After much grueling research, this (now chubby) connoisseur has emerged with some thoughts on Manhattan’s best ice cream and gelato. Naturally, after a long winter, almost all ice cream tastes great—it’s unfailingly sweet and creamy, which is a welcome change. But when the palette adapts to the season, some big distinctions come into focus. What kind of ice cream eater are you? Or is it gelato that you prefer?
Gelato is often defined casually as “Italian ice cream,” but the distinctions are real—it’s not just that Italians are known for different flavors, like hazelnut (nocciola) and pistachio. Gelato has less air than traditional American ice cream. (Our machines pump lots of oxygen into the mix, increasing the volume and making it softer.) Keeping the traditional consistency alive are Emack & Bolio and Australian Homemade (which is all natural and made in small batches). The extreme version is soft-serve, which does not have significantly more air than regular ice cream, but does have more water than ice cream or gelato. Of course, soft-serve has less taste and garners little attention from foodies, but for those who love that smooth, drippy consistency, the nearest Mr. Softee truck is always at your service.
One might assume that being denser, gelato must also be harder than ice cream, but the other key distinction is that gelato contains less milk fat, and instead has egg yolks, which gives it a smooth, custard-like texture. This also affects the taste—because ice cream has a heavy cream base, whatever it is flavored with usually takes second stage. Gelato is generally more intensely flavorful because the cream does not overwhelm. To test this assertion, all one needs is a sample of Jon Snyder’s inventions from Il Laboratorio del Gelato, the Lower East Side “lab” he opened years after selling the company he started in 1983, Ciao Bella. Many of his creations sound crazy, like rosemary or black sesame; others are familiar, but never really tasted like their ingredients until now, like fresh mint or milk chocolate.
In this post-modern culinary world, ice cream has emerged as the favored vehicle for avant-garde innovations, with chefs constantly one-upping each other with far out flavors. (Is an Iron Chef joke even necessary anymore?) This is dangerous territory—the outcome can easily turn sickly futuristic (how about Cold Stone Creamery‘s scarily popular flavor “cake batter” or astronomically pretentious WD-50‘s miso gelato). But somewhere in the middle, it makes perfect sense. Even traditionalists like Mario Batali can’t resist. At Otto, he offers olive oil gelato with sea salt—and it’s good. When the flavors are naturally compatible with dessert, as sesame is, and olive oil—hard as it may be to think of it that way—it just works.
Those who can’t decide whether it’s old school or new they want—ice cream or gelato, there is a comfortingly large gray area. For instance, if the custard factor in gelato is appealing, but you love traditional, all-American ice cream flavors and texture, you’ll be glad to know that frozen custard, which is basically the same as gelato, is a Coney Island invention. Legend has it that some wise vendor thought to add yolks to keep ice cream from melting so quickly on summer days. While frozen custard has largely disappeared, one location of the original favorite, Custard Beach, is still kicking, and Danny Meyer has brought the custard back at the Shake Shack in Madison Park, which is now open for the season.
Old stand-bys like Haagen-Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s also bridge the two worlds—they don’t use egg yolks but also do not whip in lots of air. On a tour of Ben and Jerry’s factory a few years ago, a proud guide gave a moving speech about how they “took the air out” of ice cream. The appeal to consumers is partly the notion of value (paying for air is one of the more annoying predicaments of the bargain hunter). But this dense American version is also more intensely flavorful and harder than old-school ice cream, therefore melting more slowly, which comes in handy for cone-lovers. After all, if you don’t order a cone, you’re not really living.