residue in its wake. “The best gelato I've tasted lately in New York,” Ed Levine wrote for the New York Times, “is at Otto, Mario Batali's pizzeria at 1 Fifth Avenue.” Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite of New York Magazine expressed similar sentiments — “dessert at Otto means gelato — thick, rich, and well worth the $7 price tag (for two flavors)” — while Sietsema was “imprinted immediately” by the “olive oil gelato, drizzled with extra oil and dotted with crunchy sea salt,” that “lies smooth and cold on the tongue” and “shocks and then seduces.”
Kurtzman had made gelato a thing. Her most iconic creation was that olive oil variety — inspired by a recipe she came across sometime in the '90s, by the French chef Jacques Chibois — which spawned countless imitations. On its own, the scoop was bizarrely wonderful, voluptuously creamy and out-of-left-field fruity in the way that savory olives are. “Who can forget her original olive oil coppetta with silken taffy-pull olive oil gelato, passion fruit granita, fennel seed brittle, and basil syrup, all drizzled with Sicilian olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt?” her former boss, Batali, recently asked, reverently, via e-mail. “It changed gelato in NYC instantly and forever.”
Otto emerged synonymous with gelato, and things went along uninterrupted and routinely for close to a decade — a first for Kurtzman, who hadn’t lasted even three years anywhere else. And then she was asked to read that passage in Bastianich’s book; she threw the book across the room. “He kind of apologized, but he published it anyway,” she said. “And you know what? I never said anything. I’m just very good with the stone face. I would give the stone face.” She claims that she hasn’t spoken to Bastianich since the book was published, in 2012.
She stayed on though, business as usual. A couple of years earlier, in 2010, Batali had revealed to Kurtzman that he had bigger plans for her: B&B was building a manufacturing plant in Port Chester to produce bread and pasta for many of the company’s New York properties, including Eataly, and he wanted her to run a gelato annex while continuing to oversee her department at Otto.
She declined the offer, preferring to stay put at the enoteca. The “small raise in salary” Batali dangled wasn’t enough to justify the tradeoffs: The Eataly in Flatiron alone does at least four times the volume of gelato that Otto made at its peak, Kurtzman guesses, and producing at that scale would require a change in process and formulas — infusions would be trickier and stabilizers, which she tries to use sparingly, would be an issue. Mostly, though, she wouldn’t be able to have her eye on every pot, or machine. “I like to be hands-on,” she said. “I mean, despite the fact that I say work is physically difficult, I don’t want to just be a manager.” Besides, she added, “This isn’t going to have my name on it. I’m going to be busting my ass to say MARIO BATALI in big letters, and what do I get for it?” (The gelato annex was never built.)
What she’d gotten for her time at Otto was hearing loss and two bum knees. Galley labor is hard on the body at any age, and the damages add up; it’s no place for the old. And yet, unless you’re in that small percentage of chef-entrepreneurs with an empire, or, at least, a single property you can manage at a distance, you don’t have much choice but to stay put for as long as you can take it: Most restaurants don’t offer their employees pensions or 401(k)s; Social Security doesn’t cover living costs in major cities; and the working wage doesn’t allow for substantial savings. While B&B offers a pension plan with medical coverage, and Kurtzman had signed up for it, she didn’t know how long she could live off of her savings and whatever income she’d get from that package and Social Security. Either way, by October 2015, she knew something was going to give, and before her body completely betrayed her, she needed to quit.
On her 65th birthday, Kurtzman gave two months’ notice and, as a requirement in her contract, left behind all of her recipes. One of her assistants, Domingo Espinal Sanchez, continues to faithfully reproduce her formulas exactly as written. Bastianich sent her a “very nice note,” acknowledging their rocky relationship and conveying his regret that she was leaving; Batali said that she is welcome to come back at any time. (“No way in hell,” she said.) As a parting gift, Bastianich gave her a watch. “It was a Shinola watch, a nice watch,” she said. “Actually, it was an ugly watch. It was an ugly Shinola. I traded it in for another one I like more.”
Restaurant retirement didn’t quite go the way she’d imagined. After a road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the Shenandoah Valley, she combed the listings to see if test kitchens or cookbook authors needed recipe developers, and managed to pick up a few freelance gigs. Opportunities were scant. So was money. Not long after exchanging the Shinola watch, she sold it on eBay. “I was like, I’m never going to wear this and I could use 400 bucks because I don’t have any work.” In March 2016, with little on the horizon, when she heard that her sister Nellie had a roommate who was looking for her own place, Kurtzman decided to sublet her apartment and spend some time with her 91-year-old mother in Mount Vernon, caring for her and tending garden for a while.
Two months in, Kurtzman still needed money. She heard there was an opening for a part-time pastry chef at Al Di La, a trattoria in Park Slope she’d always liked, and she reached out to chef-owner Anna Klinger. Neither party required much convincing: Kurtzman would come in four days a week and do prep for a shortlist of desserts that could be plated in her absence. The menu features ricotta fritters with a side of warm chocolate sauce, a pear cake studded with chunks of bitter chocolate, gianduiotto (the classic Italian pairing of chocolate gelato with hazelnuts), affogatto (another Italian institution, vanilla gelato drowned in espresso), and a couple of ever-changing gelati and sorbetti. There’s usually a special crostata on the board too. She’s gotten accustomed to the “beat-up old kitchen,” and Klinger leaves her to her own devices, just how Kurtzman likes it. The self-described “oddball” in what’s generally deemed an industry of oddballs knows she’s not “real controllable,” and prefers to have as much control over her work as possible.
In the beginning, Kurtzman commuted from Mount Vernon, but she was eventually resigned to moving back into her rent-stabilized sixth-floor walk-up with a climb-in shower in the kitchen. “I’ve never lived in a normal apartment,” she said. “I’d like to have a bathroom before I die.” But, she added, “I’ll probably die in that apartment.” Climbing the six flights in her building would be an effort for anyone; it’s more so for a 66-year-old, even a spry one like Kurtzman.
Kurtzman has the stairs of her commute to contend with, too. “I get on the subway at six in the morning, which I don’t love,” she said. “Nobody on that train looks happy to be on it. I can tell you.” When she reaches the restaurant, there’s more climbing to be done. Without the chilling equipment of the state-of-the-art kitchen at Otto, Kurtzman has to run to the basement to cool down each new batch of gelato in the sink. She’s figured out how to minimize the daily number of required trips down the steep steps after nearly falling down the entire flight. “I don’t know how much longer — I don’t know how long I can do this,” she admitted in February.
Two months later, she e-mailed to say she’d given her resignation at Al Di La, “as an exit to aching knees and general tiredness of getting up at 4:30, yada yada.” She might, she added, have some consulting work coming her way, but really wanted “to bid adieu to restaurant work.” And so, a little over a week from now, on June 7, Kurtzman will try to retire from the galley, again.
Before then, before she’s gone, diners might order dessert — one of the evening’s fruit tarts or a scoop of implausibly smooth, appropriately sweet and tangy fruit sorbet. Maybe, if it’s offered that night, it will be the caramel gelato, a dark tawny, creamy sphere with the intensity of nearly burnt sugar. Diners will recognize the gelato’s greatness, but probably won’t pause to think of Kurtzman, alone in her tenement on Sullivan Street — if they have even heard of her, which they likely haven’t. Why would they? The impossibility of aging gracefully in the back of the house is rarely reported, never shown on television. In the kitchen, people come and go. Turnover is as quick as the work itself. There’s always a younger, faster hand to take the place of a wrinkling, slower one. No one talks about that, about where cooks go to die. But they’ll remember that gelato. And they’ll miss it, all of them.
Correction: The sausages at Via Carota were stuffed with sausage, not ricotta. Eater regrets the error.
Charlotte Druckman is the author of Skirt Steak, Stir, Sizzle, Bake, and the co-founder of Food52’s Tournament of Cookbooks.
Bess Adler is a photographer based in Brooklyn.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter