Savoring the Sweet Life

La Dolce Vita & Pastry's Gjon and Violeta Merdita arrived in Ocala by way of Albania, Germany and New York, where they found success in both their personal and professional pairing.

Ironically, gelato is the Italian word for ice cream, but gelato is not ice cream. Oh, no, gelato has its own lane of deliciousness. Whether a cooling snack on a hot afternoon, an after-dinner dessert, or really just an anytime treat, gelato is a palate pleaser. And despite its Italian roots, gelato has a reach well beyond its origins.

Gjon and Violeta Merdita opened La Dolce Vita Gelato & Pastry, Ocala’s first artisan gelato shop, in June 2020. Yes, just as COVID was beginning to affect all our lives, and yet the Merditas’ business survived and is now thriving. That makes Gjon, the ‘G’ is silent, a good source for all things gelato.

“Gelato is not just served in Italy. Gelato is popular all over Europe. I grew up eating gelato almost every day,” notes Gjon, 38, who is from Albania. “When my cousin opened a gelateria in Cologne, Germany, he asked me to come help him out for a few months. I ended up staying almost eight years. We worked seven days a week. It was hard work, but I loved it.”

Being a gelato master makes Gjon more than qualified to explain the main differences between gelato and ice cream.

“Gelato is less sugar, fat and calories than ice cream. This is because gelato is generally made with either milk or water,” explains Gjon. “Now there is gelato like stracciatella and fiordilatte that are made with fresh cream. Also, all ice cream is made with egg yolks. But only certain flavors of gelato, like vanilla, are made with egg yolks.”

According to FDA regulations, ice cream must never contain less than 10 percent of fat while gelato generally contains 5 to 7 percent of fat.

Beyond ingredients, other differences between ice cream and gelato include how they’re made and stored. Made usually in industrial settings, ice cream is churned at a fast speed, which incorporates more air to make it more viable to store and transport. Gelato, especially in shops like La Vita Dolce Gelato & Pastry, is made in smaller batches and churned at a slower speed. This allows for less air to be whipped into the mixture, giving it a smoother, silkier texture.

“Ice cream is served as a frozen dessert and has more ice crystals in it,” points out Gjon. “Gelato is stored around 5 °F and is never completely frozen.”

According to Gjon, the combination of lack of ice crystals and less fat makes gelato’s flavors more intense.

“And gelato, especially our gelato, is made from fresh ingredients: milk, not powdered milk, fruit, nuts—no artificial sweeteners or preservatives,” says Gjon. “We opened our shop to bring real artisan gelato to Ocala.”

A LONG-DISTANCE MATCH

Of Albanian descent, Violeta was born and raised in New York, specifically Yonkers, and grew up in her family’s restaurants.

“My grandparents and my parents first worked in and then owned Italian restaurants,” shares Violeta, 39. “It was the family business, and I grew up working in our restaurant.”

Violeta, Gjon And Vivien Merdita

Looking for a change, and because she had family in the area, Violeta moved to Ocala in 1996. One of those family members was her uncle, Sammy Dedovic, who opened Sammy’s Italian Restaurant & Pizza in Jasmine Plaza in 1997. Now in its 26th year of operation, Sammy’s has grown over the decades to become an Ocala restaurant institution.

“I went to work for my Uncle Sammy in his restaurant for a few years,” says Violeta. “My specialty has always been making Italian pastries.”

Violeta took a break from the restaurant life and began working in the healthcare industry. She enjoyed her work, but really wanted to settle down and start a family.

She explains that she had lost all hope of meeting a good man until an unexpected connection was made. Their cousins were dating. And after seeing her on Facebook, Gjon asked for an introduction, even though he was living in Albania at the time. So, they first connected through emails and eventually video chats.

In late 2015, Violeta went to Albania to meet Gjon in person for the first time. 

“The real connection came when I finally met him,” notes Violeta. “After that I would go visit him for three weeks at a time and then come back to Ocala. After nine months of this, Gjon proposed to me. I, of course, said yes.”

Violeta and Gjon got married in Albania, not once but twice.

“We wanted to live in Ocala, so that meant getting Gjon’s visa papers process going as soon as possible. So first we got married in a city hall ceremony in 2016,” explains Violeta. “Then for our families, we got married in a church in 2018. Then we moved to Ocala.”

Napoleon pastry and coffee.

While the couple worked odd jobs, including Violeta working once again at Sammy’s, they began looking for the right place to open their shop.

“Gjon loves making gelato and I love making pastries. We wanted to open a shop where we could both do what we loved,” says Violeta. “But finding a place we could afford was not easy. We looked for almost two years.”

As fate would have it, the Merditas found the right place they were looking for in none other than Jasmine Plaza, where Sammy’s has been for more than two decades. In fact, the two storefronts face each other across the parking lot.

“We can wave at each other from our front windows. It was just meant to be,” says Violeta, smiling. “Of course, we didn’t know a pandemic would happen. But we had invested too much time and money to not open.”

In addition to opening a new business during a pandemic, Violeta soon found out she was pregnant.

“We were overjoyed to be expecting a child, but, no, it was not the ideal time,” admits Violetta. “But we managed to keep the shop open, stay healthy and Vivien, who is now almost 3, is the joy of our lives.”   

SERVING UP SWEET DELIGHTS

Sfogliatelle pastries

The Merditas work seven days a week, arriving at La Dolce Vita Gelato & Pastry early each morning to begin creating their delicious offerings. The shop opens at 11am Monday through Friday, at noon on Saturday and 1pm on Sunday. It closes at 8pm each night, except for Friday and Saturday when they stay open until 9pm. By the way, la dolce vita means ‘the sweet life’ in Italian and that’s what the couple says they are living. 

Their shop has a small-town feel to it, with a comfy couch surrounded by little round tables with chairs if you want to sit inside. Outside on the storefront sidewalk are two more tables if you prefer al fresco. Or, of course, you can just get your treat and go.

During a visit, you will likely be greeted by Vivien, a precocious and gregarious child who is growing up in a restaurant just like her mother did. No doubt she will soon either be a gelato maker or a pastry chef, or maybe both.

When you walk in, you are drawn immediately to the colorful display of Gjon’s gelato in beckoning flavors such as coffee, tiramisu, sour cherry and mango. But in the next moment, the neighboring display case full of Violeta’s pastry creations grabs your attention. Offerings such as toasted almond cream cake, Napoleon  cheesecake and tri-colored cookies will make you forget about counting calories.    

“I can make 50 different flavors of gelato and I’m always exploring new ones,” says Gjon, who is now a U.S. citizen and seems to always be smiling. “Many of the flavors are from my own recipes. My two favorites are cookies/caramel and grapefruit/ginger.”

Affogato being prepared

First thing in the morning, Gjon mixes up his flavors for the day and puts each mixture one at a time in a churning machine for about 18 minutes. This produces 5 liters (about 1.32 gallons) of gelato, which is then placed in a no-defrost freezer for several hours. Once the gelato is in the display case, it can be served in a cup or cone; single serving or combinations.

“I always encourage people to try new flavors, so we’ll give them a sample first,” explains Gjon. “Some people do find a new favorite, but other people just want their same favorite every time.”

And for those of us who are lactose intolerant, Gjon makes sorbet, which is water-based. Gjon’s lemon sorbet will definitely put a zing in your day.

Completely self-trained pastry chef Violeta does her prepping in the late afternoon and then is ready to bake in the morning. In addition to her cakes, Violeta specializes in cannoli, sogliatelle and lobster tails. 

“Of course, everyone knows what cannoli is and people love them,” says Violeta. “Sfogliatelle is a pastry filled with ricotta cheese and orange peels. A lobster tail is a pastry that is shaped like a lobster tail. It’s filled with French cream and light Italian cream. I only make those on Friday and Saturday.”

Cakes and pastries can be custom ordered. They can also have authentic New York-style bagels shipped in for individual orders with one day’s notice.

Vivien enjoys some gelato

Various coffees, including Italian espresso, are ground from whole beans while you wait. Not only is coffee a perfect pairing with Violeta’s pastries but, surprisingly, with gelato as well. Affogato, which means “drowned” in Italian, is espresso poured over gelato in a chilled glass.

“Affogato is usually Italian espresso over vanilla gelato, but you can use any combination you want,” says Gjon. “It’s a good after-dinner treat, but really you can have it anytime.”

Three years into their business venture, the Merditas are now reaping the rewards.

“We enjoy what we do every day, and every day is different,” says Violeta, smiling. “We have lots of regular customers, who have become our friends. And we are living our dream. You can’t ask for more than that.”

And that is pretty sweet. OS

To learn more, visit fb.com/ldvgelato.pastry

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