Until recently I never gave that much thought to ice cream, at least as an adult, except when I was traveling and wanted to try the local versions. Of course I've always liked ice cream, who doesn’t, but it and sweets in general were never my weakness. Last summer, however, I started thinking more about ice cream. It started with a specific craving. For some reason, one hot day, I developed a craving for mocha chip ice cream from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. At first the craving was so specific that I was not tempted to substitute another kind of ice cream. I was working in midtown at the time, nowhere near the shop. The craving persisted for multiple days. I considered taking the subway downtown at lunchtime to satisfy it, but I never got around to it.
Then, one day, I decided to go for a compromise. I knew of a candy and ice cream shop on West 55th Street that carries Sedutto ice cream. Sedutto is good stuff, albeit almost pathologically rich. I headed over, hoping they had mocha chip. But on the way I was waylaid. In front of the high-end Italian restaurant Osteria del Circo was a gelato stand, which the restaurant brings out every summer. I remembered from prior summers that it was excellent gelato, and among the flavors available on this particular day was caffe latte. So I got a cup with two flavors, caffe latte and gianduja, which is based on a famous chocolate-hazelnut candy (I’m not quite sure what the difference between gianduja and bacio are). The caffe latte was good, but the gianduja was amazing. It was possibly the best gelato I’ve had outside of Italy or the Ticino. The consistency was perfect, the flavors intense and vibrant. I was hooked, and I kept going back. They rotated their flavors, and I tried a bunch. While most were very good, the only one that really rivaled the gianduja was the caramello, which had a nice burnt-milk boldness without the bitterness I’ve found in Mario Batali’s version at Otto. The cart, which is only open for two or three months each year, is reasonably priced, considering the quality of the product. Cups go for $3, $4 and $5, much less than a dish in the restaurant. The sorbetti looked beautiful too, but I just couldn’t move past the gelati. * * * In September I changed jobs and started working downtown, near Park Row. I started going to Chinatown for lunch a couple of times a week and stopped by the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on several occasions. For years that has been one of the few ice cream places in the city that could always tempt me. Their product is a full American-style ice cream, smooth and creamy, but not as dense and unctuous as Haagen-Dazs and their ilk. They feature both western and Asian flavors. On their menu the Asian flavors are called "Regular Flavors" and the western ones are called "Exotic Flavors." I have favorites from both sides. In the Asian department my picks are lychee, ginger and almond cookie (though the latter would probably sit as comfortably among the western flavors). Among the western flavors my favorites are cherry-pistachio and, of course, mocha chip. The mocha chip is, without a doubt, the best version of this flavor I’ve ever tasted. The cherry-pistachio is pistachio ice cream with added cherries. I love pistachio ice cream, and the cherries are a perfect addition. Occasionally, when I think I should be on a diet, I have their wonderfully refreshing lychee sorbet. * * *
Traditional Persian ice cream is flavored with saffron and rose water. It’s exotic and delicious, but I haven’t had any since the demise of the Persian restaurant Chelo Kebabi Nader, in Mahhattan. Ahmadinejad probably eats saffron-rosewater ice cream. Ayatollah Khomeini probably did too, not to mention the shah. * * *
Pistachio is one of the ubiquitous ice cream flavors in India, though it’s known there as pista. India is one of the world’s great ice cream countries. Dairy products are incredibly popular among Indians. They may not kill or eat cows, but milk is central to the culinary culture. Indian ice cream tends to have a rustic freshness and a rich creaminess, like one might imagine ice cream in America to have been like in “the old days.” In addition to ice cream, Indians have another frozen dessert, kulfi, which is made from condensed milk and is, of course, extremely dense. I’m not a kulfi fan, but I love Indian ice cream. Indians also make ice cream with saffron (kesar). One of the most amazing triple-threat flavors is kesar pista badam (saffron pistachio almond). I’ve actually had a good version in San Francisco, at Bombay Bazaar (it's made by Real Ice Cream, of Santa Clara). I ate a lot of pistachio ice cream on my last trip to India, in 2000. You’d think I would have been sated, but when I returned I had an insatiable craving for pistachio ice cream (as well as Indian food). So my first afternoon back, completely jet-lagged, I set out in search of pistachio ice cream in Park Slope. First I went to the Haagen-Dazs shop. They had all sorts of flavors, but no pistachio. I found that unacceptable, and in my altered state I went on a tirade. To the shocked counter girl I ranted, “No pistachio! I can’t believe this. When I was a kid pistachio was one of the standard flavors. There was always chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. Sometimes mint chip. Sometimes chocolate chip. Sometimes chocolate fudge. Sometimes butter pecan. But always pistachio! What’s this world coming to? No pistachio? You have dulce de leche, but no pistachio?” “I’m sorry, sir,” the girl replied. So I went to my corner Korean bodega. Tai stocked a very large selection of ice cream, including about twenty flavors of Ben and Jerry in addition to Haagen-Dazs and other brands. I looked through all the ice creams and out of more than fifty flavors I couldn’t find pistachio. I felt as if there were a conspiracy. They had Chunky Monkey. They had Chubby Hubby. But no pistachio! * * * A wonderful ice cream flavor that might seem odd to Americans is corn. I first had it in Malaysia. Think about it. Imagine the flavor. It works, right? I also had corn (elote) ice cream in Oaxaca. Also available in Oaxaca was avocado ice cream. For some reason I didn’t find the idea of it tempting, so I never ordered it. Another flavor I saw at one stand was tuna. At first I was taken aback. Then I remembered that the Spanish word for the fish is “atun.” I looked up “tuna” in my dictionary and learned that it was prickly pear cactus. I decided to try some. It turned out to be ices, not ice cream, and it was nothing special. I recently tried the corn gelato at Cones, on Bleecker Street. It was good, but I wasn't blown away. It couldn’t hold a candle to the Malaysian version (not that you’d want to hold a candle to ice cream). I also wasn’t too impressed by any of the other flavors at Cones, and they’re quite expensive. I find the place incredibly overrated. * * *
The ice cream in Russia was great, but when I was there in the waning days of the Soviet Union the only flavor I could find was vanilla. I eventually figured it was the state flavor. All the ice cream parlors had vanilla ice cream and several toppings and sauces. One day I stopped into an ice cream parlor in Leningrad. The only other customer was a young man, a student. He asked me where I was from, in Russian, and I told him “Ameriki.” We tried to strike up a conversation, but he didn’t spoke any English and I didn’t speak Russian beyond a few phrases. I spoke a little Spanish and French, but the only foreign language he spoke was German, which I didn’t speak at all. So we shrugged our shoulders, smiled, and ate our ice cream. * * *
When I was last in Paris my Anonymous friends from New York happened to be staying in town at the same time, renting an apartment in the Marais. One late afternoon we were all heading back to the apartment after spending some time in the Tuilleries. The Anonymous kids were clamoring for ice cream, so we stopped by their Parisian obsession, Berthillon. Berthillon is one of the world's most famous ice cream shops, and rightly so. Their product is fantastic, and they have a wonderful array of flavors. We waited for about ten minutes in the perennially long line out the door until we were able to enter the small shop. I wasn't especially hungry, so I had only one scoop, orange-gianduja, a marvelous flavor combination. It turned out that the scoops there are rather small, maybe half the size of an American scoop, so I could have eaten more. I must say I do like the small scoop concept. For one thing, it's a great way to have just a little ice cream if you're not too hungry. For another thing, it makes it possible to try more flavors. I don't think it would ever catch on in the American culture of excessive consumption, however.
* * * I’ve had great gelato all over Italy, but perhaps the best I’ve ever had was in Locarno, Switzerland. One of the main reasons I went to Locarno a second time, on a day trip from Lugano, was for the gelato, it was that good. Otherwise, Locarno is nothing special. Sicily is perhaps the most gelato-crazed part of Italy. In Sicily, people eat gelato for breakfast. Gelaterias make a sandwich, on a brioche, and you see people eating these things first thing in the morning. I just couldn’t do it. I tried to make myself do it, but I couldn’t do it. When I was in Perugia, for the jazz festival, I met a couple from the Bay Area who were traveling with their adolescent daughter. We went to a café to drink and chat. Somehow we got on the subject of ice cream, and I mentioned that every time I go to San Francisco I try to have an It’s-It. It’s-It is an old San Francisco specialty, an ice cream sandwich made with oatmeal cookies, covered in chocolate. The daughter enthused about how much she loved It’s-It. As we were sitting there, I noticed that somebody at a nearby table was getting gelato on a brioche. I told them about the breakfast tradition in Sicily, and that I hadn’t ever noticed the brioche thing elsewhere in Italy. The girl decided to try an Italian ice cream sandwich. As she was eating it, we asked her how she liked it. “It’s good,” she said, “but it’s no It’s-It.”