LEO BULGARINI is a little obsessed with gelato. The Rome-born ex-sommelier and his wife, Elizabeth Foldi, spent two years scouring villages throughout Italy seeking those who still made gelato the old way, using not pastes and premade bases, but fresh ingredients.
Seeking the right pistachios for the gelato they make in their new Altadena gelateria, they traveled from Rome to Sicily, finding them at last in the little town of Bronte. California pistachios, he says, don't have the right depth of flavor. Toasted in the oven, then crushed in an old-fashioned peanut butter grinder, the Sicilian pistachios go into a gelato that's dense and creamy, with a rich, earthy flavor and a raspy texture that reminds you just how distinctive the nuts are. It is just as wonderful as his cantaloupe sorbetto spiked with Tanqueray gin, that, he says, gives the sorbetto "extra oomph and a certain depth."
Bulgarini and a few others in and around Los Angeles are taking gelato and ice cream to a whole new level. At Milk in West Hollywood, a Patina Group chef is giving old-fashioned ice cream the kind of devoted attention he used to give to a smoked sturgeon and potato terrine. Gelato Bar in Studio City is updating classic Italian gelato with fresh California ingredients. The results couldn't be more delicious.
It's not the first time gelato has been in the spotlight in Los Angeles -- in the late '80s there was a gelateria craze. But this generation of artisans, joined by an ice cream maker or two, is taking the craft to something that seems more like an art. They're perfecting techniques to get the purest flavor and creamiest texture, seeking out the ripest peak-season fruit, the best chocolate, the most flavorful, freshest nuts.
Gelato -- Italian ice cream -- is denser and less rich than most American ice cream, often with more intensity of flavor. Less air is incorporated into it, and it has a lower butterfat content than ice cream, largely because of a preference for milk over cream.
Bulgarini, who until 2006 worked as a consulting sommelier at Tre Venezie in Pasadena, first made gelato when he was a child in Rome, with his uncle. He and Foldi were determined, when they came up with the idea of opening a gelateria, to learn to make gelato the old-fashioned way. "The artisan is dying out," Bulgarini says. "Both here and in Italy."
In search of excellence
IT wasn't easy finding worthy teachers. "In Rome right now there are about eight gelaterias that make it from scratch," Bulgarini says. "Maybe 99% of gelato in Italy is industrial," adds Foldi, a Pasadena native who gave up her career as a litigator to make gelato. "It was killing her soul," says her husband.
At last they found the gelato genius they were looking for in 82-year-old Guido Luca Cavieziel, a third-generation gelato maker, in retirement in the Sicilian town of Catania. In the two months he spent with Bulgarini and Foldi, he taught them the formulas he used to make superlative gelati. The distinctive creaminess of gelato comes from ingredients combined in specific proportion to each other. "If you do the math, you don't have to add a bunch of junk," Bulgarini says. Just the freshest fruit, the best nuts, the purest milk (Bulgarini's comes from Broguiere's Dairy in Montebello).
They opened their shop, Bulgarini Gelato, in a pretty courtyard under the looming San Gabriel mountains, just 11 days ago. (Before he opened in Altadena, Bulgarini wandered with his gelato cart from venue to venue for a year, peddling from the Pacific Asia Museum to Caltech to Pasadena's Laemmle Playhouse 7 movie theater.)
The gelateria has the charm of an airy farmhouse kitchen, with rustic painted furniture and shelves filled with jars of brightly colored amaretti and Italian chocolates. A beautiful copper Elektra espresso machine and a vintage 1960s granita maker the couple had shipped from Rome are more like architectural still lifes than machinery.
Bulgarini changes flavors daily, depending on what he and Foldi bring back from trips to local farms -- or what they pack in their suitcase during frequent trips to Italy. Raspberries from Santa Barbara go into an intensely flavored raspberry sorbetto. Marsala from Sicily sets the zabaglione gelato apart; Ojai cherimoyas from Santa Barbara Farmers Market make spectacular tropical gelato.
Gail Silverton, who opened Gelato Bar with partner and fiance Joel Gutman in September, is just as obsessed as Bulgarini, but she leaves the gelato making to Allessandro Fontana, a gelato specialist who came to Los Angeles from Venice in August.
Silverton creates the gelato flavors in consultation with Fontana. Some are her takes on old favorites, like the beautifully perfumed strawberry sorbetto made with strawberries she gets from local farmers markets. "Some we just invent," Silverton says. Like cinnamon basil or black sesame gelato, or a vanilla gelato with ribbons of dark chocolate and candied orange peel. Or the creamy chocolate sorbetto that Silverton loves to pair with a blood orange sorbetto Fontana makes with the oranges from his backyard tree. "That's my favorite combination," Silverton says.
Silverton's original plan was to make her own gelato. She'd just completed a gelato-making class given by Carpagiani, an Italian gelato machine manufacturer. When she learned her new storefront wasn't equipped with enough power to run her gelato machines, the Carpagiani people put her in touch with Fontana. He makes Silverton's gelato at a facility in Burbank, though the two have been talking about opening a shop of their own. "Of course we want to make it in-house," Silverton says. "We've wanted that since the beginning."
Silverton's Studio City shop reflects not her childhood in Los Angeles as much as her adulthood, much of it spent in Umbria. The ambience is all Italy: tiled floors, an indoor stone fountain, marble-topped counters, cafe tables and, on Thursday afternoons, free Italian lessons given by the same expat Italian woman who gives Silverton her lessons. Though Silverton's background is in education, not food, (she runs the Neighborhood School, a private preschool in the San Fernando Valley) gelatomania seems to run in the family: At her sister Nancy Silverton's Pizzeria Mozza, all but one of the desserts involves gelato, made on site by Nancy and pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez.
Dreamy ice cream
BUT passion for frozen desserts doesn't stop with gelato; at Milk, American ice cream gets the epicurean treatment. Big glass cases display a dozen house-made ice cream flavors such as coffee toffee made with house-made toffee candy, dense Vahlrona chocolate, and mango, made from ripe fruit that chef-owner Bret Thompson picks up in an Asian market near his home. There are also macaron-encased ice cream sandwiches; hand-dipped ice cream bonbons; ice cream cakes; and homey pastries -- and a nook for glass milk-bottle returns.
Thompson says he wanted "a small-town little shop" when he switched gears after a decade in fine dining with the Patina Group, where he was executive chef. A 1950s Ohio soda shop, that is, with its own pastry chef -- Patina-trained Richard Yoshimura -- and storefront in the middle of chic West Hollywood.
"It's fun to do saffron ice cream like I did at Patina," Thompson says, "but I wanted to get back to my childhood." Thompson, who grew up in Chatsworth, says he got excited when he watched the Pinkberry craze hit and started thinking about how he could bring his European training to something as "accessible and All-American" as ice cream.
And then there's Caffe Primo, the glitzy new gelateria in the Millennium Plaza on Sunset Strip. Owner Tony Riviera closed his 2-year-old Primo Gelato store and moved across the piazza into larger digs, opening Caffe Primo in December. This is gelato gone Hollywood, with two flat-screen televisions set to shows like "The Tyra Banks Show" and tourists trying to spot celebrity regulars (Riviera keeps a miniature French press for Jeremy Piven under his two orange La Marzocco espresso machines).
Even the flavors are Hollywood glam, left coast fusion all the way: coconut-mango, chile-chocolate and, in season, white truffle. And, for "adults only," a Cabernet-pomegranate sorbetto and a gelato made from pink Champagne.
So where is this all headed? This summer may see new openings: Pazzo Gelato has plans for a second store in the Arts District downtown, and Riviera says he's also going to open a new store downtown. Gail Silverton is already looking to open another shop. "Maybe the Westside," she says. "We have so many people coming over from Brentwood with coolers."
And Thompson? "We're going to get an ice cream truck," he says. "One of those old-school milk trucks, something very nostalgic."
Imagine West Hollywood traffic slowing not for a movie shoot or an errant celebrity -- but for cars to stop for a most fabulous ice cream cone.
Coffee toffee ice cream sandwiches
Total time: About 2 hours, 40 minutes, plus freezing time
Note: From Bret Thompson and Richard Yoshimura at Milk. This recipe will make slightly more toffee and ice cream than called for in the recipe. The toffee will store for two days covered loosely with parchment or wax paper in a cool, dry place.
2 cups sugar
1/8 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/8 cup almond meal
1. Place the sugar, corn syrup and one-half cup water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Use a candy thermometer to watch the temperature and cook to 280 degrees, then carefully add the butter.
2. Bring the temperature to 330 degrees or until the mixture is amber. Remove from the heat and add the salt, vanilla extract and almond meal. Immediately pour onto a parchment-lined shallow pan to cool and set.
Coffee ice cream
3 cups whole milk
3 cups cream
1 cup sugar, divided
8 egg yolks
1 ounce (about 6 tablespoons) coarse-ground coffee beans
7 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups) chopped toffee
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, cream, half the sugar and the ground coffee to a boil.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine the egg yolks and the remaining half cup of sugar and slowly -- so as not to cook the eggs -- pour it into the hot cream mixture.
3. Reduce the heat to low and stir until the mixture coats the back of a spoon, about 30 minutes. Strain the mixture quickly and chill in an ice bath, about 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Pour the mixture into an ice cream machine and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Remove from the machine and stir in the chopped toffee. Place the ice cream in a container with a lid, cover the surface of the ice cream with plastic wrap, cover tightly with the lid and freeze (several hours to overnight) to harden.
Coffee macarons and assembly
4 large egg whites, divided
2 cups powdered sugar
2 cups almond flour
1 1/4 teaspoons instant coffee
1 1/8 cups granulated sugar
1. Mix 2 egg whites with the powdered sugar, almond flour and instant coffee and set aside.
2. Bring the granulated sugar and one-fourth cup water to a boil and, using a thermometer to monitor the temperature, cook until 240 to 248 degrees. Just before the sugar reaches temperature, begin beating the 2 remaining egg whites with a mixer. When the sugar syrup reaches temperature, turn the mixer on high and slowly add the syrup to the egg whites in a thin stream. Beat until the egg whites are firm and glossy.
3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Fold the meringue into the almond mix. Place macaron batter into a large pastry bag with a wide, straight opening.
4. With a marker, draw 2 1/2 -inch circles onto parchment paper cut to the size of your cookie sheet (you should be able to draw 4 to 6 circles per pan, with about 1 1/2 inches between each circle). Place the parchment face-down on the cookie sheet. Pipe the batter onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Shake the pan and tap lightly on the counter top until the meringue settles to about 3 1/4 inches in diameter, and let them sit 12 to 14 minutes to form a "skin" (the surface will have lost its sheen).
5. Bake about 10 minutes, until solid on the outside but still chewy in the center. Place cookies on a rack to cool. To store, leave on a rack in a cool, dry place for up to two days.
6. For ice cream sandwiches, place about half a cup ice cream between two macarons and press gently together.
Each serving: 715 calories; 9 grams protein; 99 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 153 mg. cholesterol; 145 mg. sodium.
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours plus freezing time
Servings: 10 servings
Note: From Leo Bulgarini, of Bulgarini Gelato. Have an ice bath ready for the custard. The same basic recipe may be used for peach gelato -- just use 2 cups chopped peaches and puree them with the juice of one-fourth lemon.
About 2 cups chopped
3/4 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
4 cups whole milk
1. In a blender or food processor, puree the cherimoya until smooth and set aside.
2. In a large saucepan, mix the sugar, egg yolks and milk together over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Do not boil.
3. After about 30 minutes on the stove (the mixture will have thickened into a custard while simmering), remove the pan from the heat and pour the mixture through a cheesecloth into a bowl set into an ice bath. Stir as the mixture cools.
4. When the custard has cooled to 40 degrees, take it out of the ice bath and blend it in a blender with the cherimoya puree. You may do this in batches if your blender is small.
5. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Spread it evenly into a container with a lid, cover the surface of the ice cream with plastic wrap and then the lid and freeze it for at least 5 hours, or overnight. Makes 5 cups.
Each serving: 172 calories; 5 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 5 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 92 mg. cholesterol; 44 mg. sodium.
Blood orange sorbetto
Total time: About 1 hour, plus freezing time
Servings: 8 (makes about 4 cups sorbetto)
Note: From Allessandro Fontana of Gelato Bar.
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
3 1/4 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1. Combine sugar, corn syrup and one-half cup plus 1 tablespoon water in a large saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Turn off the heat and when the mixture reaches 70 degrees, add the blood orange juice and mix well.
3. Pour into an ice cream machine and make according to the manufacturer's instructions.
4. Remove and place sorbetto in a lidded container, covering the surface with plastic wrap, then covering with a lid and placing in the freezer.
Each serving: 129 calories; 1 gram protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 13 mg. sodium.
For an elegant ice cream sandwich, start with coffee-almond macarons
For a complete guide to preparing a coffee toffee ice cream sandwich, with photos of making toffee and assembling the sandwiches, go to latimes.com/food.