PICTURED: Tifa’s Camarillo location is one of five in or near Ventura County offering an ample (and delicious) selection of gelato flavors, as well as chocolates, pastries and coffees. Photo courtesy Tifa Inc.

by Mike Nelson

Tifa Chocolate and Gelato
Locations in Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks (opening soon) and Westlake Village

Just because Italians invented gelato in the late 17th century, does that mean Americans can’t make gelato that tastes darn near close to what you’d find in any Italian street-corner gelateria?

If you mean the “gelato” you find on most local supermarket shelves (if you can find any at all), you’re likely saying, “No way, Giuseppe.” Because most American gelato is not that far removed from ice cream: generally too sweet, too heavy, too frozen, too . . . well, ordinary.

But if you mean the silky-smooth, intensely-flavored, not-too-sweet but oh-so-decadent gelato you find at Tifa, the thriving Agoura Hills-based gelato operation (with five locations in or adjacent to Ventura County), you would be hard-pressed to detect any serious difference from what you would get in Italy.

In a cup or in a cone, Tifa gelato — usually available in two dozen flavors at each location — is everything most American gelato is not. Which is remarkable, since even Mike Ashamalla, CEO of family-owned and -operated Tifa Inc., is the first to tell you that Tifa’s gelato is, in his words, “Americanized” gelato.

“But,” he adds with a smile, “we try to make it as close to Italian as possible.” That means using fresh ingredients and a “batch freezing” system that utilizes both hot and cold processing, the better to allow flavors to meld together. The results are delightful and delicious, from longtime favorites like Pistachio Lemon Curd to “edgier” treats like Strawberry Rosewater, plus all kinds of chocolate, fruit, nut and spice concoctions.

Undecided? Sample several before making your choice — or choices, since it’s quite all right to mix two or three in your cup or cone. My favorite mix: anything lemon with anything chocolate, but anything with almond, cinnamon or berries is quite satisfying, too. Add to that a delectable assortment of artisan chocolates, bakery treats and coffee drinks, served by cheerful gelateristas amid a casual atmosphere that offers plenty of table games to amuse all ages, and you have a setting that looks and feels more “living room” than “sweet shop.”

That’s a long way (literally and figuratively) from the company’s origins. Tifa began in 2007 as an artisanal chocolate distributor, selling its homemade “chocolate tasting kits” online and from a mobile cart at Topanga Plaza in Woodland Hills. (Today, Tifa still offers chocolate tastings.) The favorable response encouraged the family — husband Ashamalla, wife Debbie Orr, son Shawn and daughter Candace — to turn their operation in 2008 into a dessert café near Whizin Market Square in Agoura Hills. From there, chocolatier Shawn and bakery chef Candace (trained at Cordon Bleu in Pasadena) continued to develop recipes for candies (such as bleu cheese and honey bonbons), cookies, brownies and more, with the addition of coffee drinks and gelato, initially purchased from suppliers. But when that product began turning up on supermarket shelves, says Ashamalla, “it was time for us to make our own signature gelato.”

So they did, under Candace’s direction, starting with a small array of flavors that remain staples to this day. Eventually, gelato became, on average, 60-65 percent of Tifa’s sales (more in the summer), and a second shop was added in Westlake Village. Newer franchise locations have followed in Camarillo (Las Posas Plaza), Calabasas and Thousand Oaks, and more are on the way, from Porter Ranch to North Carolina. Each location is encouraged to develop “its own personality,” says Ashamalla, but all adhere to core principles: making and serving high-quality products the same way at each location, and offering customers the chance to relax, enjoy and savor the experience without having to buy a ticket to Italy.“We want you to feel like you are at home,” says Ashamalla.

And if your home is serving the best gelato in town, you must be at Tifa.