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[DFW] Gelato!

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A week or two ago, the DMN published a feature on gelato, providing brief descriptions of various gelaterias in and around Dallas. Unfortunately, the descriptions didn't amount to "reviews," since there was no effort to evaluate the pros and cons of various establishments, rank them comparatively, etc.

So here are some mini-reviews to supplement the DMN's listing. I will be proceeding, in order, from my least favorite to favorite. (Flavors of Florence is omitted because it's in Grapevine. Until I can catch a commuter flight out of Love Field, I won't be going there.)

Nicola's Gelateria. Attached to an Italian restaurant on the third floor of the Galleria, this gelateria has relatively few flavors--about eleven gelatos and three sorbets. Prices were high for the portion sizes. The flavors tended to be muted and the texture was very icy. Flavor mix was conservative, compared to the competition. Nothing really interesting or wild to be found there. If you have to have something frozen at the Galleria, go to Marble Slab. If you have to have something frozen and low-fat, go to the skating rink.

Torrefazione. Attached to Sur la Table off of Knox, this gelateria...well, it isn't a gelateria. It's a cafe that happens to serve gelato. And, with only six flavors available in a tiny cart, they don't serve much of it. It's self serve, which allows you to pack it in, if you want. Quality is okay; but, for the money, you're better off buying a pint of Ciao Bella at your local Whole Foods. Or, better yet, you can cross the street and go to Talenti.

Gelato Paradiso. Tucked into a small space near the theater in Mockingbird Station is this interesting concept--gelato with liquor. You can order your gelato "dry" or you can spike it. (Fun for the whole family!) Flavors are few, at fourteen. And sorbets are not clearly distinguished from gelatos; so make sure you get a taste first, or you might end up with an unwanted surprise. On my visits, the flavors weren't too innovative. But a menu on the tables lists other gelatos that they make, some of which *are* interesting (e.g., guanabana). Quality is uneven. Some of the gelatos were slightly airy and icy. But flavor intensity was above average.

Fresco Ice Cream. On Coit, north of Campbell, this place is, despite its misleading name, a gelateria. Twenty three gelatos and half a dozen sorbets. Service was more polite and enthusiastic here than at any of the others. I have mixed feelings about the place. On the up-side, they have more interesting flavors than almost all of the competition (e.g., Snickers, sticky cinnamon bun, rosewater/pistachio, etc.). And, commendably, they address a common complaint about gelato’s monotony by incorporating textural and flavor contrasts into the gelato itself (rather than drizzling some token chocolate or sprinkling a handful of nuts over the top of the bin, which looks nice but rarely finds its way into your scoop). Chocolate Brownie Fudge, for instance, has ribbons of fudge sauce running through it, as well as small chunks of brownie. Sticky Cinnamon Bun has plump, cooked raisins scattered throughout. Dulce de Leche has small dark chocolate chunks mixed in. I give them all the credit in the world for that. The down-side, however, is that the gelato quality isn’t that great. Flavor intensity is uneven. Some flavors (e.g., dulce de leche) seem to miss the intended mark. And texture is on the icy side. So it’s a mixed bag. I like it, but I wish I could like it more.

Paciugo. A local chain of about ten locations, Paciugo is easily the most visible gelateria in the metroplex. And, to their credit, they’re also one of the best. Their daily array consists of about 20 gelatos, almost a dozen sorbets, and usually at least one non-dairy flavor for the lactose intolerant. They boast of rotating through 200 different recipes; but, in practice, the turnover isn’t all that aggressive. Most of the gelato flavors are rather conventional (with some exceptions, such as violet, rose, meringue, etc.); but the sorbet options are the best of show (e.g., mango, green apple, cantaloupe, pink grapefruit, et al.). Quality on both gelatos and sorbets is very good. They’re low on iciness (especially nice in the sorbets, which in lesser hands often inadvertently end up with a granita-like mouthfeel). And flavors are sufficiently intense and precise. The gelatos do tend to be a bit airy, almost as if they’re incorporating some overrun. But, since some people prefer lighter over denser textures, that’s not necessarily a negative. Overall, an excellent little chain.

Talenti. About fifteen feet from the Katy Trail on Knox stands the pinnacle of metroplex gelato. I’ve been visiting the gelato places on this list repeatedly over the past couple of months in an effort to experience the range of flavors, filter out any off days, and give my opinions some germination time. Of the entire list, Talenti is the one that kept calling me back for more “research.” It quickly became my baseline. I’d hit Talenti first, then go to Gelato Paradiso, Paciugo, or whatever to do a head-to-head with comparable flavors. Talenti was undefeated in this round robin tasting (both by myself and with fellow tasters). So what’s so special about it? Well, for starters, at twenty six, they have more daily varieties of gelato than any of the competitors. (Paciugo has thirty two flavors, but almost a third of them are sorbets. Talenti usually only has five or six sorbets.) They also have the most creative flavors in town. Sambayon, for instance, is a mixture of Marsala wine, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Russian Milk has a walnut base with hints of watermelon. Crocantino is flavored with rum and cashews. Chocolates and vanillas are available for those who prefer familiar tastes. But, if you’re up for something new and interesting, you’re at the right shop. The flavors are consistently intense, well-balanced (which is critical with some of the combinations they attempt), and precise. Their phenomenal dulce de leche (along with a few other flavors) was reportedly developed in collaboration with the evil dessert geniuses at La Duni. (Now if we could just persuade them to do a Mexican chocolate gelato to go with the dulce de leche….) The textures are dense, smooth, and creamy—-so much so that I almost suspect that they’re sneaking in cream and/or eggs to deliver that silkiness. While there isn’t much in the way of décor to speak of at the other gelaterias in this list, Talenti is great looking, with low banquettes, soft upholstered chairs, coffee tables with complimentary T1 connections, well appointed restrooms, a small patio area, and excellent views of the Katy Trail (with its attendant scenery). If you want gelato, this is the place.

Special Category—-
Milwaukee Joe’s. Next to the Landmark Inwood art-house theater on Lovers, this place serves ice cream, frozen custard, sorbet, and “gelato,” making it a one-stop frozen dessert destination. Why is it in a special category? Why is “gelato” in scare-quotes? Because the product can hardly be called gelato. The eight flavors they serve are all “dairy-free.” Which is to say, they use soy oil instead of the traditional milk fat. This results in an unnatural, waxy, almost plastic texture, an off flavor, and a lingering aftertaste that will have you brushing your tongue to nublessness. Isn’t Milwaukee in Wisconsin? Isn’t Wisconsin known for *cheese*? Isn’t cheese made from milk? I don’t get it. I mean, one or two non-dairy options...fine, I can understand that. But *eight*?

Have I missed anyplace critical? Are there any hidden gems out there that I need to try? If so, let me know.

Scott

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  1. This was a tough assignment, Scott, but somebody had to do it.

    Actually, I don't know how to say this in a way that won't make me sound pedestrian, but I personally don't like gelato. Too much like flavored butter for me. Give me a granita, or even Blue Bell, and I am a happy guy.

    That said, this review is a real tour de force! Thanks.

    Kirk

    8 Replies
    1. re: Kirk

      Kirk,

      Thanks for the kind words. I, too, prefer ice cream to gelato. (I've done similar head-to-head tastings with ice cream, though it would take too long to write it all up. The Old Town Creamery, on Greenville, still takes top honors in my estimation.) But Talenti has narrowed the gap. If you're ever in the neighborhood, grab a kiddie cup and see what you think.

      Speaking of frozen desserts, I'm getting tired of the recent upscale restaurant trend of plating desserts with sorbets when ice cream would be more traditional or effective. The most egregious manifestation of the fad is in the proliferation of chocolate sorbets. A couple of months ago, I spent a week in San Francisco and got desserts plated with chocolate sorbet at Masa's, Gary Danko's, and the French Laundry. At Masa's, the use of sorbet was my only quibble with an otherwise exceptional dessert--a chocolate sourdough bread pudding with a molten ganache/cherry/guajillo chile filling. I wasn't sure *why* the sorbet didn't work; but it seemed wrong. Then, at Danko's the next evening, as I was eating a bittersweet chocolate tart with chocolate sorbet, it hit me: When you eat Oreo's, you want a glass of milk--not water--to quench your thirst. So, any dessert that would make you want a glass of milk (e.g., chocolate) should be plated with a milk or cream-based frozen dessert. And any dessert for which you'd prefer water over milk to quench your thirst (e.g., more acidic citrus fruits) should be plated with a water-based frozen dessert. (A corollary is that, within a frozen dessert, a flavoring should be matched with the appropriate base of milk or water. "Chocolate sorbet" violates the rule. As a thought experiment, would you rather have hot chocolate made with milk or with water?) I'm not sure how well that rule works, just yet. (I'm sure there are some counterexamples.) But I've been paying closer attention lately to how ice creams and sorbets are being paired with desserts. And what I've seen of the recent sorbet trend has been hit and miss.

      Well, that ended up being something of a rant. Sorry.

      Scott

      1. re: Scott

        Interesting point, Scott. I like sorbet, but I prefer it as a palate-cleanser or as a standalone end-of-meal "finisher." In that case, I generally prefer a fruit or fruit/liqueur sorbet. Chocolate sorbet sounds about as appealing as the nouvelle cuisine lobster with vanilla sauce experiments...a waste of perfectly good lobster.

        I tend to agree with you about the milk and cookies analogy. The one exception I can think of is an extraordinary -- and much better than it sounds -- dessert at Hola on Monticello. They serve a black pepper ice cream there that is really exceptional, and I can't imagine the sorbet counterpart. Then again, I couldn't imagine black pepper ice cream until I tried it there. If you haven't checked it out, I recommend it.

        1. re: Kirk

          As a pastry chef, I have to take exception to your rule. My place of business has served many sorbets that would not follow your rule, including white chocolate, buttermilk, and goat cheese. In context, these types of flavors succeed in providing flavors with a clean finish, a lighter mouthfeel, if you will. Often times ice cream is fine, but it can also be overkill at the end of a long tasting menu or heavy dinner, so sorbets can provide balance to not only the dessert, but to the entire meal itself.

          1. re: T-bone

            Thanks for the expert input, T-bone. (Goat cheese sorbet? I'd be interested to try that sometime.) I may end up having to abandon this little food theory eventually.

            BTW, since you're in the business, I'd be interested to hear which Dallas pastry chefs you think are doing the best and/or most creative work right now. I'm always on the lookout for great desserts, so any direction would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

            Scott

            1. re: Scott

              Actually, I'm in Houston, and the scene here is not that happening. You undoubtedly know more about big D than I do.

        2. re: Scott

          Those chocolates you like in Mexico so much are probably all made with water and I actually prefer hot chocolate, even the home variety, made with water (and actually a little more water than suggested; but hell, I even prefer skim to whole milk, as does my wife). Also, I didn't mind the sorbets near as much as you. Sometimes it didn't bother me at all.

          I'm not saying I'm the norm and you aren't, just that subtleties like this change widely between cultures, epochs, and people. You probably like the creamy mouthfeel more than the average person and might even prefer foods prepared more like they were 40 years ago, at least in richness and creaminess, than how they are today. I prefer lighter foods and my fats generally cut with an acid or balanced with a bitter. I think the trend is going my way perhaps, or maybe has peaked in that direction. But I'm also from the Northwest where along with California that rich, heavy, creamy type of cooking is not truly the norm. You're from the south, where everything's deep-fried and covered in a sauce.

          1. re: Nick

            Nick,

            If you're talking about the hot chocolate I had every day at the Churreria El Moro in Mexico City, it was made with milk. (Oh, to have a mug of it now, along with some sugary churro stirring sticks....)

            I'm not sure what to make of your preference for hot chocolate made with water rather than milk. I think it's probably anomolous. And, if you're talking about packaged hot chocolate mixes (e.g., Swiss Miss, Carnation, et al.), the use of water is expected, since such mixes almost always have evaporated milk in them (so you are getting your milk after all). Try making your own hot chocolate using only cocoa, water, and sugar, and let me know how it goes.

            Scott

        3. re: Kirk

          (I notice this is very old)

          Interesting point about "flavored butter." I find the opposite to be true, as genuine gelato has far less butterfat than any other iced dessert (save "fruit ice" type desserts of course). Unfortunately i find that many gelatos are more like dense ice cream or custard. Part of the appeal to me is that the lack of fat helps the flavors come out cleaner. This is why I really enjoy paciugo's. They show nutritional information on the website which verifies that they are doing it "right" (to me, at least).

        4. First, the bad news. Old Town Creamery (on Greenville) has closed. I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is (now "was") the best ice cream shop in Dallas. There are few restaurants or specialty food spots I would be sadder to see go. I need to make some inquiries to see if this is a permanent closure or if they might (hope of hopes) just be relocating. But I'm not optimistic.

          Second, the possibly bad news. After my Old Town Creamery disappointment, I went to Talenti. While I was enjoying an Italian chocolate and dulce de leche gelato, I overheard one of the employees tell someone that the owner of Paciugo (Ugo Ginatta?) was in the back of the store. When asked why, the employee said, "To help us do what we do better." First of all, Talenti doesn't need any gelato-making lessons from Paciugo. Paciugo makes a fine product (see my review above), but Talenti's is exceptional. Second, what interest would the owner of Paciugo (with a location a half mile away in Highland Park Village) have in improving Talenti? Are they looking at buying out Talenti from Josh Hochschuler? A troubling possibility.

          Scott

          6 Replies
          1. re: Scott

            Talenti has gone dark. No more Italian Chocolate/Dulce de Leche for me on the way home from work.

            Scott

            1. re: Scott

              Talenti is available at Central market and at whole foods. While there gelato is quite tasty, I don't know that I would classify it as "Italian" They use far to much cream to be "real" gelato. There flavors are quite intense and that's a big plus, they just need to lower their cream content.

              1. re: irodguy

                My vote for the very best gelato I have ever had, is unfortunately in NY at "Otto's"...check it out if you are ever there...Having said that, the gelato bar at Central Market is pretty good....

                1. re: jinet12

                  It's interesting that Central Market (coit location) is no longer serving paciugo, instead they make their gelato in-house. Agree with you that it's quite good.

                2. re: irodguy

                  You can even get Talenti at Kroger now. To its credit it's not labeled "gelato" but "ice cream." Even so, it's darn good.

                  1. re: jim1126

                    Talenti at Kroger? Cool! Although, not at my Kroger..

                    Will have to check out CM's new housemade Gelato now. Thanks for the tip.

            2. You should check out Afrah Pastries off Beltline in downtown Richardson. I recently had some cardamom gelato there that was very good. They had quite a few other unique flavors there too...