Phil Giglio, outfitted in a perfectly pressed denim shirt with pearl-snap buttons, boots, and a straw cowboy hat, watches as a pair of ranch hands wheel a cartload of equipment toward a row of water buffalo parked at a milking barn in Floresville, outside San Antonio. The cowboys attach an apparatus to each buffalo’s udder, one at a time, then set the whirring machinery in motion, drawing milk that will be used to make gelato at Giglio’s shop, OroBianco Italian Creamery in Blanco.
“A year ago, I was in a boardroom talking to hedge-fund executives,” says Giglio, a corporate attorney who grew up on a small family farm in New York. “Now I’m out here working water buffalo.”
Giglio, 32, lived briefly in Italy while studying for the bar exam, and that’s where he first got to know Italian-style mozzarella cheese made with water buffalo milk. He returned to the states to practice law in Chicago, but five years ago, burned out on big cities and corporate life, Giglio got restless. He wanted to move someplace he could still practice law, but get back to a slower life, too. He also wanted to make cheese.
“I compared weather patterns and rainfall in Campagna to places in the U.S., looking for what would be most like Italy,” he says. “Northern California was closest, but I didn’t want to live in California.”
He settled on Texas, where he thought the Hill Country wine scene might mesh well with his plans to become a part-time cheese maker. He bought a ranch in Fredericksburg in 2018, and not long after, his mother, Vicki Davenport, moved to Texas too.
“I thought, ‘I’ll find ten water buffalo, figure out how to milk them, and start making some cheese while I practice law,’” he says.
Now he owns 251 head of water buffalo, sturdy creatures that enjoy wallowing in mud pits and, when grown, tip the scale at more than 2,600 pounds. They look vaguely like what you’d get if you mashed up a mud-soaked rhinoceros and a black cow, then equipped it with a pair of horns that resemble oversized bicycle handlebars. (Water buffalo originated in India and Southeast Asia and later spread to Europe—they aren’t common in Texas, aside from in the few exotic ranches in the Hill Country that offer them up to hunt.)
With his herd waiting at home, Gilgio went back to Italy, where he learned how to make mozzarella the traditional way, with milk from the Italian breed of water buffalo. Soon afterward, he went to Tuscany for eight intensive days of learning how to turn water buffalo milk into Southern Italian gelato, another tradition.
“Within five minutes, it just clicked in my mind that I was going to be a gelato maker,” Giglio says. “I got home and bought all the equipment I needed to make gelato.”
Soon Giglio and his mother, who visited Tuscany alongside him, were putting together recipes and testing flavors. This spring, they opened OroBianco Italian Creamery, the only Texas dairy that uses water buffalo milk to make gelato. That key ingredient tends to confuse some customers.
“There’s definitely a learning curve when it comes to educating the public about water buffalo milk,” Giglio says. “It’s richer. It’s a superior milk for most things when you’re talking to Italians. But here, people come in and see it on the menu and say, ‘I don’t want the water buffalo . . .’ We’re trying to educate and show what is such an important part of Southern Italian culture.”
The crash course is apparently working. OroBianco sells out of its gelato nearly every weekend, and Giglio sells it wholesale at several area restaurants and wineries.
Gelato is made with both milk and cream, but is denser than ice cream and doesn’t have as much air whipped into it, Giglio says. Because water buffalo milk has a higher butterfat content than cow’s milk, it also doesn’t have to be mixed with as much cow’s cream to make gelato.
Giglio teamed up with feedlot operator Jason Peeler, who was caring for a herd of water buffalo in Floresville. Giglio bought the herd, and the two have since added more animals. They plan to keep expanding the herd in order to keep up with the gelato demand and eventually start making mozzarella, which requires more milk to produce than gelato. (Thirty pounds of milk can produce about four and a half pounds of cheese or sixty pounds of gelato.)
A good adult water buffalo can produce up to two gallons of milk a day, but Giglio’s females are young and produce only about a third of that. Italian water buffalo produce more milk, too, so Giglio is importing semen from Europe to improve his herd.
Giglio says he has invested about $3 million in the project, for acquiring the herd, building a milking parlor, paying crews to milk the animals, hiring four full-time employees to staff his shop, and converting a two-thousand-square-foot former dry cleaner in downtown Blanco into a storefront.
At that shop, located just north of the town square on Highway 281, a machine called a melanger spins and crushes cocoa beans and nuts, and buffalo milk courses through a series of stainless steel pipes and vats. Giglio uses predominantly local ingredients, from Texas peaches, plums, blackberries, and strawberries, to mint and basil he grows himself. Many of the flavors, like sweet corn and jalapeño; honey and Sicilian chile; and guava, piloncillo, and cinnamon (and, later this year, something called Mexican Crunch that will use Mexican vanilla and toasted and chocolate-coated crickets), combine the essences of Texas and Italy.
I indulged in two Texas-centric flavors: peach, an ultrathick, not-too-sweet version that reminded me of sinking my teeth into fruit from a roadside stand; and lavender, which was like breaking off a few stems from a plant so popular in Blanco it gets its own festival. Both had a thick, almost custardlike consistency that felt like velvet on my tongue.
But at $5.50 for a small cup, the gelato isn’t cheap. “It is going to be pricey, but it’s an experience unlike you’ll get anywhere else,” Giglio says. “This is meant to be a treat. I want to bring you back to the last time you were walking through the streets of Rome or Florence.”
The shop, open Thursday through Sunday, also sells beer and wine, plus a few Italian staples—cured meat, and aged cheeses from business partner Fiore Tedesco, who runs L’Oca d’Oro in the Mueller development in Austin.
There’s still no mozzarella—yet. Giglio says it’s coming soon. “I set out four years ago to produce buffalo mozzarella,” he says. “It just so happened I figured out how to make gelato first.”