The Big Chill

Page 4 of 6

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.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig