Of all possible months, january is the last you’d pick to open a gelato store. But Ugo and Cristiana Ginatta, founders of Paciugo Gelato, were undeterred.

It was 2001, and they’d just opened for business in Highland Park Village. Dallas was still reeling from the last frozen yogurt craze. Nobody thought about gelato. And the Ginattas didn’t have the best visibility. Tucked into the lobby of the Regent Theater, they watched as streams of moviegoers passed them by.

This was their second store, but it was the more high-profile venture, and it had to succeed. Ugo pulled out the quaint cart they used for catering. They filled it with tins of gelato. Then he and Cristiana hit the sidewalks of HP Village, he extolling the goodness of their cold, creamy Italian treat while Cristiana scooped samples for passersby.

They shared their tale of gelato, which comes from the Latin word gelare (“to freeze”): that it is made with milk, not cream; that its fine texture is denser and less “frothy” than ice cream; that it is served in a semi-frozen state (despite the word’s etymology); that it is best when made fresh.
Their hard work has paid off. Paciugo is now a $5.5 million franchise operation, with more than 25 stores in Dallas, Florida, Colorado, Mexico City, and beyond.

Approximately 20 employees work at the company’s new headquarters, located near Dallas Love Field. The offices include a production facility where they devise recipes and prepare ingredients to be shipped to the stores; a training center with gelato maker, display case, and espresso machine; and a test kitchen where they develop at least a dozen new flavors a year, to add to the company’s line of more than 200.

And now, with 50 franchisees lined up to open 120 stores over the next few years, Paciugo is poised to become the No. 1 name in gelato in the United States.

Not bad for two Dallas entrepreneurs from Italy, one of whom (Cristiana) could barely speak English eight years ago.

The Ginattas’ journey began when they left Italy in 2000. They chose Dallas because of its reputation as a brisk restaurant town and because it was home to Ugo’s two children by his first wife, whom he met while a foreign student at the University of Denver. (His son, Vincent, 30, a partner in the company, serves as VP of engineering.)

Arriving in April 2000, they used their savings of $340,000 to open their inaugural store on Lovers Lane, paying a premium rent after being rejected by numerous landlords who wouldn’t take a chance on two foreigners, a married couple no less, trying to sell a frozen product few could pronounce.

“We were new in town,” Cristiana says. “We had no credit history. They didn’t know what gelato was.”

Their next hurdle was obtaining milk. Dairy companies refused to supply them. But they had an in with a VIP in the dairy world: Dallas’ own queen of cheese, the founder of Dallas Mozzarella Co., Paula Lambert, whom Ugo had met previously.

“Paula called Schepps and said, ‘They are nice guys, you can trust them,’ ” Ugo says. “We only got milk because Paula called them.”

The couple strongly believed gelato would take hold here. Gelato was an intrinsic part of their history growing up in northern Italy. Cristiana’s grandfather made gelato, and every summer, her family would tour the gelaterias of the northern Italian countryside.

“It was the excitement of getting something special, and these places would have their own cows, their own fields, their own fruit,” she says.