America’s Best Ice Cream Shops
July is national ice cream month—not that we need any additional encouragement to indulge. And every area of the country has a legendary ice cream parlor or two, welcoming refuges that provide a cooling escape, along with some serious culinary pleasure.
Often these places are infused with nostalgia. South of Portland, ME, for instance, Shain’s of Maine Ice Cream conjures a vintage ambience with red-and-white old-time soda shop banquettes and bygone newspaper ads underneath the glass tabletops.
In Seattle, Molly Moon Ice Cream proudly supports local purveyors; even its famous Scout Mint is made with Thin Mints purchased from the Western Washington Girl Scouts.
Then again, ice cream can also be a bold-new-culinary-age proposition. In northern California, Ici Ice Cream in Berkeley, run by a former chef from Chez Panisse, features fresh market flavors like black mission fig, putting a cultivated twist on one of the ultimate comfort foods. In early 2014, pastry chef Nicholas Morgenstern also traded high-end restaurants for his own eponymous New York ice cream parlor, where he whips cream to order and fills cones with burnt honey vanilla and Szechuan peppercorn chocolate.
New England, as ever, remains the epicenter of this national obsession; modern gourmet ice cream is widely considered to have been born at the original Steve’s in Boston. And the influence of these gourmet groundbreakers can be felt nationwide at spots that champion high-quality ingredients, freshness, and guilt-free indulgence. These ice cream parlors, America’s best, are all about keeping it real and, of course, homemade.
Coolhaus, Culver City, CA
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Columbus, OH
Jeni Britton Bauer’s eponymous ice cream company launched in Columbus, OH, in 2002 and now includes scoop shops in Cleveland, Nashville, Chicago, Atlanta, Charleston, SC, and a pop-up at New York’s Gotham West Market. The secret to her success begins with premium milk and butterfat from grass-fed Ohio cows. Add in high-quality ingredients like whiskey from local distillery Middle West Spirits or Askinosie dark milk chocolate, plus one-of-a-kind combinations—pineapple frozen yogurt with red cherries, pineapple lady cake, and salty caramel sauce, for example—and the result is ice cream that’s as creamy and satisfying as it is inventive.
Ici Ice Cream, Berkeley, CA
Ici is run by a former pastry chef from Chez Panisse, Mary Canales, and is balanced between the past—hearty root-beer floats and all that—and the gourmet future, with such flavors as brandied cherry and burnt caramel. Each day, 11 flavors—drawn from whatever might be fresh, creative, and generally happening that day—are offered, made with organic Soul Food eggs and milk from Clover Organic Dairy.
Gray’s Ice Cream, Tiverton, RI
Gray’s has been an institution in Tiverton, across the river from Newport, since 1923, when Annie Gray turned her house into a casual ice cream parlor in the historic Four Corners section of town. Current owner Marilyn Dennis keeps the standards on the menu for the old-timers, while adding such newer hybrids as strawberry cheesecake. Frozen pudding, a rum-based ice cream loaded with apricots and raisins, is a Gray’s tradition and not something even die-hard ice cream fanatics encounter every day.
Lick Ice Cream, Austin, TX
There aren’t any shakes, sundaes, or sugary add-ins at this artisan shop on South Lamar. It’s all about the ice cream, made using grass-fed, single-source dairy from Mill-King Market & Creamery in McGregor, TX. Best known for savory, often vegetal scoops like roasted beets with fresh mint, cilantro lime, and goat cheese, thyme, and honey, the outfit also has tamer flavors, like the latte-like Texas au lait—as well as plans to expand to San Antonio in August 2014.
Homer’s Homemade Gourmet Ice Cream, Wilmette, IL
The Chicago area has plenty of couture ice cream operations—like Ruth and Phils Gourmet Ice Cream, with such arcane flavors as sour cream cinnamon—but a big, hearty city demands the kind of hearty ice cream that Al Capone used to enjoy. In 1935, Gus Poulos made up his first batch of ice cream at this very location in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, and it’s an obligatory pit stop for visitors and Chicagoans alike. Capone might have been a bad guy, but he knew good ice cream. And since Chi-town is the American heartland, dig in to the Americana-fest with a heaping bowl of Rocky Road, chocolate ice cream combined with almonds and marshmallows, a staple of parlors across the country.
Annabelle’s Natural Ice Cream, Portsmouth, NH
On a narrow street along the Portsmouth harbor is Annabelle’s, where the owner, retired doctor Lewis Palosky, thinks of himself as “an artist, not a businessman.” His credo is evident in the thick (difficult to pierce with a spoon) and intensely flavorful ice cream. Black raspberry, a New England staple, is rich with flavor. And the French vanilla is a revelation, a symbol of ordinariness that has been made, through some magical culinary alchemy, extraordinary.
Angelo Brocato Ice Cream & Confectionary, New Orleans
In New Orleans, ice cream is taken as seriously as any other sensual pleasure, and since 1905, Angelo Brocato has been serving up Italian delights in an Old Palermo–inspired parlor. The selection includes lemon ice, gelato, Sicilian flavors like amaretto, cannolis, almond biscotti, and nods to New Orleans, with peach ice being particularly popular in the summer. For something molto italiano, try the Spumoni, a wedge of tutti-frutti, lemon, and pistachio ice cream, topped off with homemade whipped cream.
Salt + Straw, Portland, OR
Salt & Straw, which began as a food cart, makes quirky, cult combinations like Stumptown coffee and Burnside bourbon or pear and blue cheese five gallons at a time using Oregon cream from Alpenrose Dairy. The percentage of butterfat—17 percent—is basically the highest you can get, and the slow churn process creates a low air-to-cream ratio. In other words, this is seriously rich, creamy stuff. For a classic salty-sweet summer combination courtesy of the Italians, try the melon and prosciutto flavor, with charcuterie sourced from Portland’s Olympic Provisions.
The Bent Spoon, Princeton, NJ
Gab Carbone and Matt Errico have been challenging the taste buds of Princetonians and visiting ice cream fiends since they opened their farm-to-scoop shop more than 10 years ago. Inspired as much by travel, cocktails, and memorable meals as by the bounty of produce from nearby purveyors, the duo has created flavors such as strawberry Earl Grey, Old Bay sweet corn, and beet streak, a beautiful pink blend of local, organic beets and 61 percent dark chocolate. They also recently introduced frozen treats, a.k.a. “spoon pops,” in combinations like raspberry lemon thyme and milk chocolate hazelnut.
Molly Moon Ice Cream, Seattle
This multishop operation is as local as it gets. Washington milk and cream are the base for ice cream flavors like balsamic strawberry and cherry chunk (made with Theo chocolate chunks and cherries from Alberg Orchard near Yakima Valley), and 90 percent of ingredients are sourced from area purveyors. Even the famous Scout Mint is made using Thin Mints purchased directly from the Western Washington Girl Scouts.
Sweet Rose Creamery, Santa Monica, CA
Shiho Yoshikawa was a pastry chef at San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery and the Slanted Door before she turned her considerable talents to frozen treats. At the uber-seasonal factory and shop on Pico Boulevard, the baker-turned–ice cream queen makes and serves small-batch, farmers’ market–inspired flavors like rose geranium with raspberry ripple, lemon chiffon, and summer corn, plus classics like vanilla, chocolate, and salted caramel. You can also score scoops, sundaes, and shakes at two other locations, in Brentwood and Mid-City.
Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, New York City
Nicholas Morgenstern has worked in some of New York’s finest kitchens—Daniel, Gramercy Tavern—but his real passion was realized when he opened this neo-traditional ice cream parlor earlier this year. (He has an affinity for emulsification.) The classically trained pastry chef whips cream to order, makes sodas in house, and offers toppings like Fernet biscuits and sweet potatoes. Join the queue waiting for his eggless, low-sugar, low-butterfat, yet still supremely creamy ice cream in creative riffs on classic flavors like burnt honey vanilla, Szechuan peppercorn chocolate, and Vietnamese coffee.
Shain’s of Maine Ice Cream, Sanford, ME
Shain’s, in the otherwise nondescript town of Sanford, south of Portland, strives for the appropriate throwback atmosphere: red-and-white old-time soda shop banquettes; vintage newspaper ads underneath glass tabletops. Maine Survivor—vanilla with hard fudge swirl, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Spanish peanuts, and chocolate-chip cookies—is a sugar rush beyond compare.
Hay Rosie, Brooklyn, NY
Former brewer Stef Ferrari opened this creamery in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood in early 2014. The cicerone (that’s the equivalent of a sommelier, but for beer) realized that what she really wanted to make was ice cream, not ale. For now, because flavors like goat cheese with fennel pollen and orange zest are made from scratch, on the premises, the shop is open only from Thursday through Sunday—and go early if you want to make sure they don’t run out of brownie brickle crunch or vanilla mint cookies and cream cheese.
High Road Craft Ice Cream, Marietta, GA
Started in 2010 as an ice cream purveyor for restaurants, this for-chefs-by-chefs company has since expanded its scope. That means it’s now possible to get cult flavors like brown butter praline and pistachio honey ricotta at select grocery stores or at the factory store in Marietta, about a half-hour drive from Atlanta. Chef and Food Network TV host Alton Brown has said, “I’m pretty sure this is the best ice cream made in America right now.” If you’re desperate for your own taste test, you can get a six-pack delivered directly to your door.
Pumphouse Creamery, Minneapolis
The rotating roster of 20 ice creams and sorbets at Barb Zapzalka’s ice cream parlor start with organic cream from Crystal Ball Farms in Osceola, WI, organic grains and seeds from the Whole Grain Milling Company in Welcome, MN, and Rochdale Farms butter. Opt for seasonal flavors like fresh peach and Door County fresh cherry or classics like mint chocolate chip and sea salt caramel pecan.
Bi-Rite, San Francisco
Since this offshoot of the Mission’s Bi-Rite Market opened in 2006, there’s basically never not beena line snaking out the door—even with the addition of the Divisadero Street location in February 2014. Straus Family Creamery organic dairy is the base for small-batch ice creams that are made on the premises. Mix and match flavors like green tea and balsamic strawberry with fixings like graham crackers, spiced pecans, and almond toffee—or go a more purist route with a scoop of salted caramel.
Creole Creamery, New Orleans
It’s worth venturing outside the French Quarter for the rotating roster of scoops like prickly pear, hibiscus beet, and the signature creole cream cheese at this uptown institution. The 1950s-style parlor (black-and-white tile floors, red sponge-painted table tops, and leather booths) is also known for its Tchoupitoulas challenge, a gut-busting sundae with eight scoops, eight toppings, whipped cream, wafers, and cherries. It’s a testament to the ice cream that thus far 587 hungry souls have polished off the whole thing without assistance.
Sweet Republic, Scottsdale, AZ
This eco-friendly, artisan shop is known for its unique scoops like blue cheese and medjool dates, lemon shiso sorbet, and horchata, as well as its killer sundaes. It’s another favorite of Food Network star Alton Brown, who’s partial to the toffee banofi with Madagascar vanilla ice cream, almond toffee brittle, bananas, whipped cream, and salted caramel in a waffle bowl. A recent expansion earlier in 2014 means you can also find Sweet Republic’s premium ice cream at a new shop on N. 16th Street in Phoenix.
Richardson’s Ice Cream, Middleton, MA
Things have changed a bit since the original stand opened here in Middleton, north of Boston, in 1952; it’s now a well-oiled machine with 11 service windows out front. Yet it’s still on the grounds of a dairy farm that’s been family-operated for more than 300 years. And customers are still served old-fashioned frappes (Yankee for “milkshake”), and ice cream sodas with a lump of ice cream topping the rim of the glass. Richardson’s has absolutely celestial strawberry ice cream, the taste of summer in America.