A great scoop of gelato is not easy to find in the United States. No, it’s not the same as ice cream. Gelato, or Italian ice cream, is known for being smoother and richer than ice cream due to its higher milk-to-cream ratio. Put simply, it’s lower in fat and higher in flavor.
So where can you find some of the most authentic gelato made in the States? Look no further than the Golden Reef Diner, a traditional diner owned by a Greek family, in Rockville Centre, New York. You read that right – Italian gelato made and sold out of a Greek diner.
How did this happen? Let’s start at the beginning.
In 1976, a 16-year-old Greek immigrant named Jimmy Trahanas arrived in New York alone and worked every job under the sun just to make his way. A few years later, he managed to scrape together enough money to open a diner with some friends. Now, over 30 years later, the Golden Reef Diner is still owned and operated by the Trahanas family.
Jimmy Trahanas’ son, Elias, said he and his siblings were practically raised in the diner. There, he learned how to walk and learned math while working the register. Elias attributes his work ethic to helping out in the diner. He now works as a lawyer at a firm in New York City, but the diner has been and always will be a huge part of his life.
“It’s the immigrant family,” Elias said. “In order to survive, everyone needs to help out. My brother to this day still helps out. I still help out. People think it’s strange, they think it’s a second job, but really it’s not a job - it’s part of family. The diner is my second home. It’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world."
Elias referred to it as “The Golden Reef Family,” extending past just blood lines to all of the employees and customers that have helped the diner thrive over the past 30 plus years.
Yet, owning a restaurant doesn’t come without challenges and the past three decades haven’t always been easy on the diner. People’s expectations of restaurants can be demanding. Diners, especially, are expected to have large, diverse menus that can appeal to almost any palate. The Golden Reef Diner is no exception, serving everything from classic omelets and burgers to whole Branzino and steak. And for all the millennials out there, the ability to add avocado on anything.
But the Trahanas family doesn’t shy away from the challenges of the ever-changing diner business. According to Elias, it’s all about finding answers to forthcoming problems.
“My father always says, ‘My boy, we need to find a solution,'” Elias said imitating his father’s accent.
Finding a solution to a challenge was exactly how this Greek family’s diner started to sell some of the best Italian gelato in the United States.
Here’s the scoop.
During the great cupcake craze of 2011/2012, the diner had begun to sell varieties of cupcakes to meet the public’s newfound desire for bite-sized cakes. However, it became clear to Elias that they were losing money on cupcakes that they had to throw out before they got stale.
“It was kind of heartbreaking, this beautiful display case with these gorgeous red velvet cupcakes. You name it, we had it, and it was all going in the trash.”
Elias turned to his father and told him that they had to do something new; the cupcakes were just not going to cut it. They considered replacing the pastry display with an ice cream display, but they thought they could do better. You can get ice cream anywhere in America, but what about gelato?
Gelato was already a big thing in the Trahanas family, thanks to Elias’ uncle John who was one of the first people to make traditional Italian gelato in Greece. Gelato would be the resolution to the cupcake challenge.
So Elias, in his third year of law school, flew to Greece and spent his spring break in a big, windowless gelato factory, learning the art of gelato making. After the week, he flew to Italy with his uncle to find gelato ingredient vendors that would ship their products to the States and returned home to start serving gelato in the diner.
“I was importing straight from Italy to this little diner in New York and we were making homemade ice cream,” Elias said, laughing at the craziness of it all.
“The older customers loved it, the younger customers loved it,” Elias said. “The older customers remembered a time in America when getting homemade ice cream wasn’t a big deal. These days getting homemade ice cream is like something outrageous.” All of the gelato is made with imported Italian pastes made from real, natural ingredients.
“I’m not adding chemicals to these things, these are real ingredients - that’s why the flavor fills your mouth.”
Speaking of flavors, The Golden Reef diner serves classic Italian flavors like Biscotti Cookies and Cream and sweet but savory Pistachio, as well as flavors with American twists like S’mores and Chocolate Peanut Butter. You can’t go wrong with any of the flavors, but if you try only one, go for the Mocha Chip because according to Elias, “this flavor will make you look at a mocha Frappuccino differently for the rest of your life.”
In 2014, The Golden Reef Diner was ranked as one of the 27 Ice Cream Shops You Need To Visit Before You Die by BuzzFeed along with the famous Italian gelato shop Giolitti in Rome and other ice cream shops across the world. This gelato is the real deal, and the story behind it is even better.
“It’s a testament to my uncle’s product,” Elias said smiling with pride. “It’s my uncle’s recipe that he got from an Italian gelato maker in Rome, and he taught me. So I guess it’s a family recipe. The recipe originated in Italy and it was taught to me by a Greek.”
You don’t need a passport to get authentic gelato - just head over to The Golden Reef Diner.