I scream, you scream ...
We all scream for ice cream and sorbet from Bulgarini’s and Carmela’s
By Erica Wayne 07/21/2011
There are some days when I really adore this gig. Instead of analyzing an overly complex vinaigrette, attempting to find something to love on a clichéd menu or spending big bucks for a pedestrian meal that I’d really rather forget than dissect for our readers, I get to indulge my inner child on a treat that’s generally off limits unless it needs to be written about.
Pizza roundups, fried chicken contests and chocolate salons are great. But this week’s task (and I use the word lightly since I could hardly wait to do it) was even better: ice cream. And not just any old ice cream, but arguably the very best ice cream in Pasadena, in Los Angeles and maybe, just maybe, in the whole country. One place (Bulgarini) just got singled out in a Wall Street Journal article on gelato as one of only four places nationwide to get the real deal. The other (Carmela), if its fame isn’t quite as widespread, has admirers all over Southern California and won Los Angeles Magazine’s Best of LA award in 2009.
Has adulation gone to their heads? Not judging from their locations. Bulgarini’s storefront sits at the rear of an unprepossessing strip mall at the northwest intersection of Lake Avenue and Altadena Drive. It’s invisible from the street and, once you’ve found it, underwhelming in what I loosely term décor. But, I didn’t make the uphill trek to Altadena for ambiance –– I came to see if the WSJ knew what it was talking about. And, sure enough, it did.
Bulgarini bases its stock on ingredients available. So, sadly for me, my favorite flavor (nocciola – hazelnut) wasn’t available the day I came. Instead, the gentleman behind the counter pointed me toward mandorla (almond) and pistachio. He offered tastes on little plastic spoons, and I was sold. Then he handed me unrequested samples of peach, cantaloupe, plum, apple sorbetto and zabaglione, strawberry, peach, chocolate-orange and lime gelato. In a couple of minutes, I found myself with a handful of spoons and the near impossible job of picking three ($6), four ($8) or five ($10) to put in a cup.
Eventually, I divvied my order into three separate cups: apple/pistachio, almond/chocolate, and chocolate-orange/zabaglione and raced them out to my car, where I’d prepared a cooler so I could get them home and, if I had enough self-discipline, share them with my husband to spread the guilt around. Then I headed eastward down the hill on Altadena Drive to Washington Boulevard, made a right turn and pulled up at Carmela.
Like Bulgarini, Carmela is no Baskin-Robbins or even Cherry-on-Top. Places to sit are limited and, although the interior is cheery, it’s mostly a working kitchen turning out not only ice creams and sorbets but also fruit, chocolate and caramel sauces for sundaes ($1.25), hand-baked cookies for ice cream sandwiches ($1), and the most delicate waffle cones imaginable ($1). The daily flavors were on a board. Ice creams: salted caramel, brown sugar vanilla bean, lavender honey, fresh mint with cacao nibs, strawberry buttermilk and dark chocolate (also with nibs).
Sorbets: lemon basil, spiced strawberry, cucumber, chocolate and raspberry rose.
Carmela is very “green” so the tasting spoons are washable metal and the cups recycled paper pulp. Containers are closed, so to take a look at the flavors, you need to request a viewing/sample. I tried lavender, caramel, strawberry (both sorbet and ice cream) cucumber and chocolate sorbets before finalizing my choices. Eventually, I asked for a three-scoop cup ($5.50) of strawberry buttermilk, spiced strawberry sorbet and chocolate sorbet. A pint of mint ($5) also went with me to the cooler.
Well, needless to say, hubby and I had a real treat after supper. The pint container of Carmela’s mint had a sticker listing just four ingredients: organic milk, organic cream, cane sugar and egg yolk. The mint is obviously natural; there wasn’t a trace of artificial color or flavor. Like the others, it’s subtle, the rich custard predominant.
Buttermilk adds just a touch of piquancy to the fragrant strawberry it’s paired with; lavender is a whispered scent and honey a gentle, barely perceived grace-note. On the other hand, the spices (black pepper and balsamic vinegar) in Carmela’s strawberry sorbet make their presence known immediately, and the chocolate sorbet is strong and dark.
Bulgarini’s chocolate gelato is even stronger and definitely not as sweet. The bitter bite of pure cocoa is perfect for people (like me) who make frostings, fondues and mousses with baker’s chocolate and barely a hint of sugar or cream. And this same bitter chocolate blended with orange brought tears of joy to my eyes. I confess that, ever since I tasted Baskin-Robbins’ mandarin-chocolate sherbet (the best flavor they ever created) as a kid, I’ve been hooked. Every once in a while I check their Web site to see if they’ve brought it back. Ground pistachios and almonds add texture as well as intense flavor, and the not-overly-sweetened fruit purees are heavenly, their perfume natural and heady.
The stories behind Bulgarini and Carmela are fascinating. Rather than reiterating them, I refer you to their Web sites (bulgarinigelato.com and carmelaicecream.com) to find out more. Meanwhile, since we managed to finish every speck of gelato, ice cream and sorbet in one sitting, I’m heading back to stock up on Bulgarini’s cioccolato all’arancia, mandorla and pistacchio gelati, along with Carmela’s spiced strawberry, chocolate and cucumber sorbets for the weekend. They’re not cheap, but they’re wonderful and a helluva lot cheaper than a trip to Italy!
GAWD, I love my job!