JAKARTA: Stepping into Ragusa Italian ice cream parlour in Central Jakarta is like hopping into a time machine and travelling back in time.
Old sepia photos of the ice cream parlour in the 1930s and 1940s adorn its walls as patrons sit on rattan chairs to enjoy their ice cream, the rusty ceiling fans keeping them cool in Jakarta’s hot and humid weather.
On one of its walls is an old picture of the ice cream parlour’s founders, Italian brothers Luigi, Vincenzo, Pascuale and Francisco Ragusa, who started the ice cream place in 1932.
“They were tailors in Jakarta and acquaintances of my parents-in-law,” said Mdm Sias Mawarni, the current owner of the business.
She recounted how Luigi and Vincenzo Ragusa had visited Bandung city back then and met a Dutch lady who owned a cow farm.
The brothers thought of making ice cream with cow's milk, so they established Ragusa ice cream parlour in Bandung and Jakarta in 1932.
Foreigners were especially fond of the Italian ice cream but when Indonesia gained independence in 1945, many of them left the country and Ragusa ice cream started to feel the impact.
In 1972, the Ragusa brothers decided to return to Italy for good and wanted to close the business.
By that time, Mdm Mawarni’s husband Buntoro Kurniawan was working at the Jakarta parlour and they became family as Mr Kurniawan’s sister had married the youngest Ragusa brother.
The Ragusa family then decided to give the business to Mr Kurniawan and Mdm Mawarni.
“They just gave it to us. We didn’t have to pay at all,” Mdm Mawarni told CNA.
WITHSTANDING THE TEST OF TIME
In the hands of Mr Kurniawan, 87, and Mdm Mawarni, 77, Ragusa Italian continued to flourish over the years.
Famous figures like former Indonesian presidents Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie and Megawati Soekarnoputri were among its customers.
In 2012, Ragusa Italian even made it into Indonesia's World Records Museum as the country's oldest ice cream parlour.
Mdm Mawarni said and even Hong Kong actor Andy Lau had once paid the ice cream parlour a visit.
“The ceiling fans were gifted by Andy Lau when he ate here,” she revealed while pointing at the ceilings fans.
What makes its ice cream so special?
The original recipe which contains mostly milk, water, sugar and no preservatives is the secret of the smooth and silky ice cream, said Mdm Mawarni.
They do not use butter and have also consistently stuck to the original flavours of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, mocha and nougat. They do not make gelato, only ice cream.
Ragusa Italian has been serving tutti frutti and cassata siciliana for almost 90 years.
Tutti frutti consists of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream with chopped candied fruits, while cassata siciliana is the ice cream parlour's take on traditional Sicilian cake.
After Mdm Mawarni visited Italy in the 1990s, they decided to add spaghettieis, an ice cream dish that look like a plate of spaghetti, and banana split to the menu with the former now being their bestseller.
At one point, the business was doing so well that there were about 30 Ragusa Italian ice cream parlours scattered throughout Jakarta, satellite city Bekasi, Bogor and Bandung.
But when Indonesia was hit by the Asian economic crisis in 1998 which led to riots and political unrest, some of their outlets were burned down by mobs.
The Ragusa ice cream parlour in Central Jakarta remained untouched as it is located about 1.5 km from the presidential palace, hence the area was safeguarded.
“My husband then told me, why do we need to have so many branches. It’s better to focus on just one or a few,” said Mdm Mawarni, who is currently pursuing a doctorate on Chinese culture at University of Indonesia.
There is now one Ragusa Italian ice cream parlour and another that sells ice-cream and food, although Mdm Mawarni revealed that they might close the latter soon due to economic challenges brought by the pandemic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Indonesia, they had to be temporarily closed as Jakarta imposed a partial lockdown.
As the capital gradually loosened the restrictions, Ragusa Italian started to welcome guests again with safe distancing measures in place.
NOSTALGIC AND SIMPLE
Ragusa Italian's ice cream has a special place in the hearts of many Indonesians.
Mr Okie Johannes and his wife, who wanted to be known as Mdm Fanny, were among the guests enjoying the treats during CNA's visit in November.
Both 57 years old, they have been visiting the place since they were young.
When they started to date, they occasionally visited Ragusa ice cream and even after they got married and moved to a different area, they still indulge in the ice cream when time allows.
“I just like it. The taste has remained the same from back in the old days until today because it’s homemade,” noted Mr Johannes.
“Back in the days, there were not a lot of ice cream brands available,” said Mdm Fanny, adding that tutti fruti is her favourite ice cream.
The couple also said that the prices have remained affordable over the years with a scoop of ice cream being priced at 15,000 rupiah (US$1.06), while ice cream dishes such as spaghetti ice cream and banana split are sold at 35,000 rupiah.
Mdm Ade Rukmini and her family have also been longtime customers.
“It has its own signature (taste),” she said.
Despite the old school vibes, the younger generation is flocking to the ice cream parlour.
Ms Indah, 20, and Ms Lily, 19, said they first discovered the place through a friend.
They both felt that the taste of Ragusa Italian's ice cream is better than other established global ice cream brands.
“The atmosphere here is also lovely,” said Ms Indah.
Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia here.