by Janice Nigro
It’s hard work to live in and love LA. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you saying. It’s warm, there is beautiful scenery, and there is opportunity. How hard can it be to love? I am stating the obvious when I say no one likes the traffic or the distances between where you live and where you need or want to be. Driving around on any day can effectively be considered a road trip.
I always explain to visitors that the only thing I live near is the beach. That’s the way I want it, but I sometimes worry that my appreciation for all that LA has to offer is limited.
But I’m working on it.
Technically I live in Los Angeles County. So I am connected to the city, but when you add in the “traffic factor,” I don’t feel so connected. In San Francisco, I could make impromptu plans to go to a symphony not long before showtime. Hop on the street car or take a cab and make it in time to buy tickets and get to my seat. Or just walk. In LA, it takes preparation and a bit of luck not to be caught up in some major road distraction on the way.
Plans for any activity occurring outside of my beach community (the cocoon) are often met with severe apathy. Yeah, it’s probably easier to watch a ballgame from TV than to venture out of the cocoon into traffic to go to the ballpark.
But the promise of the best gelato in LA? Now that’s something worth undertaking a journey out.
Breaking out of the cocoon is even harder without a car. That’s me. Crazy I know, but if you aren’t aware, public transportation in this city works. The metro rail system can take you pretty far all for a $1.75. And when you arrive at your destination, you’re there. There is no additional stress navigating one way streets while searching for parking. You’re already there.
When I discovered that the best Italian gelato in LA according to a famous LA food critic was in Altadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, I began making a plan on how to reach the gelateria all the way from Hermosa Beach. When I asked my brother, a long time resident of LA, if he had been to Bulgarini Gelato in Altadena, he just replied, “No and yikes.”
Pure lunacy from the South Bay, but possible with the metro rail. It’s a few transfers – the green line to the blue line to the red or purple line and then to the gold line. Simple.
A good book, a camera, some patience, and I am set.
I set out on a Monday morning and got off the gold line an hour and a half later at the Lake Street metro stop in Pasadena. Bulgarini Gelato is straight up the road about three miles. Lake Street is a major roadway so there are a couple of options available to reach Altadena: busses, several go along Lake Street including a more local shuttle; Uber or taxi; or you can walk it.
I decided beforehand that I wanted to earn my gelato. I took the walking option. I knew it could be tough on a warm day in an inland location where it would be even warmer. It was easy enough most of the way, but I didn’t factor in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
I didn’t really know where I was. I didn’t know the first thing about Altadena. I even said to a barista in Altadena, “Where exactly am I? I have no clue where I am.”
She didn’t have much of an answer for me, “I’m not from here either.”
A sign referring to the locals as Altadenians emphasized the “this is not the LA that I know” feeling, as if I had landed on another planet in Star Trek. I thought it looks like another planet.
Buildings were stuck in the 1960s. I walked on all the while admiring the spectrum of businesses now occupying former service stations and their fabulous retro signs. I even passed a stand alone Kentucky Fried Chicken with the original bucket out front. And lots of palm trees twisting themselves in unison toward the south, reaching for the sun.
I had envisioned a hip area like so many other communities in LA. But I didn’t find that. I forget that the further you go outside of LA the more businesses are discreetly hidden in residential areas.
And then suddenly there it was, a humble sign in a parking lot, “Il gelato fatto in casa.”
My destination was in a strip mall. Lots of great food establishments are in strip malls in LA. This takes some getting used to, so I’ve learned you can’t judge a restaurant by it’s location. Rite Aid was the cornerstone business in this strip mall – we have CVS or Walgreens in the South Bay- which was next to a large empty former grocery store space.
But within a pocket of small open-for-business businesses in the mall resides Bulgarini Gelato. There it was nestled between a dentist’s office and a nail salon. How perfectly unassuming.
Bulgarini Gelato is a basic kitchen workspace inside dedicated to the process of authentic Italian gelato (and cooking I discovered). Seasonal cut fruit, brightly colored plums and nectarines, decorated the stainless steel table top in back, all subliminal messages guiding the savvy customer in her choice.
The selection of gelati in the glass freezer case is not a long list. Still there are enough choices causing one to linger a while before making a final call.
I stood there in front of the glass case reading the names of each flavor. Um, ah, ooh. Feeling pressure from the eyes of the young man behind the counter, I whimped out and went for two of my standard favorite flavors, pistachio and nocciola, in a small cup.
“The pistachio,” the young man said, “costs extra because the nuts are imported.”
It was just 50 cents more for the taste of real pistachios from the homeland of my Sicilian grandparents.
Seating is at a few randomly placed umbrellas and tables just outside. There was only one other customer at 1PM on a Monday. It was maybe too hot for most anyone to even go out for a gelato. I sat down and took a couple photos of my gelato scoops, but in this heat there wasn’t much time to get them right. A few precious drips of my $8.50 gelato were already lost.
The cup was small so there wasn’t much room for dipping in and scooping two flavors at once. But there wasn’t much time for savoring anyway, and by the time I got to the last bit, I had to drink it rather than scoop it.
The other customer looked up from his gelato and spoke. “It’s epic gelato, right?”
I agreed and followed up with the next logical question in any dialogue with a stranger at a gelateria, “Which flavors did you get?”
He was from Minnesota, he explained. “I don’t think I will be back any time soon so I took three flavors. Strawberry, nectarine, and pistachio.”
Wise words I thought. I didn’t know when I would be back either. When I finished, I went back in for more.
I had to rethink my strategy based on his remarks and the fresh fruit lying out in the kitchen. I should know from my travels that it’s best to choose what’s in season locally, and pitted fruits are in season.
I went for the sorbetto nettarina (nectarine) and coupled it with cioccolato. I tried a second time to get an artsy photograph, but I soon gave in to the heat before the magic disappeared as a puddle on the table, like Cinderella after midnight.
I found it difficult to leave without having tasted all the flavors. But I thought of something my father once said when I just missed seeing the Greek amphitheater in Taormina by less than 5 minutes, “There’s always a reason compelling you to return.”
I guess like any relationship, I have to work at mine with LA. Maybe one gelateria at a time.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com
Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.