FAREED AND JENNIFER Al-Abboud met at a salsa-dancing class in Spokane. The route from there to their Medzo Gelato Bar was circuitous and then some, with stops in Dubai, Los Angeles, Italy, Philadelphia, Bainbridge Island, West Seattle and more.
Ultimately, they wanted to make gelato “from scratch, without any base mix — really pure, authentic gelato,” according to Jennifer. This quest actually took the pair to Italy twice; the second time, they studied at Bologna’s Carpigiani Gelato University with a gelato maestro who’d formerly been pastry chef to the pope.
Medzo — the name stands for “Mediterranean zone” — started as a cute little Burien cafe with sweet backyard seating, and now the Al-Abbouds have expanded to Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The space there — soaring ceilings, huge front windows, the exposed brick and big blocks of stone of the Pioneer Building, completed in 1892 — fits their old-world ethos, Jennifer says.
Comparisons to Italy will have to be left to those lucky enough to have traveled there recently (and moved to make that fact known), but there’s this: The gelato at Medzo is extremely delicious. The Al-Abbouds make it all themselves in the Pioneer Square shop’s open kitchen, helped by a shiny metal gelato machine standing in the back, friendly lights aglow, the kind of robot you wish would take over the world.
Gelato is denser than regular ice cream, with less air whipped in, and Medzo gelato here achieves an ideal creaminess, intensely rich without leaving any buttery coat on the tongue. They use only organic dairy, a matter your mouth will appreciate, and corners are not cut at Medzo. The Al-Abbouds make their own caramel, finding other options overly sticky-sweet; fruit for every sorbet gets its sugar level tested with a refractometer, also used by winemakers, with a fresh formula for each batch written on a laminated sheet.
Chosen very carefully, Medzo’s other ingredients put an emphasis on the Mediterranean, per the name. Witness the luscious nuttiness of their nocciola gelato, made with the finest Piedmontese hazelnuts, called tonda gentile delle Langhe, or “Langhe’s gentle round,” a name with a greatness you can taste. Medzo’s rose flavor — as in the flower, though I’d like to see what they could do with rosé — is a ladylike cream color, and the sensation of eating it is like the scent of a tea rose in a garden’s sun. Made with pure rose water, it might even be too perfumey for some.
Presentation matters, too — gelato is “an art and a science,” Jennifer says — so rose, for example, gets prettily decorated in the case with little dried rosebuds from Burien’s Phoenix Tea Shop. Fareed says their approach to the process has been called “fanatical,” and notes that they strive to source not just the highest-quality ingredients, but “as much as we can: local.” The raspberry balsamic sorbet, a concoction Jennifer dreamed up, incorporates vinegar from Burien’s branch of The Oilerie, while Medzo’s baklava flavor gets its signature ingredient from Pike Place Market’s Turkish Delight.
Jennifer’s pro tip on the baklava gelato: “It’s pistachio and it has a hint of rose, so one of my favorite combinations is the rose and the baklava together.” My favorite, at least for now, is Medzo’s stracciamenta, all by itself: It is the palest green, with its mint entering your consciousness as a cooling whisper while its tiny strands of chocolate dissolve, the delicate opposite of a hard chip. It’s made with a natural mint paste (lemon-mint sorbet gets fresh mint) and Valrhona 100% cocoa powder.
But wait: Don’t miss Medzo’s excellent affogato, the best-breakfast-ever dessert that is espresso over gelato in your choice of flavor (get coffee), plus optional liqueur (in case you’d like a giddyup-whoa). Nor their version of a rossini, a float made with prosecco and sorbet that Jennifer correctly calls “very special and pretty.” One of these is what the middle of your Pioneer Square First Thursday Art Walk or evening out in Burien needs.
So how did Medzo get here? Circumstance, family, all the usual stuff, plus some gelato fanaticism. Jennifer’s from Seattle, with a family history of work at Boeing, including a Rosie the Riveter grandmother. She was teaching Spanish in Spokane when she met Fareed at the salsa dancing class in 2002; originally from Kuwait and raised in Egypt, he’d come to Washington state with family and was a graphic designer. Eventually, he got his master’s degree in teaching, and they moved together to Dubai, where they taught for three years.
Jennifer returned to the States when her daughter, in college, got pneumonia. Their jobs in Dubai were in jeopardy, and with teaching in the U.S., layoffs loomed. They decided to go for it, opening a starter shop called Gelarto on Bainbridge Island in 2013, selling others’ gelato; then they had a temporary location in a West Seattle space that was slated for demolition. Priced out of a new space and a home there, they moved to Burien, embarking on their gelato-mastery journey, attending trade shows and intensive workshops, traveling all over the place.
The Medzo Pioneer Square location was a fortuitous find. In need of more kitchen space, the Al-Abbouds had been looking for months when Jennifer’s daughter came to visit and they took her to neighborhood pasta marvel Il Corvo. They saw the sign, “For lease,” and voilà — after a lot of elbow grease, including 14-hour days of repairs, cleaning and painting, Medzo had a second spot.
Jennifer calls Medzo “a labor of love.” And, she says, laughing, “We still love each other after working together for almost six years!” She calls the results of all the learning and all the labor — and the ongoing work of making marvelous gelato every day — “our reward … We are fortunate to be in the business of spreading joy at a time when the world is struggling with despair.”
Medzo Gelato Bar: 106 James St., Seattle, 206-402-4884; 917 S.W. 152nd St., Burien, 206-935-4333; medzogelatobar.com