The Big Chill

Moreno Spangaro's gelato is so good that more than once, someone's tried to steal his secret recipe out of Arlecchino, the pint-sized gelateria he runs next door to La Grande Orange, in a strip mall that houses some of the best taste in town. Turns out, you'd have to kidnap the guy to get his recipes.

"I remember every single recipe by memory," he says, tapping his forehead. "I don't write anything down. If I write a new recipe, I memorize it and trash it."

You'd never get him to talk, though. Gelato is his life — he compares his "commitment" to gelato to a relationship with a woman. One time, a man in a technician's uniform showed up and told one of Spangaro's gelato servers that he was there to service the gelato machine. She immediately became suspicious and called her boss (the "technician" fled before Spangaro got there) because no one is allowed in the back of Arlecchino, not even the shop's employees.

Spangaro did make an exception recently. A few weeks ago, anticipating hot weather, I visited several gelato shops in town, intending to do a roundup review. I'd tried Arlecchino before, but after visiting again to compare it with some new places, I realized there's no competition. The place has me really spoiled. So I ditched the review and begged Spangaro to let me shadow him. With some cajoling, he agreed. After watching him make batch after batch of gelato, I now have a good idea of what goes into his — a lot of fresh organic fruit, for starters — but even now, I still couldn't tell you the slightest thing about his recipes.

On a recent Thursday morning, hours before Arlecchino opens, Spangaro downs a shot of espresso, and gears up for a marathon gelato-making session. Dressed in a blue T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a chunky, metal diving watch, he looks ready to race around the block — except for his navy blue apron.

"I like to be in the back — the producer," he says, prepping his streamlined kitchen. Behind the cubby-sized front counter, the space expands to include an empty metal sink and a drying rack along one wall, a row of fridges and a gelato machine along the other, and shelves stacked high with cans of pure nut paste and sacks of sugar. Off to the side, Spangaro works on a huge metal table. It's a simple setup that gives him plenty of room to dash from bowl to blender to machine.

He's making eight flavors today, each a starting point for Spangaro to philosophize. At the moment, it's his distinctively potent chocolate recipe.

"You can tell the difference between someone who used a mix and someone who cooked his own chocolate," he says, whisking several kinds of cocoa powder and single-origin chocolates over a burner. "Good chocolate is a mix of different chocolates because every one has different properties."

Don't get him started on properties. It's all very complicated and technical and, besides, he'll never reveal the math behind the mixtures. His method of making gelato is such a precise art that he uses a calculator and a scale for everything. He never makes me turn my back at any point when I'm in the kitchen, but he doesn't show me the numbers, either. And there are lots of things he tells me that I'm not allowed to write down.

Soon, the chocolate melts into a dark, glossy paste, and the heady aroma of chocolate hovers, one of the few clues of what's going on in here. Arlecchino — which means harlequin — is easy to miss, just a single freezer case next to the counter, a small chalkboard for prices, and a couple of seats along the front. There's no room for tables, no room to linger, and the place doesn't even sell espresso or pastries like many gelaterias in Italy.

But this stuff is straight out of the Old Country, as are Spangaro and his recipes. Anyone who complains that Phoenix has no culinary soul hasn't been to Arlecchino. Moreno Spangaro is to gelato what Chris Bianco is to pizza. Like Bianco, whose Phoenix restaurants take a day off when he takes a day off, Spangaro makes every spoonful of gelato himself, every day, one pan at a time.

It's easy to open a gelato shop. Just buy prepared gelato bases and jars of imported flavorings and pour them into a gelato machine. You can get it all on the Internet. But in this age of prefab gelato, Spangaro insists on making everything from scratch. And most of his ingredients come straight from Phoenix's top organic grower.

What Spangaro sells at Arlecchino will blow away all your previous definitions of good gelato.

No, make that killer gelato.

It takes only a taste to understand why. The chocolate gelato is rich and deep, with a mysterious flavor that expands the moment it warms on your tongue. There's no bitterness to the perfectly balanced espresso gelato, and the hazelnut is just sweet enough. The fruit flavors are like idealized versions of the fruit, as dense with fresh berries or citrus or bananas as your taste buds can handle. And the velvety pistachio gelato — one of Arlecchino's bestsellers — is so complex and vivid it's a religious experience.

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?"

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.

For many, the appeal has as much to do with the notion that it's low-fat as with its addicting texture or flavors.

To hear Moreno Spangaro talk about it, it's downright healthful.

"There's nothing wrong with butterfat," he says, reassuringly. "I eat two, three scoops a day."

The guy looks athletic and he doesn't even exercise. And yes, he says, gelato has less butterfat by definition. The frozen dairy dessert needs to contain a minimum of 2.75 percent butterfat, and averages between 7 and 9 percent, depending on the region of Italy. (Arlecchino's ranges from 6.5 to 9.5 percent) Once it surpasses 14 percent, it becomes ice cream, and it goes up from there to premium ice cream.

The dense texture that sets gelato apart from ice cream actually has to do with the way it's made — an ice cream machine's narrow, faster-spinning spatula incorporates more air into the product, while a gelato machine's wider, slower-turning spatula incorporates less.

And what's the difference between sorbet and fruit gelato? They're both water-based, Spangaro explains, but the latter consists of less than 30 percent fruit. Sorbet, on the other hand, can be anywhere from 30 to as much as 70 percent fruit, depending on what kind is used, creating intensely concentrated flavors. Spangaro says all his fruit flavors have zero fat.

Because each fruit has a different level of sweetness, a different ratio of solids to liquids, and different freezing properties, there's no blanket formula for making sorbet. Fruit makes things complicated, Spangaro says, because each one needs its own recipe to achieve the best texture without getting icy or gummy.

For any given recipe, he uses the highest possible amount of fruit. Consider that one 3.5-kilo pan of Arlecchino's blood orange requires at least 20 pounds of fruit, which he juices by hand; regular orange takes about 15. For berry flavors, Spangaro can easily use three pounds.

His handy kitchen calculator makes it all possible, but certain things he can't control.

"The only difference between me making strawberry today or tomorrow is whether the strawberries are better today or tomorrow," he says.

On a crisp, sunny Wednesday morning in late March, the farmer's market at Town & Country plaza in central Phoenix is bustling. Amid crates of shiny apples and pears in shades of green and red, retirees reach into bins of baby spinach, while young women push strollers past rows of pale, peach-colored grapefruit. Moreno Spangaro is here too, ready to stock up on fruit for the next few days. What's available today will determine the flavors he'll make.

Bob McClendon, the certified organic grower who's selling most of the produce at the weekly market, greets Spangaro like an old friend. With his cropped gray hair, denim shirt, and wide, black back-support belt, McClendon has a grandfatherly air, and he chats while Spangaro wanders off to scope out the citrus.

"I didn't have gelato until I had Moreno's gelato," McClendon says. "I won't work with anyone else. I call him a gelato chef! He's a master. He's the only one who cares about what's in his gelato."

That's a huge compliment. At high-end local restaurants, McClendon's name has cachet — "McClendon's Select" often appears on menus where every precious ingredient comes with provenance.

"We have about 30 restaurants we deal with, which is about 90 percent of our business. We deal with discriminating chefs who really care about ingredients," says McClendon, who counts Spangaro among this town's culinary elite. "He's no different from Chris Bianco, Chrysa Kaufman, or Kevin Binkley," referring to the chefs at Pizzeria Bianco, Rancho Pinot, and Binkley's, respectively.

McClendon goes on to talk about how the harsh winter affected his business. He had blood oranges for about only a month this year, and then there was the freeze in January that destroyed everything.

Just then, Spangaro walks up, and McClendon turns to help a customer. Yes, Spangaro agrees, those were really good blood oranges. He made a couple of pans of gelato with them, and then the supply ran out. By the way, he wonders aloud, how many gelato shops are still selling blood orange-flavored gelato right now? At some places, it's available all year.

"How do you get blood oranges in June, July, August, and it looks like a red Ferrari?" Spangaro says, incredulously. "I've had people say to me, 'What? Do you squeeze the oranges yourself? You're crazy. Why don't you make it simple?' And these were people who own gelato shops."

Apparently, people who own gelato shops are his biggest critics. He mentions a number of run-ins with competitors — all unnamed — who've come into Arlecchino to question his methods. Does he really cook his own chocolate from scratch? Are the gelato bases really homemade? Is the pistachio gelato really made with 100 percent pure Sicilian pistachios, with no fillers?

He laughs it all off, though, and says he knows a good testing lab that could prove the purity of his gelato ingredients, if it came down to it. Spangaro's an unabashed quality freak.

But it's no surprise, considering his background. He and his wife, Marina, grew up in Trieste, Italy, a city well-known for its coffee — Illy Coffee is based there — and its gelato. Spangaro estimates there are about 45 gelato places to serve a population of 270,000. Because it's a port city on northeastern Italy's Adriatic coast, Trieste's been a cultural hot spot for centuries.

As a kid, Spangaro was always around restaurants; his father owned five. He started helping behind the counter at age 12 and entered a two-year culinary program at 15. A year later, he juggled his studies with a catering job that sometimes had him working more than 50 hours in a three-day weekend. And at age "18 and a half," Spangaro opened his own pizzeria in Trieste.

His 12-table place was always packed. They served more than 30 kinds of thin-crust, wood-fired pizza, with exquisite toppings that he'll describe only off the record. "Oh, I used to make good pizza," he says, sounding momentarily nostalgic. He got tired of it, though, and turned his half of the restaurant over to his business partner after two and a half years.

Why the switch to gelato, then? "Of all the things I've worked with in the restaurant industry," he says, "gelato is the most fun."

Spangaro didn't jump into it right away, though. After leaving the pizza biz, he moved to Los Angeles. His 11-year-old daughter still lives there, with her mother. He prefers to stay mum on most of the details of his life in L.A., but he will say that he returned to Italy several times over the years. He got together with Marina in 2000, and, soon after, she moved to the States to be with him.

Marina is allowed in the back of the shop, of course, but usually she's busy waiting on customers. Besides, her husband likes to make gelato in the morning.

He misses the quality of life in Italy but says everything's harder there: You need more training and more experience to own any kind of business, and you'll pay much higher taxes on everything.

"The system (in Italy) doesn't allow you to be who you want to be," Spangaro says. "There are incredible talents there. But here, if you're good, you can create your own line of what you want to do. Your talent can stand out."

That said, he needed to return to Trieste to learn how to make gelato. And none of it would've been possible without his mentor, Fabio Sacchetto, the man Spangaro calls his "maestro."

Sacchetto is a true gelataio — a title reserved for someone who knows how to make everything himself, from scratch — and his product is certified gelato artigianale, artisanal gelato. In a country full of gelato makers and gelato shops, it's a rare, hard-earned designation that signifies the highest possible quality. Sacchetto does not speak much English, but his shop's Web site — all in Italian — does note his artisanal methods and philosophy of using only fresh, high-quality ingredients.

Spangaro first visited Sacchetto's shop, Udevalla, about 15 years ago. It was the best gelato he'd ever had, and he hasn't found better since. In 2003, he approached Sacchetto about learning his art.

"I told him, 'Honestly, you are the best gelato maker I can find, and I'd like to learn how to make gelato this way.' I didn't want to go for my second or third choice," says Spangaro.

"It took 60 seconds for my maestro to say yes to me," he continues. "I started the same day! It was five days a week, 12 hours a day, for 20 months." With no pay. "I couldn't accept any money."

So from 2003 to 2005, Spangaro made gelato and pastries all day in a shop even smaller than Arlecchino. "The location is horrible, but people go there for the quality. My maestro opens at 5:30 p.m. with 30 people already in line."

When he and and his wife came back to the U.S., Spangaro looked into opening his own gelateria in Los Angeles but couldn't find a location that worked. Then, a good friend who used to live in L.A. invited the couple to visit Phoenix. Before long, they moved here, and four and a half months later, in December 2005, they opened Arlecchino.

After 16 months in business, thanks to strong word of mouth about Arlecchino, the converts just keep on coming.

Several clean-cut young guys who work for University of Phoenix show up like clockwork every Friday to eat four or five scoops of gelato for lunch. Recently, another big group of people has started dropping by regularly too. There's a couple who drive up from Tucson every other weekend, just for gelato. And then there are the random individuals who casually drop in, like the young Mormon man who completed a two-year mission in Italy and speaks with Marina and Moreno in fluent Italian (Mormons are hooked on gelato, he says), or the friendly old gentleman whose family owned one of the most distinguished pastry shops in Trieste, the Spangaros' hometown. Arlecchino is a magnet for native Italians.

It draws the foodies, too, thanks to Moreno Spangaro's unusual flavors. One of his original recipes, called Valentino, uses an infusion of pomegranate, berries, rose petals and lavender. Another one, called Vesuvio, is sold only on weekends — it's made with chocolate gelato and layers of crushed hazelnuts and chocolate wafers mixed with Grand Marnier.

"This flavor goes like crazy," Spangaro says one day, as he's mixing a batch. "There used to be a woman who'd come in right at opening time on Friday, 11:30 a.m., and buy the whole pan of it. Now, it's only for sale after 5 on Fridays."

Depending on what's available, Spangaro might make prickly pear gelato or tequila lime sorbet. Organic yogurt gelato requires him to cook a special base just for that flavor, but the result is worth it — the taste and texture put ordinary frozen yogurt to shame.

And for private customers, Spangaro's gone even more exotic, whipping up gelato with champagne, Jack Daniel's (with more than a liter and a half in one pan), or red Zinfandel grapes from a friend's Napa Valley estate. One time, he even made a decadent gelato using white truffles from Alba. The delicacies are available only from December to February, and this year, they ran about $1,800 a pound. He sold it by the pan, but if he'd sold it by the scoop, it would've been 10 or 12 dollars apiece.

Right now, Spangaro's in the process of getting copyrights for his gelato base recipes. He could make a fortune on them if he wanted to, but he'd rather protect them than sell them. Although he wouldn't rule out franchising if his high standards could be maintained, at the moment, his plan is to start training a young man to make gelato this summer, in the hopes of opening a second shop next year. They've been talking about it since before Spangaro even opened Arlecchino.

Plenty of people have offered to work for him for free, but he's extremely wary. "I know where they're coming from," he says. There also have been a few incidents of people asking employees very specific, technical questions about how Spangaro makes his gelato.

A few months after Arlecchino opened, somebody broke into the shop and tried to steal the recipes. They didn't actually take anything off the premises; instead, they lined up dozens of pages of Spangaro's notes — all in Italian — and, apparently, took photos of them. (Turns out, the notes did not include the recipes.)

Two weeks after the break-in, someone tried to burglarize Spangaro's maestro's place in Italy, he says, but again, there were no recipes to steal. Then, a couple of months later, the "technician" arrived at Arlecchino.

"He said, 'It'll only take a couple of minutes.' This was a five-month-old machine at that point," Spangaro says. "My employee called me, and I said, 'I'm gonna be right there.' It took me less than two minutes to get there because I live in an apartment building across the street - and I ran. He left 10 seconds before I got there."

Thankfully, nothing shady has happened since. A more typical scenario these days — now that word's out on Arlecchino — is admirers coming in to negotiate with Spangaro. Or to try, at least.

One customer, who owns some buildings in Tokyo, and has tried gelato all over the world, comes to Phoenix a few times a year. He makes Spangaro an offer every time he visits. If he agreed to it, Spangaro could get his own shop and a very large amount of money — but the catch is, he'd have to move to Tokyo.

For now, he says he's not interested in the least. Let's hope he never changes his mind.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig