James “Tondi” Haskins serves up a cone of mint chip and chocolate gelato with housemade whipped cream at Tondi Gelato in downtown Santa Barbara.
James “Tondi” Haskins serves up a cone of mint chip and chocolate gelato with housemade whipped cream at Tondi Gelato in downtown Santa Barbara. Credit: Hola Aloha Art photo via Instagram

When we first tasted Tondi Gelato’s Dark Chocolate and Frutti di Bosco (mixed berry) flavors, we had only two words, “More, please.”

Discovering that Santa Barbara proprietor and gelato maker James “Tondi” Haskins is a classic American success story only adds to the enjoyment.

Starting in a garage a few years ago, Haskins now owns a busy, authentically Italian gelato shop at 401 Paseo Nuevo on State Street, offering 20 different flavors each freshly made right there on the premises.

“Often times,” Haskins said, “customers will ask for a flavor that I’m literally pulling right out of the mixer, and it will go straight to their cone.”

Gelato and ice cream are like bread, he told us. Yes, you can freeze them and they’ll still be OK in three months, “but it’s so much better freshly made.”

The difference between ice cream and gelato is that gelato generally has less sugar, fat and air, and more intense flavor.

In the United States, ice cream must have a minimum of 10% butterfat, but there are no such rules for gelato, and the average is only 6% to 8% fat.

Yet it retains a smooth dense texture.

“Real Italian gelato should be silky and flavorful,” Haskins explained. “Never hard, icy or gritty.”

Raised in Santa Barbara until age 13, Haskins then moved with his Italian mother to northern Italy where he remained for the next 14 years.

One day, while eating gelato with friends in his (Italian) hometown of Brescia, “it hit me like lightning,” he said. “I was going to bring high quality gelato to Santa Barbara.”

This was in 2011, and, “the fire lit that day has never gone out,” he told us.

Step one was the back-up plan: Get a college degree in case the gelato idea didn’t work out. Starting at Santa Barbara City College, he earned a B.A. in anthropology from UCLA, but never gave up on his gelato shop dream.

“Nothing was going to stop me,” Haskins said.

Haskins has no formal culinary training, and learned by experimenting.

“My girlfriend (now wife) and I made our first batch in her apartment all by hand,” he recalled. “We had to take it out of her freezer every two hours to hand churn it.”

When they tasted it, they knew they were on the right track.

His mom sent him a gelato batch-freezer/churn from Italy that allowed him to ramp up volume and experimentation, working then from a relative’s garage.

For test-tasters, he recruited co-workers at Trader Joe’s (where he worked to put himself through college), and when the feedback was consistently high enough, he waved farewell to anthropology and specialty groceries for the move to full-time gelato making.

From 2016 to 2020, Haskins operated as a gelato catering company, and then the stars aligned when Wetzel’s Pretzels left its space in Paseo Nuevo and simultaneously low-interest government loans became plentiful.

In March 2021, the Tondi Gelato store opened, and a 10-year dream was realized.

“Every one of our flavors has its own unique recipe,” Haskins said, adding, “we make everything from scratch using fresh seasonal ingredients right here on the premises. No pre-made bases, syrups, powders or anything artificial.”

And sourcing most ingredients is fairly straightforward, he said.

“The farmers market is literally right outside our door and we’re bringing in cases of strawberries, lemons, passion fruit, guavas, mangoes, etc.”

Also outside his door is a line of customers, who are “… amazing,” Haskins said.

“They show their appreciation every day, and that’s our motivation to create the highest quality product we can,” he said.  

We were motivated as well, but in our case it was to order another cup.

Local Knowledge

Ask for the whipped cream on top, made by hand in house. It’s free and very Italian.

Let’s Go Eat!

Tondi Gelato, at 401 Paseo Nuevo in downtown Santa Barbara, is open from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and noon to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Rob Raede

Rob Raede

Rob Raede switched to solid food at a young age and never looked back. He and his wife, both UC Santa Barbara grads, say their favorite form of entertainment is talking with the wait-staff, bartenders and owners at restaurants and bars. Rob’s also on a lifelong quest to find the perfect bolognese sauce. The opinions expressed are his own.