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Cold Comfort | From traditional vanilla to exotic chocolate jalapeño, the East Bay offers a variety of icy treats to beat the heat this summer | By Andrea Pflaumer

Every summer my husband’s grandfather made a pilgrimage to the farmers’ markets down by the Philadelphia docks to sample peaches. When he found the most delicious ones, he bought that farmer’s entire truckload. Then he hired all the ladies in his neighborhood to peel, cut, and pack the peaches in sugar. Using no more than scalded cream, sugar, vanilla bean, and peaches, he prepared peach ice cream that he sold all summer long at his ice cream shop, across the street from Fairmont Park. Sadly, I never met the man or tasted his ice cream.

Ask people what they think of when you say the words ice cream and you’ll likely hear responses like “summertime,” “sweetness,” or “childhood.” Whether it’s a drippy cone on a hot summer day by the shore, the accompaniment to a slice of birthday cake, or the finale at a summer barbecue, ice cream conjures up images of family, celebration, and comfort.

Because of the need for mechanical refrigeration and motorized equipment, ice cream, as we know it is a fairly recent invention. In ancient times, Alexander the Great enjoyed a treat similar to the snow cone: ice flavored with honey and nectar (lacking the benefit of a local 7-11, he sent his runners to the mountains for snow). In the 16th century, Marco Polo brought a recipe for sherbet back from the Far East, which eventually evolved, almost simultaneously in the courts of England, Italy, and France, into something called “cream ice.” In 1660 a Sicilian named Procopio introduced a recipe consisting of milk, cream, butter, and eggs at his café in Paris, the first time ice cream became available to the general public. A hundred years later our founding fathers found relief from D.C.’s sweltering summers by downing large quantities of the soothing dessert. (President George Washington dropped a hefty $200 on it in one summer alone, possibly explaining the wooden tooth thing.) With the development of industrial manufacturing equipment in the 1800s, ice cream producers were churning out ample amounts to satisfy America’s growing population.

Today, most commercially manufactured ice cream is made from cream, milk, sugar, and stabilizers, and then flavored with extracts or additions such as nuts, fudge, and fruit. According to regulations set by the FDA, ice cream must contain a minimum of 10 percent milk fat. Anything less has to be called ice milk or light ice cream. The more decadent brands, called premium, often have as much as 16 percent fat. Surprisingly, air is another indicator of the type and quality of ice cream. Ice cream that is very easy to scoop usually has a high air content (think soft-serve cones). Premium ice creams contain very little air, and except for what gets generated in the churning process, gelato has none at all. What makes gelato unique, besides its dense texture, is that it is made from a custard of milk and egg yolk, but contains no cream, making it almost a diet food! (Well, it was a nice try anyway . . . .) Sherbet has only 2 percent milk and sorbet has none at all.

Italians make a version called sorbetto, which has more fruit and less water, and is whipped to make it smooth and easier to scoop. And for the epicures, granita is another Italian invention of identical ingredients, but broken up with a spade into little crystals creating a coarser texture.

The scoop on East Bay ice cream comes from national chains as well as the venerable local institutions that have been churning out creamy confections for decades. Now a handful of newcomers on the block are offering up exotic and addictive additions to our local dessert menu and feeding this area’s voracious appetite for excellent taste.

Icy Relations
The cold war along Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley is good news for gelato lovers. In the storefront that until recently housed See’s Candies—and a great consolation for that tragic loss—is Gelato Milano, a fine Italian-style gelateria, founded by Berkeley native son Curtis Chin. The decor resembles a minimalist Milan design house: poured concrete counters, Philippe Starck–designed stools, and exceptional gelato. All the recipes are inspired by master Milanese gelato maker Giordano Mauri, whose son Marcello has just moved to Berkeley to be the shop’s gelato and sorbetto artisan. It features 24 flavors daily, six of which are sorbetto. “All our flavors are Italian,” says Chin, “we don’t have gimmick flavors.”

Close your eyes and have a taste of zuppa inglese (rum-flavored tiramisu sans coffee), cassata siciliana (traditional Sicilian cake flavor with candied fruit), or torrocino (honey nougat candy) and you’re in Italy. The menu changes seasonally. On a recent visit there was fresh coconut—“no coconut milk, just pure coconut,” says Chin—as well as banana, pineapple, lemon, grapefruit, mango, and strawberry. A lot of customers, many of them of Italian descent, come in specifically for the grapefruit sorbetto. “Vegans who taste our sorbettos can’t believe they’re non-dairy,” says Chin. A testament to the store’s success is the long lines of customers even throughout the heavy rains this winter, and despite the lack of signage on its door for the first five months of business.

Just two blocks north next to Downtown restaurant is Gelateria Naia, a Bay Area gelato shop with five locations. “We stay with things that taste good and we use only natural ingredients,” says General Manager Trevor Morris. “Our pistachio comes from a farmer in the Central Valley who roasts and mills it to our specifications.” Like most other small operations, Naia buys only seasonal produce from local growers like Frog Hollow Farms in Brentwood. This day they are experimenting with production of a Scharffen Berger bitter-chocolate gelato, steeping the whole roasted cocoa beans, made just like coffee, into the gelato base.

Catering to Berkeley’s international tastes, Naia offers traditional Italian flavors like savoiardi (the cookies in tiramisu) and fig; Indian favorites like cardamom and saffron; green tea (from premium imported Japanese macha tea); Thai iced tea; and a very subtle black sesame gelato, “not so much a dessert, but very nice to finish off a meal,” Morris says. The only exception to the natural ingredient rule is a gelato made from the vitamin- and caffeine-laden Red Bull beverage, offered only during finals week.

The competition doesn’t seem to be hurting anybody, since they both tap into the large stream of U.C. students and customers that come to the downtown arts district for live theater and music. And what they both agree on, sort of, is that a gelateria is judged by two flavors: chocolate and (depending upon whom you’re talking to) pistachio or hazelnut. You be the judge.

At the other end of Shattuck, in Epicurious Garden, the Gourmet Ghetto’s new food court, is Ciao Bella, part of a small and highly rated chain. With a daily menu of 30 flavors of gelato and sorbetto, you are bound to find something you love. This lucky reporter tried the rose and pistachio gelatos and the raspberry sorbetto. But I’m told the locals like jalapeño chocolate, lychee, and an apricot chardonnay.

West of the Shattuck cold front, in Berkeley’s Fourth Street district, is the spare but cheerful Sketch, offering gelato-style ice cream (though technically not gelato). “Every idea in its purest form begins with a sketch,” says Ruthie Planas-Shelton, who opened the store two years ago with her husband Eric. Outside the store is a white wooden ice cream cart imported from Ruthie’s native Philippines.

The couple met when they were both pastry chefs at Aqua restaurant in San Francisco, and they bring a chef’s refined sensibility to all of their unusual and sumptuous creations, including gelato, granita, sorbet, and cookies. Sketch ice cream is made with Straus organic milk, pure extracts, and seasonal fruit from the local farmers’ markets. On a recent visit they featured cherry and blueberry ice cream, and a cactus pear sorbet, along with their popular concoctions: saffron, burnt caramel, chocolate, and organic coffee made from Oakland’s boutique Blue Bottle Coffee roasting company. The sorbets and granitas also benefit from the summer harvest: plum, jasmine tea, lemon verbena, rose geranium, and varietal melons. Individual scoops are served up in charming pastel Italian (recyclable) cups, or in freshly made, paper-thin waffles. Homemade cookies buttress custom-made ice cream sandwiches, and for an über-indulgence try homemade chocolate pudding cake à la mode.

Opening early August in The Elmwood, Ici will serve homemade ice cream, sorbet, candy, and cookies made with local organic ingredients. After nine years as the pastry chef at Chez Panisse, co-owner Mary Canales will also apply her skills to ice cream sandwiches and “bombs” (layered ice cream cakes).

Old Smoothies
Many of our fondest ice cream memories involved sitting at soda fountains, maneuvering those long silver spoons to scrape the very last drop of a milkshake out of a soda glass. Thankfully, we can still live those memories at some real old-fashioned establishments.

Tucker’s “Super Creamed” Ice Cream (code for “forget your diet”) in Alameda was an important part of Kate Pryor’s young life. “I grew up on Tucker’s ice cream. We celebrated all of the milestones here,” says Pryor, who purchased the business in 1990. Six years ago Pryor moved the shop to a site with spacious seating, including a room with a mural of the Italian coastline, and an outdoor patio with ivy-covered walls and jacaranda trees, ideal for special events. “We’ve had everything from a pregnancy announcement party to a 90th birthday party here,” says Pryor, who also offers catered food for on-site events. And like any good, old-fashioned soda fountain, Tucker’s still serves up shakes, malts, sodas, and sundaes with all the standard sauces including hot fudge and caramel.

Tucker’s foundation is built upon standard favorites, like chocolate, and a rich blend of vanilla (using four kinds of beans from around the world), along with their ever-popular banana coconut cream. But innovative concoctions share the daily menu board. Among the more unusual are a punchy Mexican chocolate, seasonal sorbets, including grapefruit Campari, and at Halloween, black licorice ice cream. For local art and wine festivals, Tucker’s makes an ice cream with Zinfandel from Alameda’s Rosenblum Winery (check it out at the Alameda Park Street Fair the last weekend in July).

As homage to J.B. Cooper’s 1930s-era Corner Confections and Fountain Shoppe in the Fillmore District, Terry Wong opened the San Francisco Creamery Company in 2004, his version of an old-fashioned soda fountain, in the heart of Walnut Creek’s shopping district. A popular site for families, the shop features 40 varieties of made-on-site premium ice cream, plus hot fudge, chocolate (made from Guittard), and caramel sauces. Its version of the diet-buster is the “Kitchen Sink” sundae made with eight scoops of ice cream, eight toppings, bananas, whipped cream, nuts, and cherries, and is served in a mini replica kitchen-sink dish, a favorite treat for soccer teams, church groups, and kids’ birthday parties.

No discussion of Bay Area ice cream would be complete without the granddaddy of them all, Fenton’s Creamery, which began as a dairy in 1894 by Elbridge Seth Fenton. Grandson Melvin encouraged his grandfather to start making ice cream, eventually the prize of the operation, and in 1922 the family added a restaurant and soda fountain. Over the years, Fenton’s changed hands twice, eventually coming back to a family ownership in 1987 when it was purchased by Scott Whidden, a third-generation Oakland native and ice cream maker since the age of 16. An Oakland institution, Fenton’s remains dedicated to Oakland’s other institutions and offers a discount to customers wearing Oakland A’s team regalia (during baseball season), police, firefighter, or military uniforms.

Today, Fenton’s makes premium ice cream, low-fat ice cream, and frozen yogurt on-site, as well as chocolate fudge and caramel sauces from its own candy kettles, and custom-made ice cream cakes and pies. An “Arctic Tour” of the production facility, available by appointment for schoolchildren and groups, shows the blending and churning of the flavors in production that day. Now, after 112 years, Fenton’s plans to open more stores, “But we will still make handcrafted ice cream at each site that we can be proud of,” says Operations Manager Sam Zarnegar.

If you get hooked on a particular flavor of ice cream or gelato and resort to buying carton-sized quantities to relish at home, there are two ways you can avoid ice cream freezer burn (the ice crystals that form in opened ice cream containers): 1) get a subzero refrigerator, or 2) the preferred solution—eat it all up! After all, summer, like ice cream, doesn’t last forever.
Andrea Pflaumer is a regular contributor to The Monthly and writes for Marin’s Pacific Sun newsweekly.

The Scoop
Ciao Bella, Epicurious Garden, 1511 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 548-2426;
Fenton’s Creamery, 4226 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, (510) 658-8500;
Gelateria Naia, 2106 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 883-1568; 1245 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek, (925) 943-1905 | 2475 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, (510) 642-3825;
Gelato Milano, 2170 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 649-1888;
Ici, 2948 College Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 665-6054;
San Francisco Creamery Co., 1370 Locust Street, Walnut Creek, (925) 926-0228;
Sketch, 1809-A Fourth Street, Berkeley, (510) 665-5650;
Tucker’s Ice Cream, 1349 Park Street, Alameda, (510) 522-4960;