A re-creation of an Italian gelato shop in Rome has opened on U.S. 280 in Alabama and it’s trying to imitate the ambiance of a European café by banning cell phones, laptops, profanity and scantily clad patrons.
Some on social media have mocked its rules: “I can’t wait until the first time they deny service to an over the mountain Karen because she’s wearing her LuLu Lemon leggings,” one poster wrote on a Reddit thread.
Those who have signed the guest book at Villaggio Colafrancesco rave about the atmosphere, which includes a restroom whose ceilings are religious scenes that look like they were painted by Michelangelo and a fireplace also decorated in the style of European religious art.
“Thank you for creating such a beautiful place to share special moments with family and friends,” Kayce and Brett Maddux wrote in the guest book. “To God be the glory.”
The founder, Terry Colafrancesco, said he got rights to make the “No. 1 gelato in the world” from the owners of Old Bridge Gelateria in Rome, just outside the walls of Vatican City.
“There’s nothing like it,” Colafrancesco said. “About 25 years ago, I went there in November and it was cold, raining, at night, and there was a line of people waiting for gelato for an hour, all the way out to there,” he said, pointing 50 yards away from the front porch of the gelato shop to U.S. 280.
The line to the gelato shop outside the Vatican is a block long on most nights, he said.
“The president of Italy goes there, popes go there, movie stars go there,” Colafrancesco said.
In addition to the gelato, the atmosphere at such shops in Italy is about family and conversation, he said.
“In Italy, you sit down to eat at 7 and at 12 you’re still there, talking,” Colafrancesco said.
He wants patrons to come, eat gelato, sip coffee, and talk, without ever holding or looking at a cell phone. So far, parents and grandparents bringing children have spent hours, eating, drinking, talking and watching the kids play and talk, with no electronic gadgets, and they like it, Colafrancesco said.
He has about a dozen Tonka trunks in a gravel pit where children can play.
The sign at the start of the boardwalk states the rules: “Modest dress is required. Nor short dresses or shorts above the knee, tank tops, spandex leggings, exposed shoulders, cleavage showing and back, etc. Profanity or actions which do not fit the norm of Christian behavior is not allowed.”
Also: “Conversation and meeting of hearts is at the center of Italian culture. Because of this, there are no cell phones, laptops, tablets, etc. You will be asked to leave for disturbing the peaceful atmosphere. There is no smoking.”
Villaggio Colafrancesco has three stores: Old Bridge Gelateria, an Italian Coffee Shop, and the Salumeria, a charcuterie that offers meats and cheeses. All are located on a wooded two-acre lot in a former 1940s-era farmhouse and garage that belonged to the Kendrick family, surrounded by massive oaks, walnuts, cedars and even an apple tree that have been preserved on the property.
“The trees are so beautiful,” Colafrancesco said. “People are calling it an oasis.”
Yet it’s right on U.S. 280, adjacent to Cowboy’s gas station, at the foot of Double Oak Mountain on the way from Birmingham to Chelsea in Shelby County. The first right turn after Cowboy’s is Cedar Lane. At the dead end, there’s a 200-space parking lot on the left. Patrons leave their electronic devices in the car and walk up a boardwalk past the picnic tables.
The house has been renovated and opened up inside with the walls removed, revealing hardwood floors and a fireplace decorated with religious art around the mantle. Visitors can drink their coffee and eat gelato indoors at tables in the house, or go outside to one of about 50 picnic tables on the wooded, grassy grounds.
Workers from the shop in Rome have been instructing workers in Alabama on the art of gelato, which is being made on equipment shipped from Italy. The gelato store opened quietly on Aug. 30, and a grand opening is set for Friday, Nov. 18. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
The coffee shop, with a quartz countertop, serves espresso, and coffee blends ground in a roaster on site from coffee beans imported from Brazil, Guatemala and Ethiopia. It also serves carbonated Italian sodas and creamosas.
Villaggio Colafrancesco operates as a tax-paying business but also as a non-profit, directing all profits after taxes toward the Caritas ministry that Colafrancesco founded in the 1980s.
In 1988, Colafrancesco hosted one of the six famous visionaries of Medjugorje, who claimed to have daily visions of the Virgin Mary in their hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the former Yugoslavia starting in 1981. Marija Pavlovic Lunetti came to UAB Hospital to donate a kidney for her brother, Andrija Pavlovic. She stayed with Colafrancesco and continued to have her visions of the Virgin Mary in a field in Shelby County. She has returned to Caritas to visit dozens of times.
The field where she had her visions in Shelby County became the focal point of the 250-acre world headquarters of Caritas, which still takes tour groups to Medjugorje and promotes the visions on its web site, Mej.com. It has a printing press and publishes Colafrancesco’s commentaries on the visions under his pen name, “A Friend of Medjugorje.” Hundreds of thousands of the books have been distributed worldwide.
The Medjugorje visions have never been endorsed or authenticated by the Catholic Church, which has approved other reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary such as the ones in 1858 in Lourdes, France, and in 1917 in Fatima, Portugal.
The workers at Villaggio Colafrancesco are mostly longtime residents of the Caritas religious community, which raises its own livestock in Shelby County and plans to supply dairy products to the gelato shop and meat and cheese to the salumeria, or charcuterie shop.
The gelato and coffee shops are an outreach of the ministry, Colafrancesco said. “We’re putting something into the culture,” he said. “It’s about God, family and country.”
U.S. family life has been derailed by the obsession with electronic devices such as cell phones, Colafrancesco said.
People visiting the shops quickly realize what they’ve been missing, he said. “They miss conversation,” he said. Even strangers are striking up long conversations and getting to know each other, he said.
“They’re making a connection and talking to each other,” said Reyes Silva, who has lived and worked at Caritas for 24 years, as he mixes an espresso for a guest. “They make a connection and they’re like family. God will bring the people here.”
The workers are also glad to talk about their faith and belief in the truth of the Medjugorje visions.
But leave the cell phones and skimpy clothing behind, said Jessica Ross, a member of the Caritas religious community who helps oversee Villaggio Colafrancesco. “We’ve already asked people to leave,” she said.
But most are happy to trade their cell phones for the gelato, Colafrancesco said.
“You’ll have people driving here from all over,” he said. “This is going to be the only one in the United States.”
Villaggio Colafrancesco has a sign at the entrance to its coffee and gelato shops describing its dress code and rules against cell phones and laptops. (Photo by Greg Garrison/AL.com)
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