L.A. in a Scoop: How Uli Nasibova is Becoming the City's Master Gelato Maker
Our Summer 2019 Cover Story
I met with Uli downtown on a hot day in Los Angeles. Walking into her gelato shop felt like a refuge from the craziness outside. There she was, standing proudly behind the counter, multitasking by handing samples to customers and dealing with a repairman while she greeted me and invited me back into the kitchen for a chat. Uli Nasibova is the petite, plucky, passionate woman behind Gelateria Uli, currently occupying two locations—one downtown in the historic Spring Arcade building and one on West Third Street just a few blocks from The Grove.
Our staff first discovered Uli at the DTLA Dinner Club where she served an exquisite persimmon sorbet—one that almost no one believed wasn’t a rich, creamy gelato or ice cream. I didn’t stop hearing about how amazing it was, so I made it a point to head out to her shop to try it for myself. The sorbets definitely grabbed my heart, especially the dark chocolate, and the texture is just incredible. I realized I needed to learn more about the woman behind the sorbet.
Being born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, didn’t exactly set Uli up for a life of making creamy Italian gelato, although she did grow up in a family that made everything from scratch and shopped strictly at local markets or bazaars. They plucked their own chickens right in their small apartment, never ate store-bought or processed foods or desserts, and never drank any soda.
When she came to the United States in 2001, Uli ended up in Colorado studying mathematical economics and French literature before landing a job in finance. Eventually, as so many do, she became burned out and began searching for her great calling—enter gelato and also, perhaps, the subtle art of perfection.
Uli is the first to say she has a tendency toward precision, wanting to get something just right and not willing to take any shortcuts. “When I first started making gelato—and I’m a very obsessive and impulsive person—and I’m not superstitious or religious at all, but it truly felt like magic was sprinkled in the air and I knew I was supposed to be making gelato for the rest of my life,” she tells me.
The texture really is everything. “That’s my obsession,” she admits. “My sorbets have like six simple ingredients, so it’s not as if I’m using crazy chemicals to achieve this texture…it’s just my obsession…to get my sorbets to feel like you’re eating something creamy like ice cream or gelato,” she says.
While she speaks passionately of the process she goes through to perfect a creamy sorbet or a rich gelato, Uli mostly praises her carefully sourced ingredients. For that gorgeous persimmon sorbet, Uli walked over to the Pershing Square Farmers Market and sourced persimmons from Verni Farms. “Lebanese people just know how to ripen persimmons…they’re picked green and placed in a shed for two or three weeks to fully ripen…when we made that sorbet, [the persimmons] were like a day from being rotten,” Uli tells me. “We ended up with these sultry, luscious, bursting-through-the-skin persimmons and, when I can count on people like that, farmers who know how to treat an ingredient, that’s what allows us to make the best sorbets,” she says. “My sorbets are all water-based, so truly it is the ingredient that shines through in the end.”
Almost everything is sourced from weekly trips to various farmers’ markets, but for other ingredients—like ube (purple yam), passion fruit, or ripe persimmons, for example—Uli figures out where to find the best and will seek it out, wherever it is.
“Finding the best version of an ingredient is the most important step,” she says. As we stand behind the counter, she hands me spoon after spoon until I try just about every flavor in the case. My favorite, hands down, is the blueberry sorbet and I think my eyes rolled back into my head as I attempted to explain my feelings about the flavor (otherworldly) and, of course, the texture. “These are Blue Powder blueberries from Murray Family Farms—the flavor is so rich it’s almost plum-like,” Uli realizes.
Looking into the case at any sort of ice cream shop has always mesmerized me, with colors abound, and the diversity at Uli’s is no different. About one-third of the flavors on offer are the staples, the signature flavors—like the truly phenomenal chocolate sorbet or sea salt caramel, one-third of the case are seasonal flavors—like the blueberry sorbet or the peach, and the last third of the case are the LA-inspired flavors, which pay homage to the many neighborhoods of our city—think horchata, Thai basil, saffron, black sesame, ube, roasted poblano, and lots more on rotation. One that sticks in my memory is the latkes and applesauce gelato that debuted last Hanukkah, which Uli tells me was actually a pregnancy craving brought to life. “I didn’t think it was that crazy, but apparently some people did...I liked it!” she laughs.
Anyone can go to her website (gelateriauli.com) to suggest a flavor. If she picks yours, you’ll get a free pint. “Sometimes people suggest flavors with five or six crazy ingredients…but I just prefer cleaner flavors—I want to be able to taste and feel whatever the ingredient is, so we are never going to make anything too complicated that takes away from the integrity of an ingredient,” she tells me.
Recipe development has been pushed to the back burner since having her second child, but Uli says, a few times, that creating recipes is her favorite part of the job. “It takes a little bit of an art but also takes a lot of science. It has to be balanced to achieve the right texture,” she explains. So she gets to hang on to some of her past profession and fiddle with numbers and formulas, it seems.
When I ask her about expansion, mostly for selfish reasons because I want her to open a location west of the 405, Uli looks pretty satisfied with her two locations and current situation—the first opened in 2014 and the second in 2017—but wants to focus on her burgeoning wholesale business, for which she has landed some impressive clients. “I’m very focused on quality and, with two locations, keeping the quality up takes so much of my time. Now I have competing priorities: two kids, a husband, a dog, me—although me is usually last,” Uli laughs. “I need to make the most of my very limited time right now. I’m proud of what I’ve done already and I want to keep this good thing going. I’ve also built such an incredible team that represents me,” she says.
Speaking of her team, Uli tells me how much she loves to teach new employees and watch them grow as creators and innovators themselves. “It’s so important to be able to invest in your employees...and be able to trust everyone,” she says. “It feels good to be able to just go home if I need to and know the shops are in good hands.” Last year, she closed the shops for a day and took a company-wide field trip up to Murray Family Farms where the goal was “to learn more about organic farming and how we source our ingredients.” Uli wants the atmosphere at her shops to be familial and for everyone to be on the same page, which of course will be crucial if she does decide to expand further one day.
She’s also doing her part to give back to the community in fun ways. Uli has implemented a pint recycling program (if you bring in seven empty pint containers, you get a free pint of your choice!) to avoid them ending up in landfills. The shops are also donating proceeds from their doggie gelato and pup-sicles to local pet rescues.
A third location seems imminent, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. She tells me, “the goal is to represent the frozen dessert of LA, period. When people visit LA, I want them to come to Uli’s.” As I head back out into the world with my cup of blueberry sorbet, slowly melting down my hand in the summer heat, all I can seem to do is envision that same bright future. ◆