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.