Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gelato: Scoop Up Summer's End

Of all the food in the world, one of the most well-loved and satisfying creations known to man - has to be ice cream. Its flavors are limited only by one's imagination, its availability limited only by the locality you choose to inhabit.

Within the past few years, our nation has witnessed an overly zealous craving for what Italians have been churning out for ages. Wonderful, blissful and most gratifying beyond all means – gelato has swept Americans off their feet and into a lactose-dependent euphoria.

So when the two go head to head, which one comes out the victor? Should our nation continue to nurture the cream-heavy and icy likes of ice cream, or cross over to the decadent and dense allurement of gelato?

In order to better understand which side to take in this butterfat percentage war, I took on the daunting task of sampling a handful of New York’s finest. Tough and painful it was, but necessary even more so.
Alphabet Scoop

My first stop tackled the community-loving, inexpensive Alphabet Scoop. Tucked away in the moniker-suggesting Alphabet City, the small pistachio interior parlor holds a warm sense of friendliness and informality. At first glance, the door sign suggested the store was still closed. Only after oddly poking my head near the window did someone remind me it was actually in business for the day.

Inside, the place is neither showy nor boring. The staff is friendly, if not overly relaxed. After sampling more than a handful of flavors, joyfully handed out without question, I settled on a scoop of the perplexing “Razzle Dazzle”. Thick and moderately creamy, yet not overly rich, the raspberry ice cream had a cold, chunky bite without much aftertaste. Even the miniature dark chocolate bits inside the ice cream had a short-lived intensity of flavor.

Similar to commercial brands, the ice cream was in no way unique. If locally made Baskin-Robbins or Coldstone is what you yearn, this would be the place.

However, I had no reason to be guilty after paying $2.75, for what technically should’ve been one scoop, but ended up as two. With a turnover rate as good as this, you might as well try all 14 flavors.

Mary's Dairy

Further east and down a few blocks you’ll find Mary’s Dairy, a quirky azure and anime-decorated parlor. Slightly tacky, if not overly dependent upon gimmicky oddities - like a giant chocolate bar hanging from the ceiling - Mary’s take on flavors proved to be a tad more daring.

Special “concoctions” by Mary herself (fictional, remember) include four exotic flavors, including “Hawaii Five O” and “Sandy” – a smooth, chocolate fudge ice cream with crunchy bits of pistachio Halvah.

Some of the more memorable flavors include both peanut butter fudge and “killer chocolate”. The former, consisting of extra velvety peanut butter ice cream combined with a dark fudge ripple was lush and comforting. Rich, with a heavy cream taste, the ice cream was much softer in comparison.

Seeing that Mary’s is also a chocolate bar, it makes sense that they have truly mastered a deep, intense chocolate ice cream. The killer chocolate was intense and complex with a fudgy finish. Alongside, begging to be tried next, were Coconut Almond Joy, Cappuccino Kahlua and Dulce de Leche.

The service, somewhat edgy with a dose of ennui, at times can take away from the playful, fun-loving interior.

Overall, Mary’s serves up bold, doughy, cream-heavy flavors. Soft to scoop with a lovely finish, Mary just might be, the self-proclaimed Queen of Cream.

il Laboratorio del Gelato

After trying the Queen of Cream, I asked myself who else dared to challenge. And who better to contend than the flavor-creating genius of il Laboratorio del Gelato.

With more accolades and praise than any other gelato connoisseur within the city, Jon Snyder’s laboratory of gelato churns out more than 50 freshly made, gourmet flavors. Dedicated to providing gelato of only the freshest and finest ingredients, the sole location only stocks a little over a dozen flavors each day.

A 2-scoop cup of hazelnut and chocolate hazelnut I sampled was beyond sublime. Extremely delicate and silky smooth, the rich chocolate tasted of a gently melted candy bar. The hazelnut, nutty and intense, tasted natural and authentic.

Unlike any other ice cream or gelato, il Laboratorio’s flavors have just the right amount of subtle sweetness without overdoing it. And with a list that includes Black Sesame, Buttermilk, and Honey Lavender, to say the place serves those with more “refined” palates would be spot on.


Much further westward, similar in praise but polar in service, Cones on Bleecker offers the Argentinean take on gelato.

Technically “helado”, Cones’ frozen cream is much lighter and refreshing than others. The crystalline and water-like Pistachio was cold, concise and clean to taste. Somewhat granular in texture, the pistachio offered much more flavor in comparison to the vanilla chocolate chip.

The vanilla was crisp and lively, but simple and short-lived. Very shallow and glossy, it reflected the reluctant service I received.

On assumption, it could be because too many kids come in to try flavors, then end up ordering nothing. But the impatient and pretentious attitude of the staff, who limited me to only 2 samples, made me question his desirability of my business.

Half sorbet and half helado, the selection of flavors ranges from tropical fruits to tiramisu and Zabaglione. But for 5 dollars (this being one of the most expensive of all locations sampled), the necessity of making such a trek to Cones is questionable.

Ciao Bella

What was more perplexing and rather interesting, was sampling Ciao Bella, the company il Laboratorio’s Snyder once worked for.

By far the most corporate and expanded of all the ice cream shops, the tiny location on Mott St (one of six in the city), ironically offered a much more intimate feel.

Most shocking, however, was the utter difference of quality in comparison to Snyder’s gelato. Unlike il Laboratorio, the cookies & cream was nowhere near as rich and gratifying in taste. A scoop of Graham Cracker Key Lime was wincingly tart and bland.

From the other flavors tried, including Chocolate and Vanilla, the commercialism of Ciao Bella’s gelato was regrettably noticeable. Pretty and artisanal, in comparison to other grocery store-available brands, Ciao Bella falls short in the race for the best.

In the end, the epic campaign to resolve the gelato versus ice cream conflict remains unsolved. At times, a scoop of rich, creamy ice cream can truly satiate one’s craving. But for a delightful, dense and a gourmet treat, gelato scoops up just as well.

Alphabet Scoop - $2.75
542 E 11th St @ Ave A

Mary’s Dairy – $3.95
158 1st Ave @ E 10th St

il Laboratorio del Gelato - $3.25
95 Orchard St @ Broome St

Cones - $5.00
272 Bleecker St @ Morton St

Ciao Bella - $5.15
285 Mott St @ E Houston St

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey! nice piece... i think you hit all the nails on their heads! but i think il laboratorio actually produces more than 150 flavors... keep it up!