The extraordinary Diane Cuna, who operates Made in Rome organic gelato in the Village, is steeped in circus history
By Hannah Wallace
Seven days a week, for up to 14 hours a day, Diane Cuna churns out a rainbow of organic gelato flavors for her Made in Rome shop in the middle of Siesta Village. It’s a hard-working, colorful way of “settling down,” but Cuna’s life has never been conventional.
Cuna was born a third-generation circus performer in the famed Theron Family, a French bicycle act who fled Europe during World War II and performed all over the world with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Cuna grew up performing cycling feats and crossbow stunts with her siblings.
She finally retired from show business at age 40 and, inspired by her Italian husband, began channeling her creativity and gregarious energy into gelato. She opened Made in Rome on Ocean Boulevard on April 19, 2017. Six years later, you can still find her there, telling stories and serving up her fiery spirit in frozen form.
Cuna was on the go from the very beginning. Two days after she was born in St. Louis, the whole family hit the road again, taking baby Diane with them.
“I was raised all over the world,” she said. “Canada, Mexico, Paris, Japan, Singapore, you name it!”
Her parents, cousins, aunts and uncles had captured the attention of international luminaries, including Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II, and Cuna and her siblings soon had celebrity fans as well. Guided by their father, the children’s cycling act (called the New Dollys) performed for the likes of Cary Grant, Sean Connery, and Telly Savalas. “Grace Kelly always wanted the New Dollys to open her shows,” said Cuna.
At age 10, Cuna was sent back to the United States to attend school at Gocio Elementary in Sarasota, home of the circus’ winter headquarters. But her circus career continued well into adulthood.
Then one year in Marbella, Spain, the French-American cyclist met an Italian man named Massimo — “my Roman Gladiator,” she called him. The two married and had a son, Michael. And when Michael was in first grade, Cuna returned to Sarasota with her family.
“Being in show business you don’t have a home base. This was the only real base,” she said.
The ‘gelato show’
“The Italians invented ice cream,” Cuna explained this March in between greeting guests at Made in Rome. “Gelato means frozen. The English changed the name to ‘ice cream.’”
In fact, traditional gelato as Cuna makes it contains only 8 percent fat to ice cream’s 25 percent. And ice cream is pumped full of air (which is why it melts quickly in the Florida heat), while gelato maintains a denser texture.
Cuna dedicated herself to organic, all-natural ingredients from the very beginning. Even her spoons and bowls are biodegradable. For her flavors, she started in Italy. Her pistachios come straight from Sicily, hazelnuts from Diamante. “Everything in the shop is Italian,” she said.
But even while keeping her things all-natural, her menu quickly expanded to add extra pizazz for American palates.
“Not every gelato does like I do,” said Cuna. “I make it here from scratch. I do not use artificial flavoring. People love the key lime. They love the teacher’s coffee [flavor]. Today I made birthday cake [flavor] because people have been asking for it. I cannot just do traditional Italian flavors, so I had to come up with some American flavors.”
Among her more unusual creations, Cuna makes a popular “Red Tide” flavor: chocolate gelato with pepperoncino, sea salt, and Italian cherries. She also serves a gelato with activated charcoal for a sort of dessert detox.
“It’s called carbone in Italy. It’s made from the husk of the coconut,” she said. “All the young girls who are getting married, they drink and party all night, then they come get my activated charcoal gelato.”
Above all else, Cuna has always seemed most invested in the people she serves, whether it’s Grace Kelly of Monaco or a little girl fresh off the beach. Adding to her talents as a cyclist, performer and now gelato shop owner in world-famous Siesta Key, Cuna still speaks “four or five languages,” a lasting vestige from her life on the road. She often chats with visiting tourists in their native tongues.