A man with a passion
Jean-Paul Gulino started his downtown business with Italy in mind. Adam Pardee / Review

Jean-Paul Gulino knew the rush was coming on one of the last hot weekends of the year. From behind the plexiglass window, his face blurred behind pink marker ink that announced his flavors of the day: pineapple, mixed berries, chocolate and hazelnut. It was a good day for selling gelato.

Gulino garnered attention in the Half Moon Bay food scene with his strawberry basil gelato. One business owner who witnessed Gulino’s early days spoke with awe at the line that would wrap around the building where Gulino served his signature flavor.

“You might call it a passion,” Gulino said about gelato.

But with his livelihood built around the dessert, gelato has come to represent his trials as a first-time entrepreneur.

He pointed out signs of his scrappy beginning. There is the cramped space where he operates Wednesday through Sunday. There is his storefront: a wood slab on top of a wine barrel donated by the winery next door.

“I had no money,” he said, with a laugh.

Gulino settled for the 100 square-foot rental space at the corner of Main and Correas streets one evening in 2018. It was his first time in Half Moon Bay. He and his wife had dinner at one of the Italian restaurants praised for its fresh ingredients. “A foodie town,” he noticed. Walking down Main Street, the small-town charm reminded him of the parts of Italy and France from his childhood. He saw himself fitting in here.

Gulino is the first to admit the irony of running a gelato shop as someone who only knows a few Italian phrases. Though he is part Portuguese and grew up in France, his grandparents are Sicilian. In his family, there are names like Mario, Francesca, Rosaria and Canatella.

As a child, he took monthly trips to Italy, which was 45 minutes from his home in Nice, France. There, he and his family would go in search of gelato. Walking the streets of Italy, he didn’t think gelato would figure into a career. But it arrived as an answer during a critical point in his life.

He was ready to leave a career in tennis, first as a professional player then as a coach on the Peninsula. The sport was tough on his body and even now, the soreness returns every time he thinks about it.

His father always told him to be his own boss. This was his chance.

In January 2019, he opened his gelateria, Gulino Gelato, in Half Moon Bay.

He makes his artisan gelato fresh every day. Because of this, he can never make more than five to eight flavors a day. But if he is offering eight flavors, he likely spent 10 hours in his shop.

Making the base comes easy enough. It’s the flavors that take time. He insists on making each flavor from scratch — no extracts or premade pastes.

His pistachio gelato calls for roasting and blanching organic pistachios that he buys from a farm a few miles south of Half Moon Bay. Fior di latte, which he describes as “similar to vanilla,” requires delicate handling of vanilla beans. Similarly, sorbets are 50 percent real fruit, which are always organic and mostly locally sourced.

There have been many late nights in his small rental. Sometimes he’s there as late as 3 a.m. When he has a late start or his batches take longer than planned, he might finish just an hour before opening.

“I almost gave up 10 times,” Gulino said. “But I knew I wanted to push through.”

Now, more than a year and a half later, the work has paid off. Gulino Gelato is expanding.

Earlier this month, he signed a lease for a 500-square-foot space in the heart of downtown. He received a tip from a fellow business owner that the son of the former owners of Lights and Art would be renting their suite at 330 Main St. in one of the oldest buildings in the city.

“It matches my rustic, old way of making gelato,” he said. “I really like the pairing.”

He can’t make any predictions of how business will change, but he’s excited by the possibilities. With more space, he can make waffle cones and sell pre-packaged pints. As soon as he signed the lease, he started working with a team in Europe to come up with a design that is Italian and homemade.

Gulino thought hard about whether it was the right time to make another risky business move with a pandemic hanging over his head. He asked his wife, who has been taking care of their son while he runs the businesses. She, along with Gulino’s family in France, approved.

Left to his own devices, his business can feel like a tennis match: he defaults to calculated thinking and striking only at the absolute right time.

“I tend to overthink,” he said. “But with my business I’m learning to be more of a doer and a solutions-finder.”

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