December may be an inauspicious month to be opening a gelato shop in these climes, even if it has been unseasonably warm. But Paciugo, at 341 State Street (at Gorham, next door to Community Pharmacy), is pulling in stream of holiday shoppers and students wandering between exams to taste this, the Italian version of ice cream. It's made with milk, not cream, thereby cutting some fat and calories.
But it's not the diet tag that entices. It's the sensual quality of the pans of smooth, pastel-colored gelato in the brightly lit glass case; it's the allure of Italian-inflected flavors like Tiramisu and Pannacotta (Italian Wedding Cake), Viola (violet, made with "real flower essence") and perhaps the most unusual, Pepe Nero -- black pepper and olive oil. Yes, it's sweet, with a vanilla base, and while the olive oil taste is only fleeting, the black pepper comes through unexpectedly from time to time.
Other flavors seem meant to appease the American preference for inserting chunks of other desserts into ice cream (chocolate chip cookie dough, lemon custard, apple pie, amaretto chocolate chip, chocolate cookies and milk). You can sample any flavor, as many as you want, on tiny plastic shovel-shaped gelato spoons.
Cups of gelato come in small ($3, with option to choose up to three flavors), medium ($4, with option to choose up to four flavors) and large ($5, with option to choose up to five flavors). (Cones are also available.) The generous small provides enough dessert satisfaction, especially since we Americans are supposed to be reducing our portion sizes.
My combo of chocolate cookies and milk, Tiramisu and Pepe Nero worked out okay. Unlike the large chunks of cookie and pie found in some American ice creams, here the "cookies" were just specks, and the Tiramisu flavor came mostly from a hint of alcohol. The black pepper specks from the Pepe Nero had the longest staying power. This was not necessarily a good thing. An espresso ($1.60) offset the sweetness, though gelato is not as aggressively sweet as most American ice creams.
Paciugo is a Texas-based chain with many locations in the Lone Star State, as well as Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Arizona and Mexico City. Soy and sugar-free (made with Splenda) flavors are available, though people with nut or milk allergies are warned that they shouldn't consume any of the flavors.
This branch has limited seating -- three small tables and four bar-style seats looking out the window. It lacks the charm of a good gelateria, where you could savor tiny tonguefuls off the diminutive gelato shovel, sip a doppio, linger over a newspaper or watch a soccer match. Paciugo caters to the American habit of grab 'n go. But gelato, more subtle than ice cream, deserves to be lingered over.