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The Food Issue: Ambassador of Pepe Nero

A gelato-smitten entrepreneur brings the unconventional Paciugo chain to Chicago.

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One chilly Wisconsin evening in 2007, business consultant Ani Poddar walked into the Madison outpost of the Texas-based gelateria chain Paciugo with his wife and spotted a flavor called pepe nero—black pepper and olive oil. Poddar, who'd emigrated from India in 1998 to study manufacturing systems and industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin, was a man who took his sweets very seriously, and he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

It didn't help that "I had had a bit too much of the crazy water, which is to say, I was slightly drunk," he says in his precise accent. "Apparently I did not use my inside voice when I said, 'There is no fricking way anybody puts pepper in ice cream!'" Then he tasted it—and found it inexplicably fruity, spicy, intriguing.

In search of a business opportunity and taken with the notion of "doing the audience a favor by delivering a superior product," Poddar spent months researching the gelato market in general and Paciugo in particular. Earlier this year he fulfilled the company's training and apprenticeship requirements, and in September he opened Chicago's first Paciugo franchise, on the corner of Broadway and Melrose.

Pepe nero is still his favorite flavor. "I would describe it like a marriage that gets better with each passing day," he says. "It gets better with each passing second in your mouth. That truly embodies what gelato can do. Don't get me wrong—I can easily sit down with a tub of nice vanilla and fudge ice cream. But what else can do you do with it?"

From its origins in Dallas, where it was founded by a family of Italian immigrants in 2000, Paciugo has grown into a chain of more than 40 gelaterias in nine states and Mexico. The company, which takes its name from an Italian word meaning "messy concoction," holds as its claim to fame the ability to offer dozens upon dozens of flavors at multiple locations without sacrificing quality, like a sort of high-end answer to Baskin Robbins.

Like every Paciugo shop, the Chicago franchise offers between 32 and 38 flavors daily, chosen from a list of more than 200 that range from the pedestrian (butter pecan, black raspberry) to the exotic (Texas pecan sea-salt caramel, vanilla lavender chocolate chip). There are no-sugar-added and soy varieties, as well as several flavors of sorbetti, among them banana-carrot and blackberry-cabernet.

Illinois' first Paciugo opened in Forest Park last year. Poddar doesn't own that one, but he plans to open several more in Chicago, including one he hopes will be up and running by spring (he hasn't settled on the location). In the meantime, he's counting on sales of coffee and hot chocolate, plus hybrid concoctions like the affogato—hot espresso poured over gelato—to keep business coming in during the winter, when not everyone thinks that a dish of amarena black-cherry swirl hits the spot.

In addition to the gelato and sorbetti, Paciugo holds another sugary draw for the sweet-toothed: glass bottles of Dr. Pepper from Dublin, Texas, whose bottling plant is legendary among hard-core soda fans for its use of cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup. "Dublin Dr. Pepper," as it's known, is hard to find outside of Texas, though you can order it directly from the plant online (at dublindrpepper.com). Most customers aren't familiar with it, Poddar admits, but those who are get very excited about it. "There are people who know that this is the real deal," he says. "A few people have been really awed by it."

Each Paciugo makes its own gelato on-site from fresh ingredients supplied by company headquarters in Dallas. While Poddar prefers to keep the precise process a trade secret, he assures me "we do not do anything to increase the visual excitement while compromising the flavor." He points to a bin of pistachio gelato that's several shades lighter than the virulent food-dye-green variety you might expect at your local 31 Flavors. He execrates what he calls "flavor-empty calories"—which, he says, are what ice cream often provides, since it's not only made with much more butterfat than gelato but also served at a lower temperature, which inhibits the taste buds. "Gelato does not flash-freeze the tongue like ice cream does," he says. "It allows the flavor to not coat your tongue, but to gracefully develop so that your tongue can be seduced."

Poddar seems pretty seduced himself: he eats Paciugo gelato at breakfast, lunch, and dinner—sometimes for dessert, sometimes as an appetizer. "I have always had a wicked sweet tooth," he explains. "In the part of India where I grew up, you start the meal by eating something sweet. Your body gets a sugar high, and your hunger actually increases." If he's not eating gelato himself, he's often in the store handing samples to customers on tiny plastic spoons and urging, "Wait for the aftertaste! It's very smooth, very silky." Most of the time, it's pepe nero he's proffering. "Whenever I work the shift, it becomes the best seller," he says.   

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