A sweet legacy

JAKARTA (CNA) – Stepping into Ragusa Italian ice cream parlour in Central Jakarta is like hopping into a time machine and travelling back in time.

Old photos of the 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 the current owner of the business Sias Mawarni.

She recounted how Luigi and Vincenzo Ragusa had visited Bandung city back then and met a Dutch woman 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.

Sias Mawarni and Buntoro Kurniawan now run the business with the help of their child and grandchildren.
Ragusa’s spaghetti ice cream, a favourite among customers

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, Mawarni’s husband Buntoro Kurniawan was working at the Jakarta parlour and they became family as Kurniawan’s sister had married the youngest Ragusa brother.

The Ragusa family then decided to give the business to Kurniawan and Mawarni.

“They just gave it to us. We didn’t have to pay at all,” Mawarni told CNA.

In the hands of Kurniawan, 87, and 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.

Mawarni said even Hong Kong actor Andy Lau had once visited the ice cream parlour.

“The ceiling fans were gifted by Andy Lau when he ate here,” she revealed.

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 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 Mawarni visited Italy in the 1990s, they decided to add spaghetti, 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 remained untouched as it is located about 1.5 kilometres from the presidential palace, hence the area was safeguarded.

“My husband then said to me, why do we need to have so many branches. It’s better to focus on just one or a few,” said 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 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.

Ragusa Italian’s ice cream has a special place in the hearts of many Indonesians.

Okie Johannes and his wife Fanny, were among the guests enjoying the treats.

Both 57-years-old, they have been visiting the place since they were young.

When they started dating, 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 Johannes.