This piece originally appeared on VICE Italy.
If you ever visit the small southeastern Italian town of Ruvo di Puglia, you might be in for a treat. If you’ve got a sweet tooth and deep pockets, that is.
Giuliana and Vincenzo Paparella run the business with their uncle Franco. Years ago, the Paparella siblings stumbled upon an old notebook belonging to their grandfather’s uncle, an entrepreneur named Luigi Marseglia. It contained the recipes that form the basis of the Mokambo menu today.
Born in 1889, Marseglia grew up in Naples, where his working life began at the Gran Caffè Gambrinus, a patisserie and gelateria cafe in the city. He relocated to Ruvo di Puglia in his early 20s having fallen in love with a woman from the town. There, Marseglia opened a hotel and then a bar, named after the cafe back in Naples. By 1912, he was even running a petrol station, catering to travelling tradesmen who passed through the town to buy almonds, the area’s biggest export.
Marseglia’s nephew, Vincenzo Paparella Senior, worked at his uncle’s cafe up until the moment he was conscripted into military service. Arriving back in Ruvo after completing his stint in the army, Paparella had hoped to walk straight back into his old job, unaware that Marseglia had sold up and retired.
The home of the King's Sceptre.
Paparella made do, spending the next few years at local spot called Caffe Italia. Possibly influenced by his uncle, Paparella made the move into ownership, opening the first iteration of Mokambo in November, 1967. The name is a common one across Italian cafes and ice cream parlours, leading some people to think that it belongs to a chain. That isn’t the case: Vincenzo just really liked the sound of the word.
Vincenzo Paparella produly displaying a scan of the recipe-filled notebook that belonged to Luigi Marseglia.
After Vincenzo Paparella passed away in 1984 at the age of 51, his sons Antonio and Franco took control of the business. They ran it together for a decade, before Franco decided to strike it out alone and open his own restaurant. That venture closed four years later.
It took the best part of 20 years for Mokambo to return. The rebirth was sparked, in part at least, by a nostalgia. “For years, I wanted to taste the ice-cream I’d eaten as a child, to sample a hazelnut ice cream that actually tasted like hazelnuts,” said Giuliana Paparella, Vincenzo Paparella’s grand-daughter.
In 2015, she was at law school, while her brother Vincenzo - named after his grandfather – worked for a consultancy company in Rome. Looking to change their lives and recreate those flavours of old, they began pestering their father, Antonio. While their dad showed no interest, their uncle Franco had been toying around with the idea of getting back into the ice cream business again. He had the equipment and even had a promising little space ready to be renovated.
Bringing Luigi Marseglia’s rediscovered recipes into the 21st century, Mokambo Gelateria opened in summer 2016. It exists, as Franco Paparella puts it, to make “ice cream for assholes, because only an asshole would make this much fuss over an ice cream”.
Luigi Marseglia - the man behind Mokambo.
Under Franco’s instruction, they only use natural ingredients. Three-foiled hazelnuts, prized pistachios, and 36 different varieties of cocoa beans are just some of the things that make Mokambo’s cones stand out.
“Initially we used to buy chocolate in,” Franco Paparella said. “Even though it was the best on the market, we still weren’t satisfied with it because it used cocoa butter and wanted the pure product. So in 2017, we decided to make everything here ourselves and began importing beans directly.”
Some of 36 kinds of cocoa beans used daily at the parlour.
This focus on quality goes some way to explaining why the parlour’s prices are a little higher than those elsewhere. “I’ve had to raise my prices and put up with people’s bullshit because the cost of ingredients has gone up,” he said, claiming he only makes 70 cents off an ice cream cone that retails for €4.
"We provide a totally different experience from classic ice cream parlours,” said Vincenzo Paparella. “As you may have noticed, we don't have a very big sign or a glitzy, central location. We're interested in enticing people with ice cream, nothing else.”
The Iraqi saffron which pushes the price of the ice cream up to €70.
The most original offering at Mokambo is the aforementioned King’s Sceptre, the saffron-covered cone that has become synonymous with the Paparella family business. Imported from Mashhad in north-eastern Iraq, the saffron costs around €55 a gram. They use the most valued part of the plant, known as sargol. Sargol, which means “top of the flour”, is the reddest part of a saffron strand. It is also the most expensive.
Then, they infuse the mix of eggs, milk, and sugar that forms the basis of their ice cream with these prized strands of saffron to recreate a recipe first devised by their ancestor Luigi Marseglia.
Giuliana Paparella holding up a pristine example of the King's Sceptre.
The finished sceptre is a heady combination of cream, pistachio butter, saffron ice cream, more cream, 24-karat gold leaf, and caramel. It really does look like a sceptre and it tastes positively regal. Its texture manages to be soft, light and silky, with a delicately fragrant aroma and intoxicating flavour. It tells the story of a family’s determination to keep the past alive, whatever the cost.
"We came up with the idea [for the ice cream] in 2017 and introduced it in August 2018,” Giuliana said. "We don't sell a simple cone: We kidnap you and keep you here for an hour and a half experience.”