Americans will not be going to Europe anytime soon.
Unfortunately, neither will Leo Bulgarini.
For 14 years, he and his wife, Elizabeth Foldi, have run the gelateria and restaurant Bulgarini. Those who are unfamiliar have missed out on some of the finest—and priciest—gelato this side of Venice (Italy).
Leo routinely travels to Europe each summer to source fresh and authentic ingredients for his gelato, most notably his pistachios from Sicily. Each summer he also hosts a travel group of 15 fanatics, along with Elizabeth and his 12-year-old son, Lorenzo.
“We meet in Rome and get a mini-bus” and a culinary tour of Tuscany ensues.
A native of Rome, Leo studied agriculture in Tuscany to learn wine and olive oil making and he knows the region well. He also cultivates Zinfandel grapes at a vineyard outside Santa Barbara for his wine.
His dinner menu features such Tuscan classics as Ribollita Toscana (white bean soup with greens) and Pappardelle al Cinghiale (wide egg pasta with marinated wild boar).
Dinner? Yes, the gelato maestro began serving dinner about two years ago. The menu is limited to four pasta dishes, the soup and an entrée of braised short rib. The entrées range from $20 to $26. Fresh focaccia with a variety of toppings will be added to the menu soon.
The pasta and bread—like the gelato—is made fresh from scratch in Bulgarini’s kitchen. Though his indoor dining room seats 30, dinner is presented al fresco in the outdoor courtyard with an array of distanced tables that also seats up to 30. The impetus to move to a dinner service came from their popular summer movie nights that the family hosted in the courtyard for the past 10 years.
Elizabeth serves as general manager of the operation and tells a now familiar tale.
“Our business dropped to 25% of our usual (revenue),” Leo says. “Without the PPP loan, I would not have survived. I really believe we would have folded.”
Rehiring and finding new employees have been a challenge as unemployment benefits mitigate immediate interest in returning to the workforce. This, on top of attempting to track the latest directives and guidelines issuing from the governor and the county, amounts to a daily series of challenges and uncertainties that the Bulgarinis manage like other independent restaurateurs and local gelato makers.
Why gelato? Ice cream, sorbet and sherbet all have their charms. However, gelato has a dense, clean silken texture and an intensity of flavor that surpasses the best aspects of the other three frozen concoctions. Because gelato uses less milk, there is less dairy fat than ice cream, so it leaves a cleaner finish on the tongue. Also, less air is infused into gelato, which results in a concentration of flavors. Stored at a higher average temperature than ice cream, gelato won’t numb your taste buds. In short, gelato maximizes tastiness.
Make no mistake, Leo’s gelato is a masterwork of mindful artisanal intention. His attention to detail, craft and the sourcing and cultivation of the highest-quality ingredients is inarguably reflected in each scoop (one scoop is $5; two scoops $7; three scoops $8.50). More than a few scoops will cost you. Half kilos are $28; $40 for pistachio. A full kilo is $55 and serves eight. Yes, it’s possible to spend more on gelato here than on your three-course dinner but, hey, it’s Bulgarini!
Here’s yet another unique culinary aspect of our town: there has been another gelato-maker quietly lurking in Old Town since 2006. Hello Gelato, a collaboration between another husband-and-wife team—Stephen and Jackie Lee—offers housemade gelato with fresh ingredients in a wide variety of flavors.
The small shop closed at the advent of the lockdown and just re-opened three weeks ago. Jackie notes the lack of tourism resulted in much less foot traffic on their strip of Colorado Boulevard. With neighboring restaurants doing take-out and stuttering attempts at the return to dine-in, there are also far fewer post-prandial gelato tasters. Their watermelon gelato was the first batch of the season, though Stephen was unhappy with the texture, alluding to the moisture content, which sent it in the direction of granita. He added a scoop of passionfruit as an off-set bonus. Both were delicious. Prices here: one scoop $4.50; two scoops $5.75; three scoops $7; pint $9.50. However, the gelato tour is not over. There’s another notable purveyor just around the corner on Raymond Avenue.
A relative newcomer to the neighborhood, Swedish Scoops has occupied a small storefront just north of Colorado for the last two and half years.
As managing partner Andreas Younan explains, like Hello Gelato, Swedish Scoops closed on lockdown and only reopened last week. He also echoes the Lee’s dismay over the current pace of business.
Swedish Scoops is featuring a narrower selection of flavors. The gelato here is also made in-house in a glass-fronted “gelato lab” in back. Ingredient sourcing is meticulous here as well, with hazelnuts from Sicily and pistachios from specific California farms.
Incidentally, Andreas also pulls an excellent espresso made with select Cuban beans. Notably, Swedish Scoops and its small shop is the only U.S. outpost of the largest gelateria in Europe and the second largest in the world: Glassmagasinet in Visby, Sweden. The Swedish mothership regularly features 340 flavors and during its summer season hosts between 5,000 and 8,000 gelato enthusiasts daily. Andreas scrolls through his phone for a video of a line of visitors at the Swedish store snaking into the horizon.
Scoops here: $4.95; two for $6.95; three for $7.95; four scoops for $8.95; pints are $12. The stracciatella (Italian egg custard) and gianduia (chocolate hazelnut) flavors are deservedly popular options here.
Sharing my tasting notes comparing Bulgarini’s pistachio with Hello Gelato’s, or Hello Gelato’s tiramisu with Swedish Scoops’ version, or Swedish Scoop’s chocolate hazelnut with Bulgarini’s would spoil the fun.
Take a local gelato safari and find out for yourself. Complete your tour at Bulgarini’s and grab a plate of authentic Tuscan pasta while you’re at it.
Need a prescriptive and psychically transportive palate-cleanser for everything we’ve been experiencing in the last weeks? Dial up “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on Netflix and curl up with a big bowl of gelato. You will not be going to Europe anytime soon. –