Ice cream is the ultimate summer comfort food. Like an oldie tune that transports me back to dancing in someone's arms, ice cream reminds me of a kinder and gentler time.
When my brother and I reminisce, food always plays a part in our memories. As kids in Ohio, every other Saturday afternoon, my father would take us to the library. We both loved to read, but dad would wait in the car, even on muggy summer days. Afterward, we always went to Isaly's to enjoy skyscraper cones for 10 cents. (Looking back, skyscrapers were the shape of the ultimate phallic symbol--but back then, who knew?) I always ordered butterscotch fudge. Dad ordered white house (vanilla with maraschino cherries), and Sheldon ordered rainbow, a pastel concoction of unknown flavors.
According to 2004 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the total production of ice cream and related frozen desserts amounted to 1.6 billion gallons, or 21.5 quarts per person. The top five flavors are vanilla, chocolate, Neapolitan, strawberry and cookies 'n' cream. That might be true in the Midwest, but not here in the Sonoran Desert, where chili peppers collide with chocolate (Janos makes a wild chocolate jalapeno sundae).
By federal law, ice cream must have at least 10 percent butterfat to be called ice cream, with a mixture of milk, nonfat milk and ingredients for sweetening and flavoring, such as fruits, nuts and chocolate chips. Stabilizers and emulsifiers promote proper texture.
Gelato only has between 3 and 8 percent butterfat; it has less air than ice cream, which makes for an intense soft-serve-like treat. Frozen custard must also contain a minimum of 10 percent milk fat and 1.4 percent egg-yolk solids, though it has less air and less ice crystals.
Austin's has been around for decades, but it recently moved from its old-fashioned ice-cream-parlor setting on Broadway Boulevard near Country Club Road to a generic vacated Souper Salad. Owner Lynda Wilson says that everything is the same--except the missing nostalgic ambience--but they plan to resurrect some former soda-fountain relics. Austin's uses a 16 percent ice cream base from Shamrock Farms and makes about 60 to 80 gallons a day. Butter pecan is the best-selling flavor. They also make chocolate syrup, chocolate chunks and chocolate chips from imported Dutch cocoa. 6129 E. Broadway Blvd; 514-5132.
At Sundaze Ice Cream and Yogurt, mixologist Peter Gallen churned his talent as an amateur chef into becoming an ice cream maestro. Four standards always are on the menu--cake batter, Oreo Valley (cookies 'n' cream), chocolate and vanilla--but every week, eight more flavors based on customer preferences or seasonal ingredients (such as ginger peach or burnt peach: peach ice cream with caramelized brown sugar) wow the waiting public. Customers are encouraged to recommend flavors, and as they become available, the staff will call them. From Gallen's 110-flavor repertoire, the most popular are habanero chocolate, ginger (I can vouch for that!) and rice krispy treat. 10355 N. La Cañada Drive; 297-4111.
Jack Simon combines his two passions--toys and ice cream--at his recently opened store in Oro Valley. With a conservative estimate of more than 2,000 toys, comic books and autographs in cases, the Toyboxx presents kitschy Star Wars and Lord of the Rings collectibles for the most devoted buffs. On Saturdays, employees dress as comic book or movie characters, and customers who do the same are privy to $1 scoops (regularly $1.99). Every day, Simon has the same 34 flavors especially designed for him from Shamrock Farms. Simon says there are three levels of butterfat bases, and his ice cream takes the highest level higher, because customers are looking for an indulgence when eating ice cream. But Toyboxx also offers a selection of no-sugar-added treats for diabetics, along with low-fat and carb-wise ice creams to keep everyone happy. His best-selling flavors are the soothing green tea and vibrantly magenta prickly pear. 12152 N. Rancho Vistoso Blvd.; 877-8697.
When Paul McLeod went to college in Oklahoma, he grew fond of frozen custard, but when he arrived in Tucson to attend graduate school, he found none. At his parents' 6th Street Café, tucked behind Sam Hughes Place, he can now find his beloved frozen custard. It's not a frozen flan, but rather a creamy combination of milk, cream, eggs and sugar blended with Tahitian natural vanilla; it's made fresh every hour. Chocolate frozen custard almost tastes malted. 446 N. Campbell Ave., No. 190; 232-3590.
On a triple-digit day, the word "frost" gives me goose bumps. Step inside the continuously busy Frost, a Gelato Shoppe, in Casas Adobes Plaza, and it feels like waking up in a Target commercial. The décor is slick, cool and revolutionarily contemporary. Childhood friends Jeff Kaiserman and Steve Ochoa opened Frost last year after touring Italy and becoming enamored with gelato. They attended the Gelato University in North Carolina, and then hired Nazario Melchionda, a full-time master gelato production chef from Bologna, Italy. Frost imports pure cocoa and flavored pastes (pistachio, coconut) from Italy in order to make an authentic product. What grabs your attention is the display case, another Italian import, whose curved form is almost as seductive as what's on display. Flavors creatively adorned with fruit, ladyfingers, coconut shells and orchids beg to be tasted. "Chocolate, gianduja (hazelnut chocolate) and stracciatella (chocolate chip) are the most popular flavors," said Kaiserman. Frost is looking for a location around Tanque Verde Road, but for now, the only incarnation is at 7131 N. Oracle Road, Suite 101; 797-0188.
Other local favorites include Santa Barbara Ice Creamery (2502 N. Campbell Ave., 323-1231) which serves mostly super premium McConnell's ice cream. Brooklyn Pizza Company (534 N. Fourth Ave., 622-6868) makes gelato and pocalatte, a self-invented hybrid between gelato and Italian ice.
Some Tucson Originals restaurants make artisanal ice cream, defined as having an ice cream base made from scratch in small batches. "Our most popular flavors have been chocolate cabernet fig, saffron honey, white chocolate pasilla, creme brulée (frozen vanilla custard with sheets of crystallized sugar), coffee cardamom and balsamic vinegar-strawberry," says Doug Levy, chef/owner of Feast (4122 E. Speedway Blvd., 326-9363). "A while back, we made asparagus-lemon ice cream, which was not great, but better than it sounds."