Americans sure eat a lot of frozen desserts, in fact, about $27 billion worth in 2011. That’s about 20 quarts per capita annually, or four times the European average. Boston has the highest consumption rate. All those young people in Ivy League colleges take a lot of ice cream breaks between studies, which may explain the current state of our government—so many captains of industry and heads of state used to spend time in Harvard square chilling out with a cone. Maybe brain freeze is not as innocuous as we thought.
But New Yorkers shouldn’t get too cocky, because the Big Apple also has a long and proud history when in comes to frozen treats. America’s first ice cream parlor was built in 1776 at Park Row in Manhattan, now part of Chinatown. In 1903, Italo Marchiony, a downtown restaurateur, patented a gadget for making edible waffle cups. The ubiquitous Midwestern Good Humor brand once had a manufacturing plant in Brooklyn. In the 1960s, a Polish immigrant from Da Bronx made a premium ice cream called Häagen Dazs for gourmet shops that catered to the rich, and in 1983 he sold Häagen Dazs to Pillsbury for a big chunk of change. Häagen Dazs (still all natural) is now sold in fifty countries. Talk about attaining the American dream! Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, established in 1978, was the brainchild of two hippy-dippy guys who grew up on Long Island. They mixed politics and philanthropy with business (remember the Peace Pop and Rain Forest Crunch?) and got a lot of free press. We all know how sweet that story turned out. Very few people are aware of this, but New York also started the first-ever frozen yogurt franchise—Everything Yogurt—back in the late 70s. By the mid 80s, it was in hundreds of malls.Today, the frozen dessert business is more exciting and competitive than ever. On the weekends, ice cream and frozen yogurt trucks are everywhere in Williamsburg. There is the mellow-yellow Van Leeuwen truck on Bedford Avenue, the Cool Haus Truck ($10 double-decked ice cream sandwiches from L.A.!) parked on Metropolitan or Bedford avenues, and a Yogo truck can be seen roaming around like a lost child, not to mention all the brick-and-mortar sweet shops dotting the neighborhood. You want ice cream? You’ve come to the right place.
Uncle Louie G’s appeared on the Brooklyn scene in 1998 and became an immediate hit. The Italian ice was intensely flavorful and very natural-tasting. It started in Park Slope and spread from there. Today, the 46 flavors of ice cream and 40 flavors of Italian ice are made in Staten Island. I’m glad they’re keeping the jobs within the five boroughs (we need more manufacturing here). My favorites are Lick Me Lemon ice and Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream. The lemon ice is very vivid, with a clean lemon flavor. The Strawberry Cheesecake is super silky with a bit of bright strawberry syrup, a hint of cream cheese, and a lot of vanilla. All the flavors mingle together beautifully. You don’t get those grainy chunks of old cheesecake you sometimes see in other brands. I also appreciate their inventive, bad-ass Brooklyn names: It’s a Crime Lime, Mucho Mango, Wassup Watermelon, Rocky Road Rage, Bada Bing Cherry Vanilla, and Killer Kiwi. And just when you think it’s getting a little too sinister for your blood, they sucker punch you with the oh-so-innocent Coney Island Cotton Candy. And you just melt. 341 Graham Avenue and 674 Manhattan Avenue.
If you want sophistication in an ice cream, Van Leeuwen is your sweet spot. I feel like I should be wearing a pretty summer dress when I’m ordering an Earl Grey ice cream. It tastes so ethereal and dreamy. And their Minty Chip is very refreshing, with a real mint flavor, light on the sugar, and bits of contrasting bitter chocolate. It reminds you of a cool summer breeze. One of their newer flavors is the Palm Sugar ice cream. It’s incredibly sweet, with a rich caramel flavor. Palm sugar has a lower glycemic index than cane sugar and honey (but with the same calorie count as cane sugar), so it’s being marketed like agave syrup, as a healthier natural sweetener. But like agave, it invites controversy. So wait for further research before you spend the big bucks. Meanwhile, enjoy palm sugar for its unique malty sweetness. 632 Manhattan Avenue.The first frozen-yogurt franchise was started by two New Yorkers, and at least one of them was from Brooklyn. Everything Yogurt had its first store on Wall Street. In the day, if you wanted to charge big bucks for a frozen treat you had to sell it in Manhattan. Williamsburg will soon open 16 Handles, a franchised yogurt chain started in the East Village and a big hit in Manhattan. The yogurt tastes great, and they kept the tart flavor and all the good-for-you pro-biotic stuff intact. For people with control issues, this is a godsend. You get to pull the handles yourself and take as much as you want. You pay by weight and can spend $3 or $12; it’s all up to you. With toppings from fresh cut fruits to chewy, starchy mochi balls, this place will test your mettle. 141 No. 7th Street.
Like weird and kooky flavors? Visit the Momofuku Milk Bar. They have cereal milk—soft serve ice cream that tastes like… cereal milk–flavored ice cream. Duh! It’s topped with crunchy candied corn flakes and tastes like British (Horlick) Ovaltine. I love it. I also tried something called Strawberry Sesame yogurt. It wasn’t good; simply put, strawberry and sesame don’t go together. But those mad cooks at Milk are willing to go where no humans have gone before, and once in a while, they concoct something truly unique and revelatory, but the strawberry-sesame yogurt is not one of them. 382 Metropolitan Avenue.
Pagoto (Greek for ice cream) is an organic ice cream shop that serves ice cream flavored with wine. Oh yeah, I’m with you, baby, I’m totally there. The Chocolate Cabernet was boo-ze-licious! Luscious cream infused with a fruity wine and studded with chunks of dark chocolate. I also liked the mango sorbet—very fruity, but the coconut ice cream tasted slightly off; I’m guessing it’s the preservatives in the shredded coconut flakes. $3.99 for a scoop of regular ice cream. $4.99 for the wine-flavored ice cream. 201 Bedford Avenue.I’m not a big fan of Baskin-Robbins ice cream in the States. A few years ago, while visiting relatives in Toronto, my uncle asked me if I wanted to go to Baskin-Robbins. Not wanting to sound like a snooty New Yorker, I said “Sure!” And guess what? The ice cream tasted great in Canada, like Breyers before they added that horrible tara gum crap. Once again, an iconic American product tastes better in somebody else’s country (like Coca-Cola tastes better in Mexico because they don’t use corn syrup). What are we doing to our food? Talented Americans invent great products that the whole world loves, and then some bean-counter/food engineer with no taste buds comes along and mucks them up! It’s unpatriotic! Having said that, Baskin-Robbins is very reasonably priced: only $2.29 a scoop and $1.89 for a kid-sized scoop. If you have a family, that means something. I like the butter pecan best. The mint tasted artificial, and the peanut butter and chocolate is too muddy and gummy. 643 Manhattan Avenue.
Brooklyn Ice Cream Company makes their ice cream in Greenpoint. You can get it directly in their factory/café on Commercial Street (near Manhattan Avenue). Short of making it yourself, you can’t get ice cream fresher than this. They’re like the Brooks Brothers of ice cream and don’t mess around with novelty flavors, only the classics—Chocolate, Vanilla, Butter Pecan, Strawberry, Coffee, Peaches and Cream. Like gelato, the ice cream is eggless. Take a trek over there, and get yourself an old-fashioned sundae or a banana boat. $4 a scoop. 97 Commercial Street.
Feeling nostalgic for old school Williamsburg? After 30-some years, Fortunato Brothers Café and Pasticceria is an institution that serves gelato, strong espresso, and cannoli. I love the splashy art on the wall and the fabulous display of specialty cakes and colorful marzipan. This corner of Williamsburg really transports you back to a different place and time. 289 Manhattan Avenue.
Remember snow cones? They were hugely popular in inner city neighborhoods. Men with sun-baked faces would cart around large blocks of ice all day long. They shave and shave and then douse the chunky “snow” with neon-colored syrup—hot pink, electric blue, granny smith green. Oh how I miss that chemical-induced summer daze. Newly opened in the mini-mall at Bedford Avenue and No. 5th Street is Handsome Dan, a candy and sno-cone shop (manned by Handsome Dan). Gone are the blocks of ice and neon-colored syrups. Modern Dan uses a handy-dandy snow-making machine and creates his own natural syrups with sugar, water, and fresh fruits. It’s all Lo Cal and lactose free, a refreshing summer treat. 218 Bedford Avenue, Mini Mall.
Please, somebody, send me a pair of Spanx!