Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc has given us yet another reason to be obsessed with Fishtown: Flow State CoffeeBar.

By Alexandra Jones
October 08, 2019

Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood is one of the best restaurant drags in the city. But just a block north of the boundary separating Fishtown and eclectic, postindustrial Kensington on Frankford, a small coworking café is serving the city’s best gelato.

The café is Flow State CoffeeBar. The force behind that gelato is chef and co-owner Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc, who opened the coffee shop, coworking space, and gelateria with her wife, Liz Diamond-Manlusoc, and their friend Maggie Lee last June.

The colorful café’s pastry case is stocked with jam-filled pound cake muffins, sandy-textured sables, and tender conchas crusted in vanilla sugar. In the glass-topped freezer are velvety gelati and sorbetti in flavors like guava cinnamon, honey cashew, and buko pandan—the classic Filipino combination of coconut steeped with sweet, aromatic pandan leaves. Peek into the open kitchen and you’ll see Diamond-Manlusoc rolling, baking, and churning it all in her crisp periwinkle chef’s coat, hair swept up and curled into a bright purple, 1940s-style “victory roll” above her forehead.

“I think of myself as a gelataia first,” said Diamond-Manlusoc. “I only care about excellence. I don’t want something good; I don’t want pretty good.”

The chef developed that ethos long before she entered culinary school or worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. She found that discipline in music, which she started playing at age nine. “Nobody wants to listen to music that’s 80 percent correct,” she said. “You’re always pushing yourself to get better, because 80 percent is just ugh.”

Diamond-Manlusoc grew up in a Filipino-American household outside of Detroit. An enthusiastic student who always wanted to be a teacher, she headed to Michigan State to play tenor sax and pursue a music education degree. It was during her time there that she met Liz and tasted her first gelato on a trip to northern Italy with her saxophone quartet in 2001, when “nobody was a foodie—it wasn’t a thing,” she said. “I didn’t know what gelato was. I thought it was just ice cream.”

Between concerts and workshops, an Italian classmate brought the group to a tiny gelateria outside Bologna, where Diamond-Manlusoc ordered scoops of strawberry and cantaloupe sorbetti. That's when her life changed. “I was like, 'Oh my God, it tastes just like a strawberry!' she said. “I didn’t know you get that donkey kick of flavor in your mouth, and that’s what it’s all about.” Back in Michigan, she and Liz, a percussionist, started dating, then headed to Chicago to teach.

At home, Diamond-Manlusoc made batches of gelato in a $50 Cuisinart ice cream maker, using the memory of that pure kick of flavor as her guide. Soon, their freezer was overflowing, so she brought some to school for her fellow teachers—then started selling them for $5 each.

That hobby turned into an escape from her day job: she loved teaching, but she was closeted, unhappy, and burning out at work. She dreamed of owning a tiny gelato stall, the kind she’d seen in Bologna. She enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, then worked at restaurants like Morimoto’s Japonais and Michelin-starred Blackbird and Spiaggia, where she once served a multicourse Thanksgiving dinner in the form of gelato—but she knew she’d never be able to open the little gelateria of her dreams in Chicago’s cutthroat market. When Lee moved to Philly in 2015, the trio decided they’d open their ideal café there: great food, lots of outlets and good Wi-Fi, and, of course, gelato.

In addition to the café’s regular menu, Diamond-Manlusoc has drawn on her experience with high-end plated desserts to take classic frozen treats to new heights. The Cakesicle, her latest creation, is essentially high tea on a stick: Airy almond sponge cake is baked in special molds, then spread with apricot jam. Next comes a layer of gelato—infused with Crema Earl Grey from Chicago’s Rare Tea Cellars, it’s the most expensive variety she makes—frozen in the same shape, with the stick sandwiched in between. Each frozen pop is dipped in the chef’s own pate a glacer, a blend of 35% and 65% chocolates from Swiss producer Felchlin, with bits of cacao nib for crunch.

The finishing touch? A dab of 24-karat gold leaf in the center of each Cakesicle. “Otherwise, it just looks like a Magnum or Haagen-Dasz bar,” she said. “You put the gold on and people know it’s something else.”

But Diamond-Manlusoc isn’t only inspired by her plated dessert days. “I struggle with my cultural identity. That’s why I started doing Filipino Friday,” she said. “When you’re part of a diaspora, you feel like you have one foot here and one foot in the other place, but you never feel like you belong.” With a weekly special in the bakery case, she’s sharing her love for classic Flipino flavors with the neighborhood.

That means grassy-green buko pandan butter mochi—“I say it’s like the red velvet of the Phillippines to help people understand it”—or her auntie’s recipe for silky smooth leche flan. Other weeks, she makes vivid purple crullers or yeasted sweet rolls swirled with ube—dubbed “victory rolls” after her signature plum-colored coif.

At first, Diamond-Manlusoc wasn’t sure how these flavors would be received, but now Flow State goes through a gallon and a half of pandan sorbetto each week. “I always joke with Maggie after Filipino Friday, ‘Did the Kensington whites like it?’” she said with a laugh. “That’s how I can gauge the next Friday, if I can push it further.”

Flow State Coffeebar, 2413 Frankford Ave, Philadelphia.

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