"The four years I was pastry chef at Niche were some of the best of my career," says Mathew Rice of St. Louis' most celebrated restaurant, where he worked from 2005 to 2009. Not that he regrets being in Chicago as pastry chef at Nightwood "I wanted to be in a bigger market where I could continue to grow my skills." Still, he was happy to be able to respond when Niche chef/owner Gerard Craft sought his help in creating a gelato program for his new Italian restaurant Pastaria. That's even though Rice doesn't actually make gelato for Nightwood, though he says the ice cream he makes isn't that far off, either. The key difference with gelato for him is that you don't use eggs in the base. "With some ice cream, the first thing you taste is egg. For the gelato program at Pastaria, I wanted you to be able to really taste the fruit. I wanted to come up with something where the flavors would really shine and not be compromised."
Rice worked on his gelato base recipe in Chicago, then spent three days in St. Louis working on the specific machine that Pastaria installed. "It's not a little Pacojet like everybody uses," he says. "It's a monster. It makes two quarts of gelato in about seven minutes." To get the creaminess without egg, he says "I didn't use a lot of stabilizers, but I used corn starch, and a little glucose so it would soft and really velvety."
He created several flavors there, included blood orange dreamsicle, salted caramel, toasted pistachio basil, and a fresh mint stracciatella. He also left a list of other flavor suggestions behind, and pastry chef Anne Croy is now working with those as well as her own variations.
Gelato was important to Pastaria, Rice says, "because Gerard traveled all over Italy before he opened it, and he wants it to be a really approachable place where everyone can eat and get a really good pizza or plate of pasta." The gelato bar, which is visible as you enter, is an important part of the draw. And why did Craft turn to his former employee for some help? "Well, the dude does have a tattoo of an ice cream cone on his arm," he says, clearly convinced that says all you need to know.