Recently, I've been in a gelato phase, lapping the stuff up like a thirsty mutt near a puddle. I've also been downing my share of affogato (gelato doused with espresso). Obsessive that I am, once I got the gelato jones, I had to try a broad swath of SoCal gelato and write it up.
Before we start, a brief note on the distinction between gelato and ice cream. Generally, gelato uses more milk and less cream than ice cream, so it actually has less fat. Because it is churned at a slower rate than ice cream, gelato also has less air whipped into it than ice cream. The rich, thick characteristic comes from the lack of air, not from added fat. Traditionally, gelato did not have eggs in the custard base, which ice cream generally does.
That being said, as a practical matter, there is a lot of murkiness in the distinction. Many people simply consider gelato to be an Italian style of ice cream and judge it based on presentation (e.g. laid out on trays rather than in tubs) and aesthetic rather than anything technical. I pretty much just went with places that called their product gelato. Note that I did not include Scoops on Heliotrope here since I believe they call their product ice cream, but hey, you all know Scoops rocks anyway and I was after places that were new to me.
Not every place offered an affogato but I tried to have one at each place that did (though I did miss one). The beauty of the affogato is that the rich espresso melds with the gelato and forms a heavenly coffee ice cream float. When done well, it is a beautiful gestalt of flavors, halfway between a solid and liquid but filled with flavor. When done poorly, it's a scoop of ice cream sitting in a cold puddle of coffee, a sad affair to say the least.
As I am wont to do, I've broken the contenders out into tiers to rank them.
Bulgarini Gelato, Altadena. I'm happy to report that the hype surrounding this Altadena gelato shop is well deserved. Tucked away in a run down strip mall anchored by a Rite-Aid and a Kragen on East Altadena Drive, just west of Lake, Bulgarini was my favorite gelato. The best flavors here were transcendent in both flavor and texture, particularly the olive oil yogurt, a fluffy, light as air tart frozen yogurt with a smooth olive oil taste topped with olive oil. It reminded me of some sort of olive oil foam you might get at Bazaar. The day I visited there was also a beautiful sheep milk and parsley gelato with madeira. Also excellent were the regular chocolate and the lemon cream. The Florentine chocolate, a chocolate with sea salt, had a nice chocolate flavor but was a bit too salty to have more than a bite.
Affogato is an off menu item at Bulgarini but they do make it. The one I had was very nice with a nice crema on the espresso and good proportions, but although they said it was an item they served, they asked for instruction on how to do it correctly. It was nice enough, but I would stick to the excellent gelato at this place.
749 E. Altadena Dr.
Altadena, Ca. 91001
Gelato Bar, Studio City. The biggest surprise in my gelato tour was how well this relatively unsung gelateria compared to the others. Owned by Gail Silverton, sister of Nancy, Gelato Bar offers innovative (though not overly weird) flavors that are bold without being too sweet. Their gelato is a perfect textural, specimen, rich and creamy with a dissolve in your mouth quality. It's neither as innovative nor as transcendent as Bulgarini but it is perhaps more what I think of as traditional gelato (at least in my American experience) done about the best way it can be done. My favorite flavors here were the chocolate sorbetto, stracciatella (chocolate chip), mango, ricotta and Veneziana (candied orange peel with chocolate).
The affogato at Gelato Bar was the best of the bunch. Made with a perfectly pulled Ecco Cafe espresso, whipped cream and Valrhona cacao nibs, the Gelato Bar affogato shows the importance of proper espresso preparation in the dish's composition. Gelato Bar makes a great espresso with a thick head of crema which blends perfectly with the scoops of gelato, creating that lovely synthesis that is the affogato. Why this place hasn't entered the pantheon of great LA gelatos is beyond me, but you owe yourself a trip.
4342 1/2 Tujunga Ave
Studio City, CA 91604-2751
Pazzo Gelato, Silver Lake. I'd been looking forward to this popular Sunset Boulevard shop, but unlike Bulgarini, it did not live up to the hype. While I liked the milk chocolate, which had a Mexican chocolate spice to it, the flavors, in general, were too sweet, not intense enough and generally lacking in excitement.
The pazzagato, Pazzo's version of the affogato, got points off for using canned whipped cream and too much gelato. It's tempting, I'm sure, to load the cup up with gelato for the affogato, but moderation is part of the key. Too much ice cream turns the espresso cold and gives you the aforementioned cold puddle of coffee. And while I love Intelligentsia espresso in cappuccinos, it's too tannic for affogato, which really calls for something darker. The popularity of this place leads me to have serious questions about hipster tastes.
3827 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Al Gelato, Beverly Hills adjacent. This was another disappointing one for me. I'd heard a lot of praise for Al Gelato, on Robertson, but it simply didn't live up to the hype. The issues were similar to Pazzo Gelato: unexciting flavors, too sweet and a texture that lacked the rich and creamy qualities that I crave, and was even a bit icy, which is a cardinal sin of gelato. Al Gelato makes an affogato, but I didn't get to try it.
806 S Robertson Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Hollywood Gelato, Los Feliz. Hollywood Gelato, on Hillhurst in Los Feliz, was simply uninspiring. The flavors were too sweet and the gelato was icy. It lacked the rich and creamy qualities that make a great gelato. Apparently they are not doing so well as they have scaled back their hours fairly severely. They didn't have an affogato on the menu.
1936 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
TO SUM UP
Best Gelato: Bulgarini with honorable mention for Gelato Bar
Best Affogato: Gelato Bar