Bulgarini and the Art of Gelato by Rick Downer

Bulgarini and the Art of Gelato

On National Ice Cream Day—or frankly, any day of the year—we take a moment to honor Italy's traditional ice cream, gelato. Thanks to the passion of Leo Bulgarini, the time-honored artisanal method of gelato-making is being carried on in Altadena, California.

by Rick Downer
updated July 31, 2019 · 4 min read

"Leo Bulgarini makes the best Italian gelato on the planet."

So say many, if not most, of the culinary tastemakers in Los Angeles—food critics at the L.A. Times, the Daily Beast, L'Italo-Americano (the most demanding of all), and many others. Gayot, the National Guide to the Good Life, rates Bulgarini Gelato #5 on the Top Ten list of ice cream/gelato brands anywhere in the U.S.



Isn't It Just Ice Cream?

Like most first-time customers of Bulgarini Gelato—an almost hidden storefront at the back of a strip mall in Altadena—people just discovering Italian gelato are predictably surprised, if not amazed, by the taste. It's like really intense ice cream. Only—somehow—different: in texture, consistency, temperature. And in the case of Bulgarini, in flavors both expected and unexpected, often well outside the range of most ice creams.

Flavors like:

  • Tiramisu
  • Kona Macadamia
  • Chocolate Orange
  • Lemon Seckel Pear
  • Zabaglione

All consistently delicious. Well worth whatever trip it took to get there. So the answer is no, gelato isn't just ice cream.

The Passion of Bulgarini

The extraordinary quality of Bulgarini gelatos is the result of two passionate people, Leo Bulgarini and his wife Elisa. He comes from Rome, Italy, where he grew up with an uncle who made gelato, to become himself a sommelier in fine restaurants. She comes from Pasadena, CA (down the road from Altadena), where she grew up to become a lawyer.

On a trip to Europe to scout pastries a few years back, Leo and Elisa made an intriguing discovery about Italian gelato. No matter where they got it, the flavor and quality were always exactly the same. Having watched his uncle create gelatos from scratch, Leo knew such similar results were highly unlikely. A little detective work revealed why: Italian gelato-making had become an industry, controlled by a company making gelato equipment that used a premade mix to manufacture a consistent product across Italy.

This so offended Leo that they switched their focus from pastries to gelato.

The Gelato Master

The two set out to find someone to teach them the disappearing art of creating gelato from fresh ingredients. In Sicily, they found an 82-year-old retired gelato master who happily taught them his third-generation artesian methods and formulas. His main lesson: use only the best natural ingredients, sourced directly from farmers and growers, artfully combined to assure maximum freshness when served.

Returning to the U.S., they founded a gelato company dedicated to creating traditional handmade Italian gelato. "We wanted to create the purest, creamiest gelato available anywhere in the world," says Leo. "At first we tried providing gelato to fine restaurants—places I'd worked before—but we felt that we were giving away too much control. We wanted to be the only owners, to set up the orchestra and direct it ourselves."

Here's Where Elisa Took Over

"Leo's no businessman," says Elisa with a smile. "He has this amazing passion to create something new and wonderful, but had no clue how to make it an actual business. I used to be a litigation lawyer, so I took on the task of setting up Bulgarini Gelato."

Since they were operating with limited funds, Elisa looked for ways to control—or eliminate—costs. And found LegalZoom. She set up a corporation back in 2006. "Everything we've done for the business, even things I might have done myself in the past, we've done through LegalZoom." she says. "We couldn't be happier—they make it so clear and complete."

Then Came the Surprise

Its location at the back of a strip mall in Altadena didn't exactly produce tons of foot traffic for the new gelateria. It did, however, attract a German family vacationing in Pasadena—who fell in love with Leo's gelato and came by every day during their stay. "A week later the dad calls me from Germany," says Leo. "He's teaching his kids how to make gelato—they wanted to know how to do it—and could I give him some pointers over the phone? I gave him a bunch of tips and he was very grateful.

"But then came the surprise," he continues. "It turns out he's an editor of Der Spiegel, one of Europe's largest and most influential news magazines, and he's going to feature Bulgarini Gelato in a full-page Der Spiegel spread. You have to understand—Der Spiegel food articles never get full-page spreads."

The Der Spiegle article was the first in a flood of celebratory newspaper and magazine stories—and other media coverage—touting Altadena's new gelato brand. Leo readily acknowledges how critical the press reaction has been to the success of his gelato company. But with disarming modesty:

"We were lucky." he says. "We were in the right place at the right time."

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Rick Downer

About the Author

Rick Downer

Marketing professional with broad expertise and experience as a strategist, writer, editor, journalist, content producer… Read more