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Food & Drink

A new, straight-from-Italy ice cream shop in San Francisco makes ice cream healthier

Hila Gelato Caffè in the Mission serves gelato, coffee and pastries. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Ilary Biondo only moved to San Francisco eight months ago, but she’s already had her one-woman ice cream shop up and running for three months—and it’s practically a health food store. 

Biondo hails from Sicily and speaks with a prominent accent as she explains the method behind her hand-crafted gelato at Hila, her Mission district shop.

“This is real gelato,” she said. “Made the Italian way.” Biondo beams with pride and enthusiasm for the ice cream she clearly loves to make. 

Ilary Biondo shows off the fresh saffron she uses to make her gelato in her Mission district shop. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

The gelato is crafted from simple, natural ingredients, with most flavors having just three: milk, sugar and fresh fruit. There’s no cream, no eggs and no artificial flavors. While traditional ice cream has up to 45% sugar, the gelato at Hila clocks in at just 10%, Biondo said. On offer are also zero-sugar flavors and vegan options. 

The store is named after Biondo—whose nickname is “Hila”—for good reason. The outfit is a one-woman show, with Biondo making the expansive gelato selection, assortment of pastries (including mousse pies, tarts and tiramisu) and waffle cones in house. The store also serves Italian coffee, low in acid with a creamy finish. 

Customer Howard Simons had been to the shop twice in two days. “I love the creativity of the flavors,” he said. 

Simons noted there’s a lot of competition in the neighborhood—Smitten, Garden Creamery and Bi-Rite Creamery are all nearby—but Hila has an advantage in that it opens earlier (at noon) and has more flavors (around 20) to pick from. 

Hila Gelato Caffè in the Mission has handmade waffle cones and all-natural flavors. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Occupying the former space of Xanath Ice Cream, Hila continues the tradition of the previous shopkeeper by offering flavors like saffron (sourcing the spice from Iran) and natural vanilla (with beans from Mexico). One of the most popular flavors is milk and fig, a textural delight with crunchy waffle cone bits and powdered coffee. California nuts, made from pistachio and almond, is incredibly creamy for a gelato made only with milk. 

A recent customer, who sampled the hazelnut, cantaloupe and banana flavors, compared his first experience of Hila’s gelato to the flashback moment in the 2007 film Ratatouille

“The first taste took me straight back to my grandma’s village in Lebanon,” said Ismeil Hachem, noting the banana was his favorite. “It’s freaking delicious.” 

First-time customers Renata Becerra and Olivia Aguirre also enjoyed fruit flavors, cantaloupe and watermelon. 

“It’s very refreshing,” said Becerra. “Like an agua fresca in ice cream form.” 

Biondo’s favorite flavor is watermelon, which bursts with summertime zestiness and somehow tastes more watermelon-y than the fruit itself. Other fruit flavors include lemon, mango and strawberry. Prices for cones range from $5 to $11.50.  

Ilary Biondo gives a thumbs up in her Mission district gelateria. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Biondo moved to San Francisco from Italy to be with her wife, an acoustic engineer at Apple, and the couple lives just a few blocks from the shop. 

She brings 10 years of gelato-making experience from her native Sicily, where she ran a similar one-woman gelateria that had goods for purchase as well as the coffee, frozen treats and pastries she offers in her San Francisco store, cheerfully decorated with Testa di Moro and white neon.  

Business has been brisk so far at the Mission shop, according to Biondo, though she criticized the city for its handling of the homeless population. But working all the time? That’s something Biondo is already used to from the popular store she ran in Sicily. 

Biondo said she works up to 20 hours a day at the shop that is open Wednesday through Sunday.  

“I do it all myself,” Biondo said. 

Hila Gelato

📍 951 Valencia St. 
🗓️ Wednesdays-Sundays | Noon-9 p.m.
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