How to open an ice-cream shop in Italy

Green Vespa in Rome Italian lifestyle ice-cream gelato Verde Pistacchio Via Nazionale

Very Italian style.

It is freezing as hell and I just want to go home – but I’m already home.
This is my Rome and I’m in Via Nazionale, a busy shopping street packed full of tourists, similar to Regent Street in London. As I turn the corner, all of a sudden I found myself in front of a weird place. It’s a gelato shop all covered in… pale green: pale green jars, a pale green bar counter made out of a Volkswagen truck, and also a pale green Vespa parked on the pavement outside.

I’ve often discussed the state of ice-cream, but this time I’m not in London, this time I am home, but it’s too cold to have an ice-cream, so I go for a hot chocolate.

The guy serving there has a cheeky smile on his face. He is ginger like a carrot. In Italy, you see ginger people around you rarely, and if you do, they are certainly not smiling. Gingers are so damn touchy in Italy. This one also happens to be taller than me, which – generally speaking – is a quite rare occurrence.
Italians may do it better but surely not taller.

Hey you, Prince Harry.


Will you get me a hot chocolate, please?

Yes, sure.

Green Vespa in Rome Italy gelateria ice-cream shop Verde Pistacchio Via Nazionale

Have you said Vespa?

An amazing bittersweet chocolate flavour immediately releases into my mouth. This is one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever tasted in my life, and since real, wonderful chocolate is known for increasing endorphin and serotonin levels, I’m suddenly: 1) not cold anymore 2) not sure whether the hottest stuff I’ve seen today really is the chocolate.

Once I get home, I visit the Verde Pistacchio (Pistachio Green) website and find out that the Vespa parked in front of the shop has a 50cc engine, not a 125cc or 150cc as you would expect.
That knocks me out.
I am crazy for 50cc engines. I’ve ridden nothing but 50ccs in my life, firmly refusing any upgrade.
My hydro-bike instructor once told me that insisting on 50cc engines will eventually keep you young.

The Verde Pistacchio website doesn’t present the founder, but it is reported that they have created this ice-cream shop with a green truck turned into a counter bar in a full, bright pistachio colour to basically screw the global crisis of 2008 that – after all these years – has not ceased hitting Italy yet.
I decide I am going to find and interview whoever had this idea.
Guess who it was.

Hello man – can you please introduce yourself.

Hey, Massimo Sonnino here. I am the founder and owner of Verde Pistacchio, I am 33 and I have been working since I was a kid. I founded Verde Pistacchio four-and-a-half years ago.

What were you doing before?

I was doing event management for a smoking company.

Oh my God.

I don’t smoke, actually. It was not bad, it was a cool job and I liked it. But I wanted more, I wanted to do something big, I wanted to be big, even if I didn’t know yet in what industry I wanted to start my thing.

What happened then?

I got my hands on a book about the ice-cream industry in Italy. That changed my life. I decided I wanted to start my own ice-cream company in bright and full colours. to screw the global crisis. I was 29 at the time.

A book. So your life changed over a book. (you little bastard )

Yes, that was a life-changing book for me. So now I knew what I wanted to do, but I lacked the experience in the food industry. As soon as I made up my mind, something incredible happened. As I was playing football with friends, I was introduced to Andrea Fassi, who comes from a Rome’s historic ice-cream maker family. I told him about my idea and he liked it. He mostly liked my enthusiasm and the vision, I think.

The law of attraction in action…

Yeah, so we started this business venture together. I had already designed the marketing plan and a pistachio green Volkswagen truck as a counter and cashier, I had it all planned in my head. On the other hand, Andrea had both the product and the industry experience and contacts. We spent the summer selling ice-cream on a truck all across the Adriatic coast; the venture went well so we eventually picked Via Nazionale in Rome, which is quite a tourist venue. The challenge now is how not to be just another tourist trap, providing a very high-quality product at an affordable price, and basically… well, educating tourists to get good products at a fair price.

How did you create the Volkswagen truck bar counter? When I ask my mechanic to change a headlight bulb on my moped he laughs at me – how did you manage to convince yours to turn a truck into a bar counter?

I found a car body here in Rome and convinced them to make the first one for me. I had designed the project so I perfectly knew what I wanted. I promised I would have offered them the rest of the work if I was going to do some franchising and we agreed on that term. Now that I am actually expanding, they are getting more and more work.

Why have you called the gelateria Pistachio Green (Verde Pistacchio)?

I wanted something bright and alive to fight the grey of this historic moment. So I picked this Pantone colour called Pistachio Green which gives you quite a positive feeling.

What did happen next?

Shortly after, Andrea’s ice-cream family company was acquired by a Korean corporation.

No way. A South-Korean company, I hope.

Haha, of course! So they wanted him to become CEO of the company. He couldn’t do both things so he left Verde Pistacchio with the added-value expertise of having launched a start-up. Verde Pistacchio has continued to grow and grow, I’ve got five employees now, it’s a European-protected and patented brand, design and concept, and I’m also launching a franchise: the first shop was opened in Cádiz, South Spain, by a wonderful Spanish family. I recreated this same Volkswagen truck bar counter back in Spain and set up a franchise store. I also have other gelaterias planned in the rest of Italy. You know, I recently received an offer from a big corporation wanting to buy the company, and I said no.

Well done, man.

For what?

For saying no. And for the rest, of course. And now tell me: what was your dream job as a child?

Umh… am not sure. Maybe, you know, the footballer thing works for any kid, but I really don’t know. I just wanted to be big and to do great, big things.

Could you ever go back to employment? You know, to things like taking orders. Of course, you could, you’re not as arrogant as me.

Hahaha, exactly, if I had to, I would go back to employment without a problem. The thing is, I don’t see it as taking orders, I have strong work ethics and I treat my staff well. This is maybe why none of them has ever resigned from the company so far.

What would you suggest to someone struggling to decide between regular employment, self-employment or going into business?

You know what, if you’re happy where you are, if you’re happy as an employee, just stick to it, stay where you are, it is not worth it to go out there and work like a madman to start a business. Starting something out of nowhere is not easy – it’s never easy, and you shouldn’t believe those who tell you they became overnight millionaires just like that, out of the blue, with no prior investment or hard work. But if you are not satisfied with what you do, if you want something more than being a regular employee, then go on and do something different, just take a risk.

Yes please, let’s talk about the risk thing. Everyone points out the risk people take for making a change, but nobody ever considers the risk of not having done it yet – do you agree?

Do I agree with what?

Ok, that was not a question. So what is your opinion about taking risks?

I think that if you do care about something and want to make something happen, then you must definitely take a risk. You know, both in business and in life.

Well said, Prince Harry.

Hey, wait a moment… Prince Harry? So it was you the girl calling me Prince Harry last week. That’s why I was thinking I had already met you somewhere. You know, the proposal you wrote to do the interview was great, really amusing! But what if the owner wasn’t me? What if your email was answered by one of the staff?

I thought you said people should take risks. Ops, I forgot to turn the interview recorder on.

Are you going to remember our chat?

Every. Single. Word.

★ If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in learning why Italians are everywhere – and you may also want to read some random depressing poetry about ice-cream

Ice-cream or I scream funny and cute cartoon

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Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.