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Passion inspires the mad scientist of gelato

Diego Comparin

Diego Comparin brings a sweet bite of Texas (literally) back home to Italy, where he grew up in the family gelato shop.

Diego Comparin
Paciugo Gelato & Café

By Nicholas Upton

Growing up in a family gelato shop in the picturesque Tuscany region of Italy sounds like a dreamy life. And it was. But as Diego Comparin got older, his overwhelming passion for the Italian sweet his family made led him far from that charming life. But when Franchise Times caught up with him, he just happened to be vacationing back home with the family.

“I started very early with my dad making gelato. I was eager to help since I was 9,” said Comparin. “In the beginning, mostly I was eating a lot of gelato. I still remember it goes by phases; at 9 I was eating only lemon sorbet for some reason.”

By 14 or 15, he was extracting flavors and juice for gelato and helping to balance recipes. And when it was time to choose his focus at university, gelato by way of food science was the obvious path.

“When I really started to understand more about what is behind the gelato and the chemistry, it was there that I found that this was really my path,” said Comparin, even if his focus was a little niche. “My professor was saying, ‘Why are you focused only on gelato?’. I said, ‘This is the thing I like the most.’ My thesis was in gelato, I improved the texture using natural processes from natural ricotta cheese. I was published in International Dairy Journal dairy for that.”

He even got a grant from the Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium to continue his work. And the Monday after he left university research, he set to work customizing a gelato recipe including Splenda for a supplier to Paciugo Gelato & Café. The company was so impressed, it gave him the job he’s had for the past 15 years.

Diego Comparin

Diego Comparin, flanked by his father and his sister, at a recent gelato pop-up in his home country of Italy.

Today, he’s the vice president of research and development and production at Paciugo Gelato & Café, a subsidiary of Sinelli Concepts International, the parent of Which Wich.

His chief goal and highest passion: recreating memorable flavors. Pumpkin pie gelato, for instance, might sound easy; add some pumpkin flavoring, mix it up and start selling.

But Comparin is thinking about it on another level, looking to capture the feeling of sitting down with grandma and having a slice of her famous pumpkin pie.

“You cannot mess with those flavors, those are the basis of their Thanksgiving,” said Comparin. “My goal is to recreate that experience. We tried to do it from scratch to cook the pumpkin. The customers weren’t really satisfied, and so I tried to understand what they do in the kitchen. And we came back with new thinking and found that most of the time they were using spiced pumpkin from a can. We put in our own spice and created the pumpkin pie flavor and everyone said, ‘This is how my grandma made it.’”

He said that’s a real differentiator in the sweets and treats world of super sweet and neon colored gelato (though he’s made some eye-catching treats, too). The Paciugo lemon sorbet, for example, dances across the tongue as if you were biting a lemon slice. It’s bright, it’s fresh, it’s tart and “tastes real,” said Comparin.

Paciugo Gelato

A few of Diego Comparin’s many creations. The “mad scientist of gelato” has been remaking many classic gelato flavors with fewer preservatives and more natural ingredients.

Known affectionately at the office as the mad scientist of gelato, he’s turning some of the foundational gelato science on its head by removing longstanding additives like emulsifiers and highly processed flavors.

“This is what I look at for the future, more minimally processed flavors and real fruit and real flavorings,” said Comparin, who is working on a yuzu fruit flavor right now. “For me it’s very interesting to balance the way people can appreciate the fruit by itself—I don’t want to just put a yuzu flavor. I want to use just the fruit so you can really appreciate the flavor by itself.”

And while he’s pushing the limits of gelato right to the edge of sanity, he’s blowing a few minds, most notably his father’s, who has been making gelato his entire life. During a pop-up event with the elder Comparin, he was a little worried.

“I took out the emulsifying ingredient that’s usually used,” said Comparin. “My dad was a little concerned, saying it would be very hot. I said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad.’ Afterward, he said he was very impressed. I was impressed even. But for me it was really nice. He could see that I really do the job the right way. It was a great moment for everybody.”

Diego Comparin

Culinary Q&A with Diego Comparin

What is your first food memory?

The lemon gelato was one of my first memories. But I vividly remember when I was a kid, very young, I’d get a few lira and I’d go to a little grocery shop behind my gelato shop and I was getting pickled olives, it was crazy. I was probably 4 or 5 years old, and I was getting these olives. Usually the kids are getting sweet stuff. Maybe because I had a gelato shop I was going there and getting salty olives.

What is the last thing you cooked at home?

We just cooked for tonight parmesan eggplant with my aunt and sister. We fried it with a little bit of olive oil. First, we put some salt on the eggplant so the water can come out and then fry it, then layer it with mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce and on top is some fresh parmesan.

What is your guilty pleasure food?

Maybe a Florentine steak ... it’s a lot of meat, but it’s so good.

If you could only eat or drink three things the rest of your life, what would they be?

My dad is now retired and he’s growing his own veggies, eggplant, radicchio. So going out to the back yard and getting the fresh veggies, for me that is really amazing. That’s the thing I really appreciate the most. All these fresh flavors are not comparable with anything, the carrots, the strawberries. Really fresh foods, that’s amazing.

Always pair with good wine, that’s very important.

Your father clearly helped guide you into the gelato life. What was his most important lesson?  

Use the choice ingredients. I remember a few years ago, during the summer we were out of cantaloupe, we were getting it from south Texas. It rained a lot in that period, so the cantaloupe was not good. So I said, let’s choose another flavor. If the ingredient is not the right one, you just can’t do it. One of the most important things is choose the right ingredients, get the best, get it at the best moment of the season.

Heidi Gibson - The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen  •  Sheldon Simeon - Pokéworks 
•  Patty Scheibmeir - Rave Restaurant Group  •  Diego Comparin - Paciugo Gelato & Café 
•  Anthony Russo - Russo’s New York Pizzeria

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