In the midst of a global pandemic, two Italian American families came together with the same vision and opened a gelato shop in Montclair, New Jersey. The Mazzeo and Brown families are the co-owners of Benvenuti, located at 20 Church St. in downtown Montclair.
Co-owner Roger Mazzeo is a Montclair State University alumnus.
“It’s not ice cream, it’s gelato,” Mazzeo emphasized. “It’s different.”
Mazzeo values the easygoing Italian lifestyle which can be hard to find in the chaotic lives of many New Jerseyans. He also misses the espresso bars found on almost every street corner in Italy where he could grab a quick coffee and chat with strangers. Mazzeo along with Matthew Brown, the other co-owner of Benvenuti, wanted to bring that authentic Italian atmosphere to Montclair for everyone to experience.
“We’ve been received very warmly by the community,” Mazzeo said. “What’s nice about Montclair is that everyone works together.”
One spoonful of the flavorful dairy treat will have you sitting with an empty container in a matter of minutes, wishing you had asked for the larger size. The strawberry gelato exploded with sweetness on my tongue and the smoothness made it an easy slide into my stomach. Ice cream cannot compete with this.
Modern machinery shipped directly from Italy keeps the gelato constantly churning, instead of the old-fashioned mixing by hand method. Gelato is typically served at a higher temperature, has lower butterfat and is churned slower than ice cream, giving it an intense flavor that so many Italians adore.
Mazzeo spent numerous years in Italy after graduating as a double major in theater and communication studies at Montclair State. After starring in an off-Broadway a cappella show in the United States, Mazzeo continued performing by booking a commercial in Italy. This launched his acting career in Europe.
Mazzeo eventually met his wife, Barbara, and the two attended Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. They learned about the art of gelato-making and a variety of different recipes. From that point on, the couple knew they wanted to share their love for gelato with everyone and open up a business of their own in the United States.
“The whole essence of Benvenuti, which means ‘welcome’ in Italian, is to bring that experience we had and cherished to America,” Mazzeo said.
In addition to gelato, Benvenuti offers an array of other products commonly found in Italian markets. Paninis, Italian sodas, gelato pints, chocolates, coffee and now soups are being served for the upcoming winter season. There are also vegan and CBD-infused gelato options.
Four breathtaking artworks representing famous Italian icons line the walls of Benvenuti, which were all painted by a local artist. The two Italian American families paid careful attention to small details when developing their business.
The Mazzeo and Brown families hoped to open their gelateria in May of 2020, but their plans were thwarted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and they were forced to open in July. However, that is not to say that Benvenuti did not have a successful summer.
“It’s hard to say how we were impacted by the pandemic,” Mazzeo said. “We opened during the pandemic, so we don’t have a point of reference of before.”
Mazzeo’s unmatched enthusiasm for gelato and outgoing personality creates an authentic Italian experience in Montclair.
“I’m a people pleaser and it’s important to make that special, unique experience and go out of your way for customers,” Mazzeo said.
The Mazzeo and Brown families are now enjoying their partnership and the positivity they have received from the Montclair community. Although winter is nearly here, gelato never goes out of season and if you are in the mood for something warm, try a panini, soup or fresh brewed coffee.