Every year, we wander through this town, cataloging the best stuff we can find — taco trucks and gelato shops and espresso served in unlikely places — and then publish a whole big list in our annual Best of L.A. issue. Because it's fun, and because even though some of these won't surprise you, many of them will. Here are ten of the best and sweetest things you'll find in Los Angeles dessert kitchens — from ice cream dishes to bakeries to the pastry chef herself.
Best Affogato — Bucato
Among the many excellent mash-ups in the food world, one of the simplest and most blissful is the affogato, the marriage of two of Italy’s finest exports, espresso and gelato. The word comes from the Italian affogare, meaning “to drown,” and it’s a pretty accurate summation of the dish, in which a scoop of ice cream is submerged, or close to it, in a shot or double shot of espresso. At Bucato in Culver City, chef Evan Funke feels very strongly about how things are made, particularly Italian things. Get the Spago-trained, L.A.-bred, Italy-obsessed chef on the subject of properly orchestrated pasta or porchetta and you’ll be at his restaurant all day. Just imagine the thoughts he has about gelato and espresso. (An imperfectly made affogato, after all, can seem like a crappy milkshake instead of a blissful union of two art forms.) Thus Funke’s affogato is a work of art: a demitasse filled with a single scoop of Nocino gelato, made in-house on Funke’s PacoJet with Nocino, a walnut liqueur from Emilia-Romagna. At table, Funke will gently pour the espresso, pulled from the espresso maker he inherited from Kazuto Matsusaka’s Beacon, the beans roasted up the street at the Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa. You’ll be given a spoon and maybe a moment of silence, well-deserved. —Amy Scattergood
3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, 90232. (310) 876-0286, bucato.la.
Best Pastry Chef — Margarita Manzke
There are myriad things to adore about République, the soaring, ambitious restaurant in the old Campanile space from Bill Chait and chef/couple Walter and Margarita Manzke. The space, the sommelier and the food all excel. But what we love most at République are the offerings of Margarita Manzke in her role as pastry chef. Start first thing in the morning at the bakery, with an utterly brilliant black sesame croissant, or a dense but somehow light lemon poppyseed cake. In the middle of the day, perhaps you’d like to indulge in the strawberry jam–filled bombolini. And at night, after dinner, there’s much joy to be had in Manzke’s sage panna cotta, or her sweet and tart and utterly alluring passionfruit tart. —Besha Rodell
624 S. La Brea Ave., Hancock Park, 90036. (310) 361-6115, republiquela.com.
Best Ice Cream Shop — Bulgarini Gelato
When Leo Bulgarini opened Bulgarini Gelato in the spring of 2007, in the back of an enormous parking lot in the upper atmosphere of Altadena, the little gelateria felt like a secret-handshake society. For Westsiders, it may as well have been on Mars; even for locals, it was hard to find, hidden behind all that concrete. The hours were inconstant, the flavors erratic, and Bulgarini would sometimes close his shop to go on beautiful pistachio hunts — in his native Italy. Seven years later, although there’s a second outpost in Culver City, little has changed in the original shop — which is why we still love it so much. There are movie nights on summer Saturday evenings, when often-obscure foreign films are projected onto more concrete, this time vertical walls. During World Cup season, the place opens for certain Italian soccer matches. A few years ago, Bulgarini fashioned a marble altar to his Rome-made copper Elektra espresso machine. And, of course, there’s Leo’s always spectacular gelato: the near-legendary pistachio (the nuts carried home in his suitcase), goat’s milk-cacao nib, blood orange, yogurt and olive oil, chocolate and salt. One could go on. Maybe just point your car north and upward. —Amy Scattergood
749 E. Altadena Drive, Altadena, 91001. (626) 791-6174, bulgarinigelato.com.
Best Self-Churned Ice Cream — Peddler’s Creamery
The grassroots, Kickstarter-funded operation Peddler’s Creamery may have started as just a boy and his bike — but it’s now a DTLA neighborhood favorite. Owner Edward Belden fused his passions for sustainability, cycling and ice cream into a one-of-a-kind business that celebrates the creative, community-minded foodie culture of L.A. There’s artwork and hand-knit tapestries by local artists for sale on the walls, 5 percent of profits going to environmental causes and a free-for-all pedaling policy. Customers can choose to climb on the bike up front and pedal (for 15 to 20 minutes at 15 mph) to churn their own bucket of organic, artisanal ice cream. Each batch churned gets you a free scoop from the daily selection of impossibly creamy dairy and vegan flavors, which range from childhood classics (mint chip, chocolate peanut butter) to exotic (cardamom, chile mango) and seasonal (sweet potato pie). The added bonus? You’ve just pedaled away the calories from your ice cream. —Bianca Douglas
458 S. Main St., dwntwn., 90013. (213) 537-0257, peddlerscreamery.com.
Best Cookie — POT
Located in the trendy Line Hotel, POT and its many components can be a little overwhelming. There’s the restaurant, with its hot pots and flowery aprons (in lieu of napkins) and chef Roy Choi’s take on Korean food. There’s the bar in the lobby, with its fuzzy navels and white Russians and flavored soju and hibiscus-and-celery cocktails. And then there’s the cafe, which is also in the lobby, and which sells all kinds of baked goods, including the best cookies in town. All the cookies are damn tasty, but the one we tend to swoon over is the mocha chip cookie, a rich chocolate fudge-y wonder with the bitter edge of dark coffee and an assertive kick of salt. Pastry chef Marian Mar, who used to work at New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, turns out all manner of delicious sweet treats, and she proves that you can get pretty wild and still retain a heavy dose of pure, childish glee. That’s certainly what her cookies deliver, sea salt and all. —Besha Rodell
3515 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown, 90010. (213) 368-3030, eatatpot.com.
Best Danish Pastry Shop — Copenhagen Pastry
Copenhagen Pastry, in full disclosure, is walking distance from the L.A. Weekly offices, but its arrival in 2012 single-handedly made our location seem like a privileged one, rather than the highway-abutting, gourmet-deficient stretch it has historically been. Among the items in the pastry case, the Copenhagen is the show-off, wearing its strips of chocolate and yellow custard on the outside; even tastier is the Kringle, a wavy croissant-meets-strudel with almond paste and custard hidden in the middle and an exterior crusted with almond slices and sugar. Owner Karen Hansen and head baker Henrik Gram, both from Denmark, also offer a Danish rye bread, which is darker and more compact than the American kind. It’s the perfect place to stop on the way to someone’s house — your potluck contribution will manage to be both exotic and impossible not to like. —Zachary Pincus-Roth
11113 Washington Blvd., Culver City, 90232. (310) 839-8900, copenhagenpastry.com.
Best Unusual Pan Dulce — La Mascota Bakery
A “dirty face” is a good thing if it’s a chorreada from La Mascota Bakery in East Los Angeles. This slangy Spanish name describes a large, round, slightly sweet, whole wheat bun crusted with dark brown sugar so that it resembles a spotted face. The only clean-up is the money swept into the cash register, because La Mascota is virtually the only place in town where you can get chorreadas, and they sell out quickly. They’re made from scratch from a recipe as old as the bakery, which opened in 1952. The formula blends whole wheat and all-purpose flours. The tricky part is getting the sugar to stick to the surface without falling off, because it isn’t glued on with a sticky flour paste. Making breads such as these is a dying art, says Edward Salcedo, head baker along with his brother Ygnacio (it’s a three-generation family operation). Go early to make sure you get one. The bakery opens at 5 a.m. —Barbara Hansen
2715 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights, 90023. (323) 263-5513, lamascotabakery.com.
Best Organic Gluten-Free Bakery in the Valley — Buttercelli Bakeshop
Who says you can't please everyone all the time? Buttercelli's Bakeshop describes itself as "a small-batch, classic Americana bakery" — which these days means being a one-stop treat shop with something for everyone in the growing population of food sensitivities. Co-owner Val Whalin started out selling her organic baked goods online and at farmers markets before putting down roots in her current jewel-box shop on Ventura Boulevard. Buttercelli offers a comprehensive selection of W&D (wheat & dairy), Paleo, vegan and gluten-free sweets and savories. Custom cakes, muffins, doughnuts, scones, gorgeous cupcakes, old-school hand pies, salted caramel bars — you name it, it's probably here. Everything is baked daily without corn syrup, preservatives, GMOs or anything artificial. Even the food coloring is vegetable-based. —Bianca Douglas
13722 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, 91423. (818) 387-8538, buttercelli.com.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Best Old-School Doughnuts — Spudnuts
With all the buzz about the return of Dunkin’ Donuts to Los Angeles, it’s easy to forget that the first national doughnut chain actually survives, scattered around Greater Los Angeles. Dating to the 1940s, Spudnuts uses a potato flour blend for some of its doughnuts — hence the name. Fans of Spudnuts extol the doughnuts as lighter, fluffier and moister than their counterparts. While Spudnuts doughnuts aren’t likely to make aficionados forget Stan’s or Donut Man, let alone dissuade transplants from their Dunkin’ Donuts nostalgia, there’s a reason Spudnuts is still around, even after all these years. Be sure to ask the folks behind the counter which types of doughnuts use the potato flour, to ensure you’re getting a true Spudnut. Or just order the apple fritters, which usually are made with the potato blend. —Jim Thurman
3001 S. Figueroa St., University Park, 90007. Additional locations around Los Angeles County. (213) 749-0678, spudnutinfo.com.
Best Brownie — Huckleberry
Zoe Nathan and her crew at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica make so many amazing things — green eggs & ham, raw kale salad, ratatouille tartine, blueberry-cornmeal cake, all those stunning pastries — that you’ll be forgiven for ignoring something as basic and, well, boring as the chocolate brownie. But this is not a boring brownie; rather, it’s an exercise in chocolate. The recipe uses no leavening and an “insanely small amount” of flour but happily large amounts of butter and eggs — and 66 percent Valrhona chocolate. Like many of the other desserts here, and at the other restaurants Nathan runs with husband Josh Loeb (Milo & Olive, Rustic Canyon), the brownies strike the perfect balance between comfort food and pastry-chef dessert. Almost always in the bakery case, topped with sliced almonds or sometimes other nuts or sometimes plain, these are uber-brownies, your mom’s after-school snack reworked as a chocoholic’s Platonic idea. —Amy Scattergood
1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 90401. (310) 451- 2311, huckleberrycafe.com.
See what other incredible things our city has to offer in this year's Best of L.A. issue.