Meet the Maker: Lick My Spoon

Today, Lick My Spoon boasts five consecutive annual Good Food Awards (in 2014, 2015, and 2016). But when she launched the company in 2013, Kristine Insalaco-Gaioni was making just 4 jars at a time. Talk about small batch!

“Back then, I didn’t even use a candy thermometer,” Kristine shared. “I was able to do it all by sight and taste. I’d always enjoyed making sweets, especially those in the Italian tradition. My father’s family comes from Italy, a s does my husband and his family. When I was a child, my mom made everything fresh and from scratch so I was used to foods with quality ingredients that tasted, and were, homemade. Then, I had no specialized education or training, and was basically making the caramel for fun. It all started when I tasted some caramel sauce at a friend’s party and thought ‘This isn’t even good. I can do better than that.’”

“I value natural ingredients—using no artificial flavorings or preservatives like what you expect from a mass-produced sauces. I was already working with my husband, who is an importer of Italian foods. We were working out of a commercial kitchen, so everything was already set for me to begin experimenting. The name ‘Lick My Spoon’ came through joking among friends. We all sat around enjoying each other’s company while eating my caramel sauce and I asked, ‘What should I call this if I ever went somewhere with it?’ Someone said, ‘Lick My Spoon’ and it stuck.”

For the packaging, Kristine’s mother chose the white-stitched, black grosgrain ribbon and her husband, Fabio, designed the double spoon logo. As more friends and customers tasted the not-too-sweet sauce with a touch of fleur de sel, its popularity grew, but Kristine was still making jars with her 4-at-a-time approach. Then, she read about the Good Food Awards. Filled with confidence in the taste of her sauce, and not letting the stiff competition dull her vision, she set her sights on winning a Good Food Award of her own.

In 2014, she submitted, and won. “When I saw the notice of the award, I suddenly got nervous. I realized everyone was going to discover that I wasn’t trained! But ultimately, it didn’t matter. It was so exciting to be part of the presentation and to stand on the stage next to so many accomplished food makers.”

Several more Good Food Awards later—2015 and 2016 for her original Caramel Sauce, and another for her Totally Fudged Chocolate Fudge Sauce—and with distribution at specialty foods stores nationwide, Kristine has purchased more commercial space. Production is now 36 jars at a time, alternating between caramel and fudge sauces, Italian style chocolates, and confections. Too keep up with demand, she has come to rely on her award-winning recipes (and a thermometer!) to produce a consistent product.

With her award-winning sauce as their base, she continues to develop more caramel sauces, inspired as she says by “American classics with Italian influences.” (Italy itself influenced by the cuisines of the Middle East, Greece, and beyond.)  In The Savory Pantry, you’ll find organic rosewater and spicy cardamom lending luscious flavor to Cardamom Rose Caramel Sauce, recently named in Food & Wine’s F&W Taste Test: Best Caramel Sauces. Bourbon lovers will be drawn to the smoky Kentucky bourbon that boozes up Bourbon Me Bourbon Caramel Sauce. If you like tried-and-true, it’s impossible to go wrong with the award-winning original Caramel Sauce and Totally Fudged Chocolate Fudge Sauce.

Kristine loves using the caramel sauces in savory applications as a salmon or pork glaze, or as cheese accompaniments. Any of them go well with yogurt, pancakes, or waffles. “But the best use of all the sauces,” she says, “is drizzled warm over high-quality vanilla bean ice cream.”

With success, Kristine has gained even more energy and drive to broaden her culinary knowledge. Every summer, she and her husband return to Italy, where simply traveling can be considered a culinary education. In the summer of 2016, Kristine trained as a chocolatier with the #2 pastry chef in Europe. This summer, she’ll attend more pastry classes and become a master chocolatier. It’s mouth watering to consider what she’ll be bringing to our tables next.

“We are also thrilled to have teens and young adults from a special needs home helping us with our packaging. They are paid to place the labels in the home’s commercial kitchen, and it makes me so happy to see that this project is providing jobs.”

What else makes Kristine smile? “Still, my favorite part of this job is watching people’s faces as they sample the caramel sauces. It may sound simple but it is so satisfying . . . to see the jars that I’ve filled by hand and watch people’s expressions as they enjoy my products. It fulfills me to no end, every time.” On June 24, Lick My Spoon presented for the first time at the Fancy Food Show in New York. “I always used to dream I’d do this,” said Kristine. Her dream has come true. You can taste it. 

Meet the Maker: Nicolo Verrini for RITROVO Italian Regional Foods

When I reached RITROVO’s Ilyse Rathet, we talked while she squeezed in a walk on a crisp Seattle day. Ilyse easily shared her quick wit and purposeful approach to food and life, emanating belly laughs that almost instantly made me feel as if we were old friends. Although a New York native, she is fluent in Italian, so everything Italiano she pronounced was imbued with the casual elegance of the language and culture.

RITROVO (from the Italian ritrovare, to find or find again) is a Seattle-based company that imports a unique line of artisanal, regionally-focused, and predominantly organic Italian food products—often from generations-old and family-operated farms and production facilities. Co-founders and partners in life Ilyse and Ron Post are passionate about sharing the stories of their producers. Many of their product lines were hand-selected during the six years that the couple spent in Italy and Europe. As their interest for local foods and wines grew more serious while living abroad, they studied over a two year period to become sommeliers. Aside from running RITROVO, Ron and Ilyse teach enogastronomic classes (eno—wine; gastronomic—about the art or science of good eating), including wine appreciation at various levels, wine/food pairing, and olive oil tasting. 

Ritrovo fruit balsamic vinegar collection

Ritrovo fruit balsamic vinegar collection

I was curious what Ilyse most wanted customers to feel and understand when they choose one of RITROVO’s award-winning balsamics, sauces, salts, or honeys from The Savory Pantry. She lamented, “Many people say, ‘Oh! You’re just an importer’ . . . but RITROVO is so much more than that. We are regularly in Italy, finding producers that are the best at what they do because they’ve spent their lifetimes doing it, and in many cases, we are working with them to develop products until they fulfill our very exacting specifications.”

Since spring salad and grilling season are upon us, Ilyse and I began talking more specifically about RITROVO’s organic apple, raspberry, and citrus balsamics, which RITROVO has developed with Italian maker Nicolo Verrini.

Ilyse reflected on the origins of the citrus balsamic, born of a stay in coastal Sorrento, Italy. “We were seated at a table, our bodies warmed by the sun, overlooking the bay of Naples, sipping cold spremuta—the fresh lemon and orange juice mixed together in a tall glass—feeling like we could live forever. It was glorious! I looked at Ron and said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to bottle this moment. Let’s call Nicolo and see if we could do a citrus balsamic.’”

“Nicolo had the know-how to capture that special moment in a bottle, so we worked with him, sampling and tweaking, until we pulled it off. We have so much confidence in Nicolo. In his 30s, he represents a new generation of balsamic makers. He is innovative, but also doesn’t stray too far from tradition simply for the sake of creating something trendy, and he’s not commercial. As sommeliers ourselves, Ron and I are very choosy about flavor profiles. Nicolo was also trained in wine school, and brings that training to this line of organic fruit balsamics. Fruit balsamics tend to be an American thing and many times are overly sweet, and not balanced, but we wanted to push against that.”

In RITROVO’s organic apple balsamic, the trio earned the prestigious Gold Sofi Award from the Specialty Food Association. “We loved this project because it bottles everything we, as a company and as individuals running that company on thoughtful standards, are looking for. It has a known terroir—or source for the apples; the Trentino region of Italy is in the northern part of the country, not far from Austria, and is renowned for its juicy, tart apples and fruit juices. This means that what you’re tasting is something very unique from a particular region in a particular season, a centuries-old Italian value that is sometimes not as valued in American culture. The balsamic is also composed of organic grape must from Modena. We choose products that represent the Italian cuisine and culture—clean, simple, not thoughtlessly spiced, not disguised. This apple balsamic has a beautiful acidity, not too heavy, not too light. I think all these features play into why it has been so well received.”

“Visual appeal is a quality that is very important to us, because it lends to the essential enjoyment. To create density, many balsamic makers will add xantham gum, which is easier and cheaper, but at RITROVO, a leading value is that ingredients must be all natural, and therefore the element of density must rely on natural fruit pectin. The right density is what lends its visual aesthetic as well as its feel in the mouth and the way that it works with other ingredients. You’ll notice the clarity of these balsamics.The grape must is cooked at low temperature so the caramelization of the sugar is avoided, and the product maintains a great clarity. Then the juice of the fruit gives the color to the base white balsamic. Nicolo is conscientious as he works to establish a balance of density, acidity, and sweetness.”

Ilyse was eager for me to be in conversation with Nicolo. Through the photographs he sent, it was easy to imagine him tasting from his balsamic barrels and sharing sips with customers.  “My grandfather started making balsamic vinegar back in the 60s, and he passed down to me this passion. I started very early in my age and I think I will never stop. There are many good balsamics out there, but I really love my job and somehow this gets translated into my products, and people can taste this. I predict that in the future we will see more and more balsamics made in the States. The trend will be the same of what happened in the wine business in Napa. But for now I think what makes Italian and American balsamics different is the culture that we have in Italy towards food.” It seems somewhat ephemeral, but Nicolo is right—almost magically, you can taste the reverence, the love of living and profession, and, somehow, the generational history of Italy in these balsamics.

I ask what the basic steps are in making a good balsamic, thinking Nicolo will have a list of 10 or 15 tasks. Instead, he says, “There is only one rule, you need to have very very good raw materials, and do your best not to ruin what nature already gave us.” And that’s the very thing that Ilyse was getting at earlier—to be good, food doesn’t need to be complicated, it needs to honor pure and natural ingredients in their highest form. There’s a spiritual process operating at the core of RITROVO, no doubt.

Nicolo’s favorite thing to do with balsamics? “Just put one spoon of citrus balsamic or white balsamic in a big glass of sparkling water with ice. Refreshing!” Does he ever tire of tasting or smelling vinegar? “Only when I taste repeatedly my competitors’ balsamics!”

Well of course.

Ilyse and Nicolo describe a new balsamic they are eager to roll out—a tomato vinegar, which balances sweet and savory. The Savory Pantry will proudly be one of the first stores in the US to carry it. Regarding the process, Ilyse said, “This one was our hardest yet because it is both sweet and savory, so you have to be careful. We went through a handful of prototype recipes. The first was far too sweet, with a hard candy quality. One tasted great but it wasn’t clear, so it wasn’t beautiful. We work together with Nicolo until we make a product in the form we think the idea on which it is based is best expressed. We’re really excited about the final result.” Nicolo shared, “I listen to the request of my customers, and I try to find the right ingredients that can match their needs. I go through a process of trial and error until I find something that works.” Nicolo’s words make the process sound simple, but the most incredible thing is, when you taste the vinegar, you get all the iterations, all the hard work, all the care that went into every round—distilled into the final result.

RITROVO: Simplicity, delight, and community. “Cento de questi giorni”! May you have a hundred of these days.


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