TWO SCOOPS: Paciugo founders Ugo, 64, and Cristiana Ginatta, 38, turned a pushcart of gelato into a successful franchise. photography by Manny Rodriguez

They Scream for Gelato

Before she and Ugo started the business, she trained at gelato school in Italy, then learned the nuts and bolts by apprenticing at a gelateria. At Paciugo, she creates new flavors, meshing her own passions with the latest food trends and her awareness of what will appeal to Paciugo’s audience.

Her research involves an annual pilgrimage with Ugo to the gelato trade show held in late January in Rimini, on the east coast of Italy.

For Cristiana, the trip would never be complete without a visit to her family home in Piacenza, a picturesque town outside of Milan, where each day starts with a walk down the cobblestone streets to the cafe for morning espresso. Then it’s on to a whistle-stop foodie tour through Ugo’s hometown of Turin, in Piedmont, birthplace of the “slow food” movement and home to Eataly, the astonishing food emporium that opened in a former vermouth factory in 2007 (a second branch is coming soon to New York). They stop in at La Stua, Ugo’s favorite pizzeria, where they feast on thin-crust pies with prosciutto and artichoke, washed down with frizzante red wine and chased with chocolates from Peyrano, a fine chocolatier nearly a century old.

Finally, they head to Rimini, a ticky-tacky resort town mobbed with vacationers and gelato shops during the summer. Attended by every major player in the gelato world, the trade show keeps the Ginattas plugged in to current trends and renews their relationships with suppliers and peers.

Ugo explores the aisles of stainless-steel machinery, laying an appreciative hand on the latest Carpigiani batch freezer as if it were a brand new Ferrari. Unfailingly dapper, usually clad in an elegant suit, he’s hailed by the equipment manufacturers who recognize the strides he and Cristiana are making toward winning over mainstream America to their quintessentially Italian treat.

For Cristiana, the show is a hedonistic laboratory that will stoke her creativity for the coming season. Hundreds of vendors proudly unveil their rows of rectangular tins, filled with pastel-tinted gelato whipped into statuesque peaks. A sharp judge with a refined palate, she immediately sizes up whether the gelato is made from fresh ingredients with flavors that intrigue her, or whether it comes from a pre-made mix such as Pre-Gel, the giant Italian manufacturer of instant powders and concentrates.

Her latest flavor innovation was her Mediterranean sea salt caramel gelato, inspired by the salted caramels popularized on the West Coast by artisan chocolatiers such as Sahagun in Portland, Oregon. Introduced in mid-2007, Paciugo’s Mediterranean sea salt caramel proved to be such a big hit that it earned a spot on the permanent menu. (It wasn’t until nearly a year later, in March 2008, that Häagen-Dazs came out with Fleur de Sel Caramel, pairing, yes, the flavors of caramel and salt.)

The 2008 flavors include a chocolate version of the Mediterranean sea salt caramel, plus roasted banana, chocolate green tea, crème brûlée, toasted coconut, and a brilliantly tart chia lime sorbet. Cristiana has learned to adjust her European sensibility to accommodate American tastes. Amaretto, made with crunchy almond cookies, was one of her first flavors that initially would not sell—until she added chocolate chips.

Now that they’ve mastered flavor creation, they’re focusing on franchising. The charge a franchise fee of $30,000, and break down the expected start-up costs (anywhere from about $175,000 to $375,000) for potential store owners. Which sounds like a lot, until you realize that, even subtracting annual food costs, Paciugo tells franchisees they can expect annual net revenues to be anywhere from about $220,000 to more than a half a million dollars per store.

Which is one reason they’ve had so many willing to take the Paciugo plunge. In fact, they’ve sold all of their remaining stores to franchisees, except one: the shop in Highland Park Village, which they say is still the ideal place to test flavors. The only difference is now they hand samples out over the counter. The pushcart has been retired from sidewalk duty.

Write to Teresa Gubbins at [email protected].

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