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.