In 2016, American Tracy Fontana opened the Barcelona gelato shop, Swiit, in the living room of her Gótico home. Now, one door up, she’s opened an interiors store. This is how her family transformed a backstreet into a community.
Baixada de Viladecols is one of those quintessentially quaint streets in the Gothic Quarter where centuries-old remnants of Roman walls hangout with independent jewelry boutiques and galleries. You’re somewhere in the labyrinth between the Barcelona Catedral and Port Vell – but not even the Google Maps geolocator, swaying across your phone screen like it’s been drinking excessive amounts of cava, can tell exactly.
For San Franciscan Tracy Fontana, however, Baixada de Viladecols showed up on her Barcelona radar way back in 2008. “I remember walking here with my husband Giovanni and telling him how beautiful it was, how much I loved this street, and him wistfully replying that maybe one day we could have a business or a design shop here,” she says and smiles.
That mythical ‘one day’ arrived following brainstormed business ideas and on-the-job learning. Today, the couple and their three teenage children have made both happen in the heart of Barcelona. First, came the Barcelona gelato shop Swiit: a tiny, vintage-styled store selling icy swirls of crema catalana, crunchy pistachio, and organic goat’s cheese and honey in cups you wish never emptied. Then, in 2019, they rejuvenated the blacksmith’s studio just up the street from their Barcelona gelato shop and turned it into Anzi, a home décor store. The old ironmonger’s forge may still remain (ditto an intriguing secret trapdoor in the cobbled floor), but around it the couple have curated an impeccable-eyed edit of vintage furniture, locally made homeware and gifts, plus artworks by a pool of international artists.
A Life Across Continents
Ice cream and interiors aren’t a classic business pairing. But then, Tracy and Giovanni’s story isn’t one of corporate ladder-climbing. Theirs is an anti-business business story: a heart-rules-head journey of country-hopping and Mediterranean dreaming that began at university in San Francisco when Tracy met Giovanni, a graphic designer from Milan. They spent their first seven years in Milan, where Giovanni worked at Walt Disney, then returned to San Francisco and organized bespoke cooking and opera tours to Italy. Their life was an American-Italian back-and-forth that worked perfectly until they had their first child, Nico, in 1997, and the travel simply became impossible for Tracy.
She continued to consult in the travel industry, but in 2000, when Giovanni grew tired of San Fran’s work-first mentality, they jumped on an opportunity to move to Sardinia to launch a magazine for the Costa Smeralda. “I said, why not, we can live anywhere for a year,” says Tracy. “Though we actually stayed for eight years, bought land, built a house and had two more kids, Alessia and Leo,” she laughs. While Sardinian life was unquestionably idyllic – they lived five minutes from the ocean in a little village so picturesque it was often used as a movie location – they began to worry it was isolating for their young family.
“We knew it would be good for the kids to be exposed to more,” admits Tracy.
“We asked ourselves, where can we go that’s still on the sea, has good weather, and the people are really chill? Ahh, Barcelona! We’d only visited for one weekend previously, but we sold our house and put everything in motion.”
A Future on Ice
The family initially rented an apartment on Passeig de Gràcia after arriving in Barcelona in 2008. But Tracy immediately began stalking her dream house online. “It was much more money than we wanted to spend, but after several months it was still available so I thought I’d view it. When I came, it was on Baixada de Viladecols — my street!” With the owners desperate to sell, they came down significantly on the price and the Fontanas snapped it up — the cherry on top being that the ground floor was a commercial space, so they had the option of turning it into a business if they ever wanted to.
For the first seven years, Tracy and Giovanni will admit that they didn’t give business much thought. Still financially comfortable from the sale of their Sardinian home, they prioritized living – until their bank balance galvanized them forward. “We suddenly realized that we better start working or we would run out of money,” Tracy confesses. But what to do? Their first idea was an Anzi-type design shop, but they panicked. “We’d watched businesses on this street fail and seen shops change hands four times in the few years we’d lived here. An interiors store takes time to build clientele, and we needed cash quickly,” explains Giovanni. So, they brainstormed ideas – and contacts. “We are not from the food industry at all, but we had an Italian friend in Gràcia making incredible gelato,” continues Tracy. The omnipresent Barcelona gelato shop still hadn’t made it into their part of the neighborhood.
“There was no gelato shop in the area, and with ice cream you open the door and know pretty quickly if it’s going to work.”
Only, that door would be the front door of their house. They had €12,000 to get their living room gelato-ready. They bought machinery, decorated the space with six old doors from Otranto, and used Giovanni’s graphic design prowess to make the logo, signs, and packaging. “Then, one day, we opened the front windows, laid out cushions for people to sit on, and our home was open,” says Tracy. “I remember shouting, oh my gosh, I feel naked.”
Swiit’s reputation took off. First, the neighbors came – surprised to wake up and find a gelato shop on their street. Then came the tourists, followed by word of mouth. As people kept returning, Tracy and Giovanni found themselves with two unexpected results – constant wrist-ache from scooping, and a community. “Before Swiit, we had some friends but they were all parents from our kids’ schools. Once we opened, we knew everybody. I would walk in the city and 20 people would say hi to me,” describes Giovanni.
Such relationships meant they were the first to know when the space that now houses Anzi, became available in winter 2018. While Tracy and Giovanni threw themselves into sourcing objects for Anzi (Italian for ‘on the contrary’), their 19-year-old daughter Alessia started running their charming Barcelona gelato shop.
“You never know how motivated your kids will be in the family business, but she is incredible and has the highest standards,” confirms Tracy, proudly.
Barcelona has been an opportunity-laden experience for all of their children. Their oldest, Nico, has used the proximity to central Europe to study journalism in Prague. Though it’s arguably their youngest, 17-year-old Leo, who’s flourished. Born with Down syndrome, Tracy and Giovanni found he was slipping through the school system in Italy. “Italy has a completely inclusive school system; there are no special education schools. On paper that’s fantastic,” Tracy explains. “But with 25 kids in a class and only one teacher, no one was helping Leo.” In Barcelona, the European Down Syndrome Foundation recommended a special education school in Sarrià. The class size is five to six students, and it runs a foundation in Vallvidrera that offers the children work opportunities, such as screen-printing for companies in the city.
“To come here and find these opportunities, it’s so wonderful for our kids,” Tracy concludes. “And it’s wonderful for us. In our barrio, we now know every shop owner, every neighbor, all the children. When someone walks into one of our shops and gasps when they see a product, that is the best feeling.”
Tracy’s Quick-fire Barcelona Guide
Imagine it’s your last night in Barcelona. Where do you eat?
Belmonte (Carrer de la Mercė, 29) for perfectly prepared Catalan dishes. The blood sausage and caramelized onion tortilla is insanely good, and their confit di pato is so crispy.
What’s the most underrated tourist attraction?
The labyrinth in Horta is so calm and quiet.
What part of Catalan life are you still getting used to?
The traffic. Whenever we venture up to Eixample, I always think, ‘It’s so civilized up here!’, but then the traffic noise sends me back to my barrio.
And your favorite thing about Barcelona?
The laidback quality of life that comes from great weather, a perfect location by the sea, and a Mediterranean mentality.
Finally, tell us a local gem that you’d normally only let a best friend in on.
Our street! There’s cheese at Formatgeria La Seu, the Mercer Hotel , beautiful jewelry at Roberto & Victoria Cult, plus children’s wear at Konfetti Kids.