A&E

A bittersweet union

We seek out the best affogato on the Midpeninsula

It's hard to imagine a more honorable desserts-based death than the decadent drowning of gelato by a strong shot of piping-hot espresso.

I'm talking of course about affogato, the traditional Italian dessert whose name literally translates to "drowned." The confection traditionally comes with one or two scoops of vanilla gelato doused in a single shot of espresso. It can be enjoyed as a dessert -- or really, an invigorating snack at any time of the day, if that's your thing.

Affogatos prove that opposites do, indeed, attract. They bring hot and cold, sweet and bitter together in holy, delicious matrimony.

Since the dessert itself is so minimal, with typically only two ingredients, "the secret (which is no secret) is using high quality ingredients," explained Craig Stoll, owner of Pizzeria Delfina in Palo Alto.

Here on the Midpeninsula, you'll find an affogato spectrum, with tradition at one end and experimentation at the other. At many Italian restaurants, you'll find the frozen treats in their most pure form: vanilla gelato and espresso, with no toppings. Elsewhere, purveyors are adding their own spin, whether it's candied orange peel on top or soft-serve instead of gelato. Read on for some of our favorites in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos, and know that this list is far from all-inclusive: We've left room for you to seek out your favorite drowned dessert at numerous other eateries in the area.

Terun | 448 California Ave., Palo Alto

For Franco Campilongo, native of Italy and owner of Terun in Palo Alto, affogatos are all about simplicity and quality. Terun's affogato ($8) comes with a single scoop of vanilla gelato from the Latest Scoop in Berkeley drowned in a particularly creamy, foamy shot of espresso made from beans straight from Naples.

"That's very important to make right," Campilongo said of the espresso shot. "It has to be creamy. You can tell the difference." He's also against adding sugar to the espresso, which some establishments do.

Campilongo noted that when you say affogato in America, most people think immediately of espresso and ice cream. But in Italy, espresso isn't the only liquid used to commit the sweet drowning act.

"It can be drowned in coffee; it can be drowned in Grand Marnier; it can be drowned in any other form of liquor," he said. (A few Italian customers at Terun sometimes ask to top off their affogatos with Grand Marnier, he said, but not many. They'll oblige.)

Tin Pot Creamery | 855 El Camino Real #121, Palo Alto & 201 First St., Los Altos

Tin Pot Creamery owner Becky Sunseri said when she first opened her small-batch artisan ice cream shop at Town & Country Village two years ago, very few customers would order the affogato. Others didn't seem to know what it was. But she's seen a recent increase in popularity.

Tin Pot's version ($6.25) contains its own ice cream, which is made in-house with locally sourced, organic ingredients and spun in gelato machines (which churn at a slower pace than ice cream machines, letting in less air). The result is dense and cold enough to withstand not only a shot of hot espresso, but also the recent heat wave.

The default flavor is vanilla bean, but Sunseri gets visibly excited when talking about Tin Pot's other potentially complimentary flavors: toasted almond, coconut, chocolate -- which creates a mocha as it melts -- and salted butterscotch. True coffee lovers: Go all out with Tin Pot's Four Barrel coffee, which has cocoa nib toffee blended in. Don't miss a special affogato on the menu this weekend only (July 10-12): the "salty mocha affogato" with two scoops of ice cream: one of salted butterscotch, one of rich chocolate with shards of San Francisco TCHO chocolate.

Tin Pot uses espresso from Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco. They'll soon have Four Barrel cold-brew coffee on tap, and Sunseri is thinking about playing with that to make an all-cold affogato.

To add texture, Tin Pot tops its affogatos with either candied orange peel or almond toffee. Whipped cream is optional, but highly recommended by this reporter.

Pro tip: You can also find Tin Pot ice cream in affogatos at Dharma Coffee in Mountain View and Bliss Coffee in Redwood City.

Gelataio | 121 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto

Head to Gelataio in Palo Alto for the gelato, not the espresso. Because the gelato shop signed a lease for the Lytton Gateway space back when Blue Bottle Coffee was planning on moving in, the owners had to agree not to sell any serious coffee products. So Gelataio's affogato ($5.75) is made with luscious, made-from-scratch gelato, but drowned in espresso from a Nespresso machine. They may even offer you decaf, an option most places can provide if you ask. If you're an espresso snob, grab a pint to go and make your own at home.

Order any flavor you like, and it will come elegantly presented in a clear glass cup on a white plate with a small waffle cookie on the side. Like chocolate sauce on top? Gelataio has two Willy Wonka-esque faucets behind the counter out of which flow a constant stream of melted milk and dark chocolate.

Gelato Classico | 435 Emerson St., Palo Alto & 241B Castro St., Mountain View

Gelato Classico Palo Alto is likely the only place in town with an old-school affogato advertisement poster hanging over its espresso machine. Go with the regular for $5.75 or treat yourself with the affogato cioccolato to get hot fudge on top for $1 extra. For the non-puritans, this reporter highly recommends the silky, subtle chocolate hazelnut gelato, and saying "yes" to whipped cream on top.

Blue Bottle Coffee | 456 University Ave., Palo Alto

Grab a seat in one of Palo Alto's best outdoor courtyards at Blue Bottle Coffee in the historic Varsity Theatre building to enjoy the Bay Area coffee company's take on the affogato. It comes with a shot of Blue Bottle's own Hayes Valley espresso paired with San Francisco ice cream darling Humphry Slocombe's brown butter ice cream. It costs $5.50.

Pro tip: Throw your drowning ice cream a life boat -- in the form of a waffle. A San Francisco Weekly food writer reported in 2013 that some Blue Bottle locations have an off-the-menu "waffle-gato" (affogato served with a Liège-style waffle). The Palo Alto cafe serves Belgian, not Liège, waffles, so they're larger, but could certainly serve the same delicious soaking-up purpose as a Liège.

Pizzeria Delfina | 651 Emerson St., Palo Alto

Pizzeria Delfina sits on the traditionalist end of the local affogato spectrum. "It's already perfection," owner Craig Stoll said, so why mess with it? Delfina's affogato ($5) comes with vanilla bean gelato from Lush Gelato in Berkeley, which makes custom gelati for the restaurant, and a slightly sweetened shot of espresso: a Neapolitan blend from an Oakland-based roaster.

Feeling boozy? Delfina also serves an "affogato corretto" with a shot of CioCiaro amaro, an Italian liqueur. "I'd call it our answer to Irish coffee," Stoll said.

Vaso Azzurro Ristorante | 108 Castro St., Mountain View

Order an affogato at Vaso Azzurro in downtown Mountain View and you might also get one of several theatrical origin stories for dessert, delivered by owner Michael Sadri himself. At least one involves a waiter accidentally spilling coffee into a cup of French military leader Napoleon's favorite treat, ice cream and liquor, during his invasion of Italy. "Serendipity was a big force in a lot of things ... especially food," Sadri will tell you.

The restaurant offers vanilla and chocolate gelato with espresso from a coffee company that sources and roasts beans from coffee farms all over the world, topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce ($6.95).

Midtown Cafe | 260 Castro St., Mountain View

Midtown Cafe, which opened at 260 Castro St. in April, continues the tradition of the previous tenant, Yoogl, which served both frozen yogurt and gelato. Grab an affogato ($5.50) with your choice of gelato and a shot of espresso from Portland, Oregon's Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Red Berry Coffee Bar | 145 Main St., Los Altos

Check out Red Berry Coffee Bar for a non-traditional take on the affogato, served with house-made vanilla soft-serve ice cream ($4.50). Customers will always have their pick of three different espressos, as Red Berry regularly rotates through more than eight local artisan roasters, including Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz, De La Paz and Ritual Coffee in San Francisco and Barefoot Coffee Roasters in Campbell.

"You can pick whichever one you want, but usually we go for the one that's the heaviest and has the nice dark chocolate-based flavor profile that tends to do really, really well with ice cream," said Red Berry owner Jeff Hanson.

Hanson said that soft serve's texture pairs well with espresso and its temperature holds up surprisingly well. They've been known to add toppings like hazelnut and pecan.

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