Leo Bulgarini goes out of his way — literally — to make superior gelato for his Altadena shop
A native of Rome, Leo Bulgarini doesn’t advertise or operate his gelato shop in a busy area, because his product and adoring customers speak for themselves.
Nestled in a tiny strip mall on Altadena Drive, Bulgarini Gelato is extremely unassuming. It defines “hidden gem,” and getting to the shop is almost like a treasure hunt.
Once inside, you won’t find dozens of flavors of brightly colored gelato in pristine piles garnished with fruit, nuts and other decorations. The gelato itself looks understated — Bulgarini uses no coloring — and there could be 10 flavors or two, depending on the season and how brisk business has been that day.
But one taste of the creamy creation can transport you to the streets of Italy. The light, fluffy texture and pure flavors starkly contrast with the icy impostors many local vendors try to pass off as gelato.
“Sorry to say, but if you are not getting a good texture, you are a moron in terms of the gelato, because you are really not doing your job,” says Bulgarini. “You are not curing it and taking care of it and are making it go too long.”
Bulgarini doesn’t serve gelato unless it is up to his meticulous standards for ingredients, creation, storage and service. He famously stopped selling his gelato at Staples Center a few years ago when he arrived one day to see they were topping it with M&Ms.
“It’s like putting the wheels of a Yugo onto a Ferrari,” says Bulgarini. “It’s not about being pretentious; it’s just about the pure flavor. They were blending it with something that makes no sense.”
At the age of 8, Bulgarini learned how to make fresh gelato at his uncle’s restaurant in Italy.
“It was something I always had inside me, wanting to do things that were fresh,” says Bulgarini.
After moving to California 21 years ago, he spent time learning about other cuisines at the former Pasadena Ritz-Carlton and Trattoria di Venezie, and then went to pastry school in Paris with the intention of returning to the US and opening a pastry shop.
But when Bulgarini discovered the difficult, round-the-clock schedule required for running a pastry shop, he decided on the more forgiving business of making gelato.
“I knew if I was going to do something with food, I needed to go out there and learn everything there was to learn about gelato,” says Bulgarini. “But I couldn’t find anything. I remember the way my uncle used to make it, and it had nothing to do with what I see out there.”
However, deciding to make gelato the only way he knew how proved to be challenging. During a trip to Sicily, where he was researching gelaterias and local ingredients, asking a gelateria owner a few questions turned into what Bulgarini describes as a scene out of a mafia film, as the owner took Bulgarini to his car and drove him to a gelato corporation.
“They sat me with all these corporate people, and they wanted me to work with them, but also wanted to put fear into me,” says Bulgarini. “They said I had to use their products and go to the states and sell their line. They said, ‘You’re never going to be able to have a business using fresh eggs and stuff like that.’ So that upset me and I said, ‘Now I want to do it.’”
Though Bulgarini gives the gelato industry credit for making certain advances, he also rebels against some of its ingredients, such as pistachios some claim are purely from certain regions in Italy, when they are in fact a blend of pistachios from across Europe.
Bulgarini refuses to use anything other than pure Sicilian pistachios because, he says, they are the best-tasting, and those from other regions cannot remotely compare.
“They have very specific laws in Sicily about air-drying their pistachios, the original Sicilian pistachios,” says Bulgarini. “Turkey and Iran produce a lot, but they put them in huge silos and they mold. Pistachios should be air-dried, and a lot of people don’t know that.”
Since the Sicilian farmer who originally sold Bulgarini Sicilian pistachios retired two years ago, Bulgarini has not served his popular pistachio gelato. He spent four months in Sicily over the past year searching for pure Sicilian pistachios until he found a small group of farmers. Thanks to years of diligent work and saving, Bulgarini can afford to go on these excursions.
“You don’t make a phone call to a Sicilian,” says Bulgarini. “They get offended. So you physically have to go there.”
His pistachio gelato makes a long-awaited comeback this summer. Luckily, he stocked up on 2,000 pounds of pistachios, from which he will extract pure oil. But the flavor will probably only be served for a few months, since he likes to rotate flavors to make sure everything is fresh.
He gets some of his other ingredients from Italy or local growers so he can ensure he is creating the best product. He also travels to Hawaii to get his macadamia nuts and to Santo Domingo to get his cocoa. He’s serious about his gelato, but it pays off.
The shop recently started pairing wine with the gelato, something Bulgarini does at the Yamashiro Garden Market on Thursday nights, in order to bring out the pure ingredients even more.
Seasonal flavors like strawberry, peach, Marsala wine, goat cheese with cocoa nibs and others are now in the treasure chest.