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Scoop Du Jour 

Cool gelato is the calling card of a new Riverbend hotspot By

The cashier at the secondhand store tapped hard on the storefront window to get my attention. I was outside eating a cup of pistachio gelato from the nearby Gelato Pazzo Caffé while admiring some of the furniture on the sidewalk outside her shop. She sternly beckoned me inside, and I braced for a talking-to about maybe dripping gelato on her wares.

"Isn't that the ice cream from the place down the street," she asked coolly.

I told her it was.

"Listen," she continued, nodding. "That's rich, huh? But listen. Have you tried the sandwiches? The ham sandwiches?"

In fact, I had just polished off a prosciutto panino ­ which is basically Italian for a ham sandwich ­ so I told her I had.

"Oh!," she belted out in an exclamation as sharp as a shout in pain. "Melt in your mouth. That is melt in your mouth."

Gelato often evokes visceral reactions, perhaps best summed up by the deep grunt emitted by a friend after her first bite of Pazzo's hazelnut chocolate gelato. There's no accurate way to spell the sound she made, but it was something like the sound of lava in motion.

So when Gelato Pazzo opened in the Riverbend neighborhood earlier this year, I was not surprised by the euphoric reports I got from its first patrons. Even on a cold January day, a cup of creamy, smooth gelato is stuff people crow over. Pazzo, however, has a dual appeal, delivering the sweets with its gelato and excellent cannoli while enticing the salty side of the palate with panini made from Italian cured meats and cheeses on crusty, fresh-tasting ciabatta bread.

Pazzo (Italian for "crazy") is a family affair run by Vincent and Felicia Pigna and their children. They originally opened it as a stand in the Riverwalk Mall, but after Hurricane Katrina relocated across town -- and, in retail terms, a world away -- to Oak Street, the vintage Riverbend shopping corridor that is seeing a revival of late. The Pignas opened Pazzo early in 2007 in a former shoe store and, with the help of people like the lady at the secondhand store, word has been spreading quickly.

Pazzo makes its gelato and sorbetto in house and some of the flavors practically tattoo themselves across your palate, like that hazelnut or a lime sorbetto that tastes so much of lime it could be used to garnish a gin and tonic. Others are more subdued, like the excellent pistachio. It is mellow green, the color of kitchen appliances made in the 1970s, and it tastes through and through of finely ground pistachio and cream. The selection of flavors changes frequently, made in small batches and displayed lusciously in gleaming blossoms of color. Some other favorite flavors so far include blood orange sorbetto, a subtle coconut gelato and a vanilla gelato with the unusual addition of balsamic vinegar. The vinegar is streaked over the gelato like an oil spill but has a great, pungent, back-of-the-mouth sweetness.

All the varieties of panini sandwiches cost $9, whether the filling is Portobello mushrooms with gorgonzola or prosciutto piled half as thick as a deck of playing cards. It seems like vegetarians are subsidizing the meat eaters among us, but those are the breaks. The Caprese panini nonetheless offers a terrific mouthful of soft chewy mozzarella, fresh basil and fragrant olive oil with each bite. The prosciutto with figs is a sandwich version of a classic Italian appetizer, and the crackle of the tiny fig seeds with the salty succulence of the paper-thin ham is amazing.

A turkey panini might seem like a boring choice compared with an all-star Italian deli sandwich cradling salami, prosciutto, mortadella and spicy sopressata, but the turkey is roasted in house, cut into big, moist slabs and paired with nutty, creamy melted fontina and is one of the most satisfying sandwiches on the board. If it had a bit of something juicy like a few tomato slices, it could be perfect.

Pazzo also makes Italian lunch specials. One Friday's linguini with calamari was particularly good. The pasta is perfectly al dente and the sauce is a tight rendition of classic red gravy. The squid is tender, imparting an unmistakable but not overwhelming marine taste to the whole dish. It is a great $9 lunch, not including the inevitable cup of gelato afterward.

Pazzo's most unusual specialty is its steak night on Wednesdays, when the shop stays open later than usual (until 9 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.). Pazzo is not about to depose Crescent City Steakhouse or La Boca for carnivorous bragging rights, but it turns out a fine steak, like a 14-oz. New York strip cooked medium rare to order with a nice light char and a simple salt-and-pepper seasoning. It is served with grilled asparagus and rosemary potatoes for $23. As with everything else here, you order the steaks at the counter, where the cashier will hand you a big steak knife and wine glasses if you bring your own bottle -- the shop serves no alcohol. This could be the ideal family night out when the adults want steak and the kids will be happy with a sandwich and ice cream.

People seem to arrive for gelato in waves. One night, it appeared that a priest had led a contingent of his flock over for a midday treat. At the tail end of a steak night, the place was mobbed 20 minutes before closing time by a dozen people all under the age of 16. And before noon one day, I got to watch a class of pre-schoolers work through small cups of chocolate gelato with the same messy, two-handed abandon that some adults reserve only for barbecue shrimp.

click to enlarge Vincent Pigna makes fresh treats at Gelato Pazzo Caff . - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Vincent Pigna makes fresh treats at Gelato Pazzo Caff .
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