Cool, Refreshing, Outstanding Italian Gelato and Tasty Pastas - Bulgarini Gelato [Thoughts + Pics]

When Summer is in full swing, enjoying a scoop of frozen Gelato might be one of the best ways to beat the heat. Normally if you’re facing triple digit temperatures, getting any scoop of Gelato might be more than sufficient, but when you’ve had the housemade creations from Bulgarini Gelato, your outlook might never be the same.

Opened by Leo Bulgarini, Bulgarini Gelato has gained a steady following thanks to the glowing reviews from the late Jonathan Gold. One bite of his Housemade Gelato and Sorbet and you’ll understand why there’s a devoted fan base.

It had been nearly a year since we last visited Bulgarini Gelato due to the pandemic, but we finally made it back out, and from the first bite, I was instantly reminded of why I love this place.

Plum Sorbetto (Vegan):

Bulgarini’s Plum Sorbetto is like an adrenaline shot of lip-smacking, dark stone fruit goodness. It is so concentrated with Plum flavor, it’s probably more focused and pure than eating a fresh Plum. If you were wondering, you can watch Leo and his staff chopping up freshly delivered fruit from local farms and watch the magic happen depending on when you show up. He uses no additives or artificial ingredients; it’s just local, California produce concentrated in every frozen bite.

Peach Sorbetto (Vegan):

Leo’s Peach Sorbetto is even better. For all you Peach lovers out there, this is probably the most pure Peach frozen dessert I’ve ever had (it was as good as it was before the pandemic).

Sicilian Almond Gelato:

But it’s the Nut-based Gelato where Bulgarini might shine the most: Originally discussed by Jonathan Gold, it seems Leo Bulgarini is so obsessed with making the best Gelato and Sorbetto that he can, that for his Pistachio (and Almond) Gelato, he kept searching and refusing to make his Pistachio and his Almond Gelato offerings until he found a product he was really happy with. This turned out to be a farm near Sicily, Italy(!), and if he wasn’t able to get the shipment from that farm, he wouldn’t make these Gelato until he got a shipment back in. Impressive.

The Sicilian Almond Gelato is simply ridiculous.

There is no other way to say it other than one bite from the Sicilian Almond Gelato from Bulgarini will ruin you for other Nut-based Gelato. Fragrant, earthy, nutty, the enticing aroma from the Roasted Sicilian Almonds ground up and infused in Bulgarini’s Housemade Gelato is like eating the distillation of hundreds of Almonds per bite.

A masterpiece not to be missed!

On another visit (probably the ~25th+ visit over the years since OG Chowhound), we were able to enjoy an outdoor, socially distanced dining experience with Leo’s Gelato as dessert.

Yes, as strange as it sounds, Bulgarini Gelato makes some pretty wonderful Handmade Italian Pastas as well, courtesy of the obsessive mind of Leo Bulgarini, driven to make not only great Gelato and Sorbetto, but some rustic Italian Pasta classics he grew up with.

Ribollita Toscana (Seasonal Greens & White Bean Soup):

Hearty, earthy, well-seasoned, this is a tasty Soup to start the meal.

Brodo di Carne (Bone Marrow Broth):

This is a newer item, and it had a fragrant, Beef Broth quality about it. Lighter than the hearty White Bean Soup.

Tagliatelle con Sugo di Carne (Handcut Egg Noodles with Meat Sauce):

Happiness comes flooding in on the first bite: There’s an absolutely gorgeous, mouth-watering, long-stewed quality when you take a bite of Bulgarini’s Tagliatelle Pasta with Meat Sauce. It takes Leo over 6 hours to prepare a batch of this Sugo di Carne, which is like a slightly looser Bolognese, and it shows in each bite. From the delicate notes of Tomatoes, Carrots and Onions, to the satiating long-stewed Ground Beef. The Handmade Egg Pasta is toothsome, but inherently soft due to it being a fresh Egg Pasta, compared to enjoying a Dried Pasta.

A highlight Pasta on the menu and must order!

(Special) Linguine Alle Vongole (Linguine with Clams):

On this visit, Leo had gotten in some fresh Clams and was making a special dish of Linguine Alle Vongole (Linguine with Clams), an Italian classic. The flavors were pretty spot-on compared to many versions we’ve had over the years, the Clams were very fresh and briny bright. But perhaps the one small quibble is that the portion was tiny. It was definitely a primi sized Pasta compared to the rest of the menu, but the price was even higher ($30).

Chestnut Gelato:

Nutty, more round and earthier than the Sicilian Almond and Pistachio.

Kona Coffee Gelato:

Wonderful Kona Coffee flavors exude from each chilled bite. One of our new favorites.

Vanilla Gelato:

While seemingly a common flavor, Bulgarini’s Vanilla is nothing short of fantastic: Potent, deep Vanilla Bean flavors in this Gelato really makes this another standout.

Chocolate with Cacao Nibs Sorbetto (Vegan):

One of the rarer offerings, Leo makes a Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs Sorbetto(!) when the mood strikes him. As a Sorbet with no dilution of Milk, you’re getting pure Dark Chocolate insanity! It is incredibly thick and rich, almost like a semi-frozen “Chocolate Fudge” in terms of thickness, but it’s just fragrant, Dark Chocolate concentrated in every bite, and vegan as well.

Another Visit:

Bulgarini has added a few Pizza Romana choices on the menu now, which is a surprise. The rectangular-style cut Pizzas are offered in a few basic flavors currently.

Roman Pizza with Portobello Mushrooms:

Supremely pleasing, you can smell the Oven-Roasted Portobello Mushrooms before it even arrives to the table. Leo’s Roman Pizza isn’t anywhere near as crispy-crunchy and structured like Il Romanista, but it is enjoyable and a nice bite to start the meal.

Tagliatelle con Sugo di Carne (Handcut Egg Noodles with Meat Sauce):

As wonderfully delicious as always! Must order.

Gnocchi Al Pesto (Potato Gnocchi with Pesto):

After the Sugo di Carne, Leo’s next best Handmade Pasta might very well be his Gnocchi Al Pesto (Potato Gnocchi with Pesto). These Housemade Gnocchi are airy, light and delicate, and the Pesto Sauce made from Pine Nuts and Basil is extremely fragrant and nourishing.

Dessert time! Had to re-order some of our favorite flavors again.

Vanilla Gelato:

Kona Coffee Gelato:

Sicilian Almond Gelato:

Another Visit:

A surprise appearance of Leo’s famous Lasagna (the first time we had it was during a Christmas visit years ago) was on special this evening.

Lasagna (Layers of Tender Pasta with Meat Sauce and Bechamel):

This was wonderful, but it wasn’t his Christmas Lasagna unfortunately. That one had a deeper Bechamel flavor, a few more herbs and spices, but this Lasagna special was still worth an order. Really flavorful Meat Sauce and tender Handmade Pasta layers.

Spaghettini All’ Aglione (Homemade Spaghettini Pasta with Garlic Tomato Sauce):

One of Bulgarini’s original offerings, Leo decided to make a sauce he enjoyed in Rome, taking 4 hours to make(!), which is an intensely concentrated sauce of Tomatoes, Garlic and Herbs.

It sounds simple, but like the best of his Gelato, it is an awesome distillation of pure Tomato essence and fragrant Garlic. It is probably one of the best Tomato Sauces (non-meat) I’ve had in a long time. The Spaghettini pasta is very thin and delicate.

Strawberry Sorbetto:

Just an outstanding frozen Strawberry dessert, Leo’s Strawberry Sorbet is the version to get (over his Strawberry Gelato) for those seeking the ultimate Strawberry concentration of flavor.

Kona Coffee Gelato:

Hazelnut Gelato:

Another standout Nut-based Gelato, Leo’s Hazelnut might be even more fragrant and enticing than his Sicilian Almond Gelato. It is such a pure concentration of Roasted Hazelnuts that it stuns the senses and leaves an indelible image in your mind.

Another Visit:

On our most recent visit, we decided to try one of the newer menu items, a Charcuterie Plate. There has always been an informal, casual vibe at Bulgarini Gelato - after all for many visits, it’s usually just owner Leo Bulgarini or his son helping you out - but this Charcuterie Plate feels a bit too simplistic for the price you’re being charged.

Charcuterie Plate (Assorted Charcuterie, Cheese, Cornichons):

The plate is a rather sloppily put together presentation of Mortadella, Prosciutto, and then for Cheese, Parmigiano and Camembert with some jarred Cornichons and sliced Tomatoes. That’s it.

The Mortadella tastes like a typical, store-bought Mortadella, and the Prosciutto tasted similar. Nothing bad about them, but very average.

The Parmigiano and Camembert were also sloppily presented, pieces of it were broken off (in odd sized chunks) with the rind, and both of those also tasted rather mundane.

Perhaps the most disappointing part was that this Charcuterie Plate was served with no Bread or Crackers. You had to order Bread on the side. So in total this was a $29 (+ tax & tip) Charcuterie Plate that felt like something you could put together at home in a few minutes from items bought from the local supermarket.

Focaccia Bread:

Thankfully Leo is taking the time these days to re-toast his excellent Housemade Focaccia Bread, so if you weren’t one of the lucky ones to arrive at a time when he finishes a large batch out of the oven, this new re-toasted version is nearly just as good: Piping hot, crusty, crunchy, airy, with some Olive Oil and Sea Salt.

Spaghettini con Anatra (Homemade Spaghettini with Duck Ragu Sauce):

A newer Pasta offering, we had tried this before the pandemic and loved the flavors, but the Duck meat during the debut was a bit tough and chewy. This new version is much improved, with a delicious poultry-infused Sauce and tender chunks of Duck meat.

Spaghetti Alla Carbonara Romana (Spaghetti with Pork Cheeks and Eggs):

Intensely porky, so fragrant, the Guanciale (Cured Pork Jowl) Leo uses was sourced from a specialist after Leo searched for almost a year to find one he was satisfied with, similar to his search for the ideal Italian Pistachios. The Pecorino Cheese is from a dairy farm outside of Rome, Italy, and makes a huge difference.

The Carbonara Sauce was rich and eggy, stunning in its porkiness and nice Pecorini punch with some Black Pepper, and the Spaghetti on this visit was perfect! One of the best Carbonara Pastas we’ve had in a long while. Another standout.

Sicilian Almond Gelato:

Stracciatella Gelato:

Leo’s famous Stracciatella Gelato features Valrhona Dark Chocolate Chips in a creamy Milk-based Gelato background. Wonderful!

Pear with Mastika Sorbetto (Vegan):

Gorgeous intense Pear flavors, infused with Greek Mastika (what Leo describes as sap from the Mastic tree from Greece), the result is a gentle, but flavorful Pear infusion and a fragrant, not overly sweet finish. Really special.

Bulgarini Gelato has continued to excel over the years, still making standout Gelato and Sorbetto with such intense, glorious flavors that it really becomes the gold standard for frozen dessert flavors. The development of a Dinner menu, with Handmade Pastas, now with Soups, Salads and a few small add-ons is making the establishment feel more like a restaurant as opposed to a gelateria.

The one key challenge is the lack of professionally trained waitstaff. Perhaps due to budget or the lack of talent wanting to work out in Altadena, but the service is definitely on the slow and casual side. There were some visits where you wouldn’t get your main courses for 40 minutes because the kitchen was backed up. Eventually it arrived, with no apologies.

Things like the Charcuterie Plate reflect something that shouldn’t have been put on the menu, perhaps the one hiccup on an otherwise solid-to-outstanding Dinner menu. Thankfully you can still have outstanding Handmade Pastas (some of the best in city), with choices like the Tagliatelle with Meat Sauce, the Gnocchi Pesto, his Tomato & Garlic Sauce is very good, and the Spaghetti Carbonara.

And save room for dessert, because if you only have room for one thing, it would be enjoying a bite of Leo Bulgarini’s wonderful frozen, stunning Gelato and Sorbetto.

Bulgarini Gelato
749 E. Altadena Dr.
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 791-6174

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold