The Big Chill

Page 2 of 6

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.)

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig