Chef Noel Brady celebrated the first anniversary of his Lucky Dog Gelato shop in San Clemente earlier this week. At the boutique, Brady swipes up seasonal specials. Its award-winning Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream and dark chocolate sorbet made with Valrhona Guanaja chocolate are showcase must-haves. Rocky Road ice cream contains homemade marshmallows and there are six to seven vegan flavors at any one time. Brady’s favorite vegan offering is speculoos, which tastes like Biscoff cookie butter.
“Now even people who eat dairy get it.” Other vegan offerings include Prickly Pear and Chocolate Peanut Butter.
Lucky Dog Gelato, which is inspired by the dogs of Brady and her husband Dustin, also serves dog-friendly ice cream. A portion of the “dogelato” proceeds are donated to a local animal shelter. Brady’s selflessness and pragmatic attitude inspires. It also shaped his life.
“I am a breast cancer survivor,” she says. Brady’s plea led her to meet her husband, Dustin. “I was involved with this organization called Young Survival Coalition and we were doing these bike rides to raise money.” Brady helped organize rides for the group and one was on the West Coast. That’s how she met Dustin, who works in marketing at Shimano in Irvine.
“His fiancée had just passed away from breast cancer,” Brady explains. “We met on the way and started to communicate. He would fly to Hoboken in shorts and flip flops in the winter” to visit her. A long-distance relationship has developed.
Brady, who was born in Queens and spent a lot of time in New Jersey, ended up in Arkansas for a corporate job at Walmart. She stayed in touch with Dustin. Eventually an opportunity from Oakley presented itself and she joined him in Orange County. The couple bought a house and got married, but things didn’t go as planned. Brady was fired. That’s when his ice cream dream really took shape.
With Dustin’s encouragement, she flew to Italy for formal training at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna. The following year, Brady continued her education in Florence, where she studied with master gelato chef Tulio Bondi, president of the Florentine Association of Gelato Artisans. Bondi remains one of Brady’s mentors. His words, “Make it honest” are written above Lucky Dog’s kitchen door.
“In Italy, every region is different, the way they make the ice cream and serve it,” says Brady. “So I met Tullio (Bondi) in Florence. It’s quite a character. But he is a master of artisanal ice cream. If I have problems with a recipe, I will call him and he will guide me. There are so many things that go into it. He is always there for me.
Brady continued his tutelage by returning to Italy for a third time. During an advanced training course in southern Tuscany at the Gelato Naturale Academy in Grosseto, she deepened her learning of the technique – the freezing temperatures, the differences in sugars, the science behind the ice cream. Armed with this knowledge, Brady returned to the United States.
In 2017, she placed first in the technical category at the Gelato Festival America in Santa Barbara. Then in 2018, the Gelato Festival invited Brady to their Jersey City event, where she earned third place for her Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream, which was only natural given her East Coast upbringing. “So I had to make New York-style cheesecake ice cream,” she says. Brady’s version evokes a slice of frozen cheesecake from Junior. That same year, Brady retained his title at Santa Barbara.
It ranked in the Top 50 of the “World Gelato Rankings” and is still ranked in the top 100 worldwide. But, she moved away from the competitions to focus on opening her store. Yet most visitors are unaware of its accolades. “Right now, my only competition is winning over everyone here (in Orange County),” she says.
To differentiate his ice cream, Brady spends a lot of time finding ingredients. The farms and vendors she uses follow the store’s mantra of authenticity. Pistachio ice cream is made with organic pistachios grown on a farm in Kettleman City. Its goat cheese ice cream is swirled with organic peaches from Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood. The goat cheese is sourced from Laura Chenel’s sustainable dairy in Sonoma and is blended with peaches mixed with the skin. “I just removed the pit,” she said. “So it tastes very peachy. It reminds me of a cheese plate. The mascarpone and passion fruit ice cream is made with fruit grown at the nearby Blomma Flower Farm in San Clemente and the summer sweet corn comes from the San Juan Capistrano Ecological Center.
“We take great care in sourcing everything from organic dairy products from Straus Family Creamery to our plant-based food colorings, which are derived from butterfly pea flowers, beets, dragon fruit, ebony carrot and olive oil. ‘hibiscus,’ she says.
Brady is eager to entice younger visitors with frozen ice cream, fresh cookie sandwiches and kid-friendly flavors like the Cookie Monster. Made with butterfly pea powder, real vanilla bean, and homemade cookie pieces, the gelato has an all-natural blue tint.
The shop also serves the four-legged members of the family. “Dogelato” mixes whole-milk Greek yogurt, bananas, homemade peanut butter, and maple syrup for a pet-friendly frozen treat. For an ice cream shop, dogs were actually a huge consideration for Brady and her husband.
“We wanted (our store) to be honest, authentic, and pure,” Brady says of considering the name Lucky Dog Gelato. “Dustin said, ‘We should be thinking about our dogs. We want to keep them even after they’ve left us.’ mixed-breed company, are an ode to their canine companions.
“Darcy is on the left and Bingley is on the right,” says Brady.
Street artist Corie Mattie, also known as the LA Hope Dealer, created the original mural for the store. The wall features a black and white illustration of Brady’s adopted dogs with vibrant Andy Warhol-meets-Banksy-green paint sprays. On the other side of the store, a black-and-white line drawing of a map of San Clemente takes up an entire wall.
“My husband Dustin drew this,” Brady says with a proud smile. “We wanted to focus on the local. Customers love interacting with the map. “They like to find where they are.” The clean lines of the menu echo the boutique’s ethos: “We wanted something simple and pure,” says Brady.
There has been a lot of thought put into the design of Lucky Dog Gelato. The waffle maker was imported from the Netherlands and is personalized with the Lucky Dog Gelato logo. Locally designed stickers are available to customers free of charge. One sticker shows a dog riding a Vespa and others highlight San Clemente spots.
“We wanted local icons, so we got the clock tower, the pier; it’s all in there,” she says. Another nod to San Clemente is the shop’s buttercake ice cream. “I made buttercake because everyone goes to Nick’s or south of Nick for their buttercake. It’s a San Clemente thing,” she says. The creamy ice cream is sprinkled with vanilla beans mixed with Brady’s homemade cake.
For Brady, ice cream should be fun. “You go to ice cream shops and they’re fun,” she says. “You want to go there and it’s an experience. I also wanted to have fun with ice cream. I wanted to tap into the surf and skate culture, which is huge in San Clemente. The store uses raw materials – natural wood and concrete – to evoke a clean aesthetic. Brady, who wears Oakley frames, also quickly explains the more technical science behind the ice.
“Ice cream contains more fat,” she says. “It has more air and it is served at a cooler temperature. So the ice will coat your tongue with grease. Shock your tongue with cold and you won’t get the flavor profile you get from quality ice cream. The gelato should be more decadent and flavorful than ice cream. When you start learning and comparing, you can tell the difference.
Making a difference is another part of Lucky Dog Gelato’s business model. A portion of the store’s proceeds from its sales of gelato, dog bowls and dog leashes are donated to the Pet Project Foundation, a rescue partner of San Clemente and Dana Point shelters.
“They go to shelters in Los Angeles and areas where they euthanize dogs and try to get them adopted,” she says. “We wanted to support a local dog shelter. Any adopted dog is a lucky dog. So that’s where the term comes from because we adopted both Darcy and Bingley. It’s our mission to spread the love for dogs and help them find homes too.
Find it: Lucky Dog Gelato, 1010 South El Camino Real, San Clemente
Hours: from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. from Tuesday to Wednesday; noon-9pm Thursday-Sunday