The Big Chill

One Valley gelateria has the competition licked

Mei Lee, co-owner of the popular Gelato Spot chain, is well-aware of Arlecchino's presence and sounds dismayed when asked to comment.

"I don't know. They're good," she says. "What do you want me to say?"


Marina and Moreno Spangaro in their 16-month-old shop.
Peter Scanlon
Marina and Moreno Spangaro in their 16-month-old shop.
Moreno preps fresh fruit.
Peter Scanlon
Moreno preps fresh fruit.

Arlecchino has a serious cult following. On weekend nights, especially, people line up out the door. The Valley clearly has enough customers to go around among several gelaterias — and, frankly, the parking lot on the southwest corner of 40th Street and Campbell can hardly handle more traffic.

It would be easier to drive a few blocks north, to Gelato Spot, at 32nd and Camelback. Before Spangaro opened his place a little more than a year ago, people were raving about Gelato Spot, where fresh-faced, uniformed staffers hand out free samples of about three dozen varieties of gelato, all lavishly displayed with carved fruit and other toppings. Before that, Angel Sweet in Chandler was considered the best in town. Now, Gelato Spot's a chain with four locations, and several upstart gelato businesses have announced their openings in the past few months, each one boasting more flavors than the last.

Spangaro is careful to not name names. But he's not pleased by the trend.

"Who has the best gelato when they all use the same products from the same supplier? There's no character in the product, and the gelato is all the same," he says, frustrated. "The business is growing, and to me, it's just growing in the wrong direction."

You don't need to be a gelato master to understand what he's getting at. Even in Italy, the gelato industry is changing, but there are still small artisan producers. Here, it's an investment. Anyone can take an introductory seminar to learn the basics, purchase bases, flavors, texturizers and stabilizers from a major supplier — and put it all into a gelato machine. According to Spangaro, though, that's not making gelato.

"People just jump into it because there's money to be made, and that's a mistake. Usually, the owner's not even there. It's just these kids making it," he says. Places like that can fill a display case with 40, even 60 flavors. Spangaro thinks that's wasteful at the least and, at the worst, a detriment to the gelato, which quickly deteriorates with exposure to light, air, and humidity. Not to mention, it'd be impossible to crank out that much gelato from scratch each day, using the same artisan techniques he uses.

"The first rule my maestro taught me is if it has 24 or more flavors, turn around and walk out," he says. "When you walk into a gelato place, forget about the display, forget about what's around you. Close your eyes and be concentrated on the flavor, and see if you can detect chemicals."

Indeed, to taste Arlecchino's delicate blood orange sorbet, and to see its fragile pastel color, conjures up visceral comparisons with the brightly colored, boldly flavored versions sold everywhere else, even when the fruit's long been out of season.

Spangaro thinks it's just a matter of time before customers figure out the difference. "In most cases, it makes me happy when I have people asking me, 'Moreno, what have we been eating all this time?'"


Because we Americans are practically raised on ice cream, there's been a learning curve about what makes gelato different. The two things that usually stick with people are gelato's denser texture and its lower content of butterfat. (More on that later.)

Modern gelato — which comes from the Latin word gelare, "to freeze" — has come a long way from its ancient roots, when Arabs mixed snow with flavorings like grapes, rosewater, and violets to come up with refreshments called "sherbet." In the Bible, Isaac served his father Abraham a mixture of goat milk and snow. And in China, frozen desserts evolved from preserving food in snow.

In the Middle Ages, Arabs introduced their icy creation to the Sicilians, who developed it into the first sorbetto. During the Renaissance, Italians took their dessert to other parts of Europe, where it was served at royal banquets. Then, in 1686, Sicilian-born Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened the first artisanal gelato business, Café Procope, in Paris. It became one of the most popular places for the city's intellectual heavyweights to see and be seen. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot hung out there, and even King Louis XIV was a client. (The cafe still exists, on the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie, across the street from La Comedie Fran#231aise. It's considered the oldest in Paris.)

Gelato became popular across Europe, but it was a late bloomer in the States, especially because ice cream was invented here in the mid-19th century. But as with all things foreign and delicious, Americans finally discovered it on a large scale in recent decades. In the 1980s, gelato became trendy across the country, but in many places — like Phoenix — it was just a passing craze. During the '90s, when frozen yogurt was the dessert du jour, you could find gelato only at Italian restaurants and in Italian neighborhoods.

In the past few years, though, it became one of the biggest culinary trends around, up there in ubiquity with tapas and gourmet burgers. Marina Spangaro, Moreno's petite, brown-eyed wife, says she can tell just by talking to her customers that many people have visited Italy, or even lived there, because they're already familiar with gelato. The product doesn't require an explanation these days.

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12 comments
Ben
Ben

Viva La Arlecchino! Anybody who claims this as overpriced severely undervalues top quality... A scoop of heaven for $4? I'll take 2 please.

Giorgio Tresoldi
Giorgio Tresoldi

This is what the New times is all about, I'm garateful you do stories about the small guy doing a better job than the big companies, I refuse to eat the baskisn's the dipping's the ben's and all the other chemical artificial colors and flavors.......for the price of real stuff, I hope arlecchino keeps up the quality and does not enter the game of the big companies with kids runing the store and fast instant gelato like others.

Danila Marchetti
Danila Marchetti

It's good to have a healty alternative, franchises are poisoning us with the processed,and artificial flavors and colors.

Rosa Cordova
Rosa Cordova

I travel to phoenix just for the gelato!

frank medina
frank medina

I used to go there to get the pizza at the place next door at la grand orange but now I go to arlecchino to get gelato.....then if I have room pizza!

aldo magnano
aldo magnano

this is the best gelato i have ever tasted, glad you did the story, went there and tried it earlier, it was hard to stop ordering more, going back after dinner.oh yeah the guy that said it's overpriced, compared to what? other gelatos and ice creams are about the same and they are air filled.

aldo magnano

Harland Beuden
Harland Beuden

WOW! I could not believe the great taste of the pistachio gelato, out of this world.

Guille Castillo
Guille Castillo

I'm hooked for life, best gelato I have ever tasted, my favorite is the coffe, as far as the comment someone made about it being overpriced.....crazy! it's the best product for the money.

Guille castillo

sergio moreno
sergio moreno

as a proffessional pilot I have traveled the world and in Italy got hooked on gelato, I have walked the main streets in Rome,Milano and Verona trying every gelato shop in sight, my amazement was I found the best gelato in phoenix at arlecchino gelateria, when you learn how gelato is supposed to taste you can tell if there are chemicals, when the gelato is gummy or tastes good at first but than you get the aftertaste you know there are chemicals and preservatives in it, also if you feel sleepy or heavy after heaving your gelato you have consumed corn syrup instead of good quality sugar, the beatiful bright colors belong on clothing not in gelato.thank you Marina and Moreno for bringing to phoenix the best gelato I have ever tasted.

sergio moreno, El Paso texas

so what
so what

4 pages on overpriced ice cream? Slow news year?

 
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