I Scream, You Scream...
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
Is there anything quite as wonderful as that perfect ice cream cone? A summer day, sun high in the sky, your favorite flavor piled high on a sugar cone, melting as fast as you can lick, the inevitable missed drips making a sticky mess of your hand. Is there anything quite so perfect?
For those of you that say there is, I beg to differ.
And for those of you who say that sugar-free ice cream counts, or that frozen yogurt counts, or that any variation from the real deal counts -- you're wrong. Ice cream is one of those things that ought to be eaten pure. If you're going to dilute it somehow -- no fat, no sugar, no milk! -- just go ahead and eat something else.
I grew up in New Orleans, where the ice cream of choice was Brown's Velvet. When I went to school in Boston, I discovered Steve's, where big blobs of the stuff were flattened with big metal scoops and then folded over piles of what they called mix-ins, any number of candies and crunchies added to make the ice cream that much better. Much later, when I moved to Princeton, I found that Thomas Sweet did a variation on Steve's, which they called the blend-in. (Who came first -- Steve or Thomas -- I don't know.) And when I visited my folks in Santa Fe a few years ago, they took me to a place called Cold Stone Creamery, where they do a Steve's/Thomas thing, too.
Along the way, I also got pretty intimate with something called Tartufo, a California-based outfit that bought the rights to the finger-lickin' gelato made at Tre Scalini in Rome. My father acquired the rights to distribute Tartufo in New Orleans, and I spent a summer delivering it to the city's restaurants. Tartufo came in the standard containers -- five gallon and one pint -- but they also created special balls (dark chocolate rolled in hazelnuts, for example, or coconut sorbetto covered in hard dark chocolate) and emptied fruit rinds and added ice cream there, so you could actually eat a gelato banana or a sorbetto orange. Heaven. Trust me.
Tartufo's secret was their aging process. There was virtually no air in a typical pint, so it actually weighed more than a Haagen Dazs pint. And so intense were the flavors that they were more like creamed, say, strawberries than strawberry-flavored ice cream. If only they were still in business...
Anyway, all of this is meant to tell you why I was very curious about a little series of books that purported to have found the best ice cream places all over the United States.
The books are divided into tight geographic areas and then provide the reader with several choice establishments. For example, in the Princeton area they list the newest place, called the bent spoon. Located virtually across the street from the university, it opened in May 2004 with scores of flavors which are rotated into the dozen or so they offer every day. They have wonderful organic flavors, as well as weird ones like Chocolate Lemon and Earl Grey Tea, both considerably better than they sound.
Anyway, the books provide single-page entries for each place, as well as vital information, directions, and hours of operation. You can read about history, owner philosophies, and some of each spot's best flavors. No more, no less. Quite democratic.
The books also include fascinating sidebars: Not-So-Plain Vanilla, The Great Cone Controversy, Sundae Best, Delicious Obsession and more. Plus, each guide gets its own "local" dish, such as King Custard in the Midwest book and San Francisco Eclectic in the West Coast book.
All in all, these amazing books are no less than a godsend for anyone who finds themselves in a new city, with particularly creamy cravings. The same publisher has also done a book about where to find the best gelato in Italy (yes, Tre Scalini is in there). And I trust they'll eventually do books about the best of the United States (the south would be nice).
I can't recommend these gems enough. If you're like me -- and if unforgettable ice cream is something you crave -- then by all means pick up one or more these books. Then get yourself a plane ticket to the yummiest-sounding city you can find. | June 2005
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.