Sirens, the alluring sea creatures of mythology, tempted sailors with a haunting melody, drawing their ships toward rocky shores. Walking through the modern-day Kirkland waterfront neighborhood, your gaze will fall upon a finned tail, attached to a blond maiden holding a frozen dessert alongside the serpentine script reading, Sirena Gelato. Instead of a bewitching song, you’re hooked by the heady perfume of vanilla, hints of citrus, and a trace of toasted espresso. And you’ll be drawn in, not to rocky shores but rocky … road. Or at least something similar as you peer at the rows of swirled gelato, hopelessly fated with the epic task of deciding which flavor to choose.
Roman history brought Brian Ugurlu from the Pacific Northwest to the shores of Italy for a year during a study-abroad program as an undergrad at the University of Washington. However, it was the siren song of the Italian joy for life, la dolce vita, that lured him away from a future as a historian of Napoleonic Italy, and ignited a passion to bring traditional gelato to our shores. It’s been 12 years since he opened the first Sirena Gelato shop in the Fairhaven Historic District, a bustling waterfront area in Bellingham. A few years later, Ugurlu opened a second shop in Kirkland, which has been happily indulging the Eastside’s sweet tooth for over half a decade.
“I was in my 20s; I’d never heard of gelato before, most people in my class hadn’t either,” Ugurlu said of his time abroad. “In Italy, you eat gelato three or four times a day. They eat it for breakfast there — put fruit on it — they eat it all the time! I was thinking, we have to do this in America!”
He remembers sending his parents enthusiastic emails about putting together a gelato shop upon his return from Italy. Raised in a family of hotel and restaurant managers and owners, it was a perfect fit, perhaps spun by the Fates themselves. So he set out to educate himself. A third generation gelato maker from Venice taught Ugurlu a traditional family recipe, which, combined with his own experience of living in Europe, helped him develop the gelato base he uses now.
Years ago, gelato was considered exotic to American palates, and Sirena Gelato was a part of its sweet education process. “People would say, ‘What is it? Is it hot? Is it cold? Is it whipped cream? Is it Jell-O?’” he said. “I didn’t have a model for what a gelato shop should be. We’ve all had ice cream, but back in 2005, gelato was harder to come by. We had to make it up as we went along; what flavors worked, what didn’t. It was a steep learning curve to get to where we are now.”
Gelato vs. ice cream — so what’s the difference? He explains: “It’s made with milk instead of cream, and as a result, it has much less fat (and) less calories. The machine whips it very fast and sucks the air out. It’s (denser) than ice cream. It also contains less sugar; most traditional gelato flavors aren’t sweet.” The result is a dessert that’s so rich it ribbons and swirls like a satin bow with a distinctive sheen. Sirena’s commitment to tradition produces something complex from the simplicity of milk and cane sugar. Unlike frozen custard, there are no eggs in a gelato base, and that leaves a sweet and pristine blank canvas to infuse with whatever flavors one desires.
“The reaction I get from customers is, ‘Wow! That really tastes like hazelnut!’ or ‘That lemon is very lemony!’” Ugurlu said. “I think we live in a time where so much is artificial, or people are making a product where they put just a little flavor in. But my philosophy is we go 110 percent. With pistachio, we load it with pistachios; you get that saturation point where there’s no mistaking what you’re eating.” He describes a customer favorite, the Oreo cookie gelato, as “cement-grade,” explaining how whole cookies are churned into the base, crushed, and mixed in, but it never loses the identity of what it is. The same goes for all the flavors; jammy fruit swirls and chunks of nuts are visible, giving the gelato a textural, rustic beauty that celebrates ingredients. It retains that Old World tradition, as Ugurlu recalls of his days in Italy, “You definitely eat with your eyes.”
Local palates inspired many of Sirena Gelato’s flavors. Along with Oreo cookies, cake batter is popular, and he also makes gelato bars and cookie sandwiches. “I try to Americanize it in some ways, make the flavors accessible,” he said, while keeping Italian favorites like roasted pistachio; hazelnut; and stracciatella, a delicate version of chocolate chip ice cream using fine shavings of chocolate. But don’t think gelato is a dessert too grown-up to have fun. He admits to a mad scientist streak, experimenting with flavors. ”I’m always getting crazy ideas. We tried buttered popcorn, and pancakes with syrup.” History is rooted in Sirena Gelato’s foundation, but a love of dessert is its siren song.