The days are getting longer and warmer, perfect ingredients for a walk through the neighborhood for ice cream after dinner. Wandering the diverse districts of L.A. is exactly what inspired dreamer Uli Nasibova to create the uniquely local flavors you can dip into at Gelateria Uli downtown in the Spring Street Arcade and in Beverly Grove.
An immigrant from Baku, Azerbaijan, Nasibova always imagined herself living in the United States; she moved here by herself when she was 17 years old with a scholarship to attend Colorado College. That was followed by a more than eight-year career in the world of finance, where she did everything from investment banking to investment management research. It was one of the easiest fields for her to score a work visa.
Nasibova moved to L.A. and worked at Alliance Bernstein, living through the Great Recession of 2008 and hearing people scream about liquidating assets. It was during that high-anxiety period that she discovered her passion for the cool world of gelato. She left her finance career and dove head-first into learning everything she could about the frozen treat.
Nasibova became a citizen when she married her American husband in 2012. She took master classes, studied food science and spent endless nights in the home kitchen of their downtown L.A. loft experimenting with flavors. She tracked down a commercial-grade gelato machine and started perfecting the water-based recipes she developed from scratch on her own, and she still makes them in small batches today. Nasibova opened her first store in the Spring Arcade downtown in 2014 and the second location in 2017.
“No, I’m not Italian and I don’t have an Italian grandmother who taught me her family recipes,” Nasibova tells L.A. Weekly. “I’m a self-taught recipe maker and all the flavors come from me.”
Her frozen case is a combination of three influences — standard flavors like stracciatella, chocolate, California pistachio and espresso, made in the traditional Italian way; seasonal ingredients; and tastes from various neighborhoods. Nasibova puts her own spin on handmade gelato that comes out of the small kitchens with just one refrigerator and one batch freezer.
In addition to the regular flavors, and depending on what the farmers have to offer, in spring you’ll find blood orange and grapefruit sorbets, followed by black mission fig with toasted almonds in summer, persimmon sorbet in fall and mulled wine sorbet in winter.
“As an immigrant, I have a special relationship with the city of Los Angeles, where I can go into other immigrant kitchens and explore and fall in love with their food and develop new flavors,” Nasibova explains of her inspiration.
Many of the flavors in her case come from visiting parts of the city and exploring different cuisines she had never experienced before. Her black sesame gelato for Chinese New Year came from a love of black sesame sweet buns in the San Gabriel Valley. She has ube gelato from her trips to Filipinotown. And she loves crisscrossing the city from her downtown loft on the train discovering new territory, often with her 2-year-old daughter in tow.
“One of my favorite drinks and an ode to every taco shop or truck in town is jamaica agua fresca,” she says. “I added mint for a water-based sorbet. I also have horchata and mango chili, inspired by Mexican street food.
“My husband and I love Thai Town and we went through this period about six years ago when we fell in love with Jitlada and went every week for six months. We especially loved the tom kha soup. My coconut with lemongrass sorbet was a direct inspiration from dinner one night at Jitlada. I also have Thai iced tea.”
Nasibova says that because Azerbaijan is a small country, it grows all its own food, and most of the family’s goods still come from the local farmer. “Even though the country has become more developed, it’s still very much that way,” says the Caucasus native.
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“My mother was a Ph.D. in mathematics and still cooked from scratch every day. She bought the live chicken, chopped the head off and plucked it before cooking it. That influences me on where I buy my ingredients and build relationships with my vendors. When I grew up we only ate what was in season, and that’s my approach to gelato.”
So what’s this self-made dreamer’s secret to freezing success? “I formulate all my recipes on spreadsheets. Gelato is an exact science. You have to document all the properties, it’s food chemistry. My recipes from four years ago taste exactly the same today. I’m an Excel nerd, it’s just in my DNA.”
Gelateria Uli, 541 S. Spring St. #104, downtown; (213) 900-4717. Also 8044 W. Third St., Beverly Grove; (323) 424-3492. gelateriauli.com.