It's a simple enough concept: a great Italian product stuffed inside a French one. But there's something about that bite of creamy gelato beneath buttery bread that always takes me by surprise.
Ice cream sandwiches in the U.S. are strictly cookie-driven affairs, but Italian cookies, which are typically crunchier and smaller than ours, aren't up to the job. Perhaps that's why the brioche was called into service for a sweet sandwich you'll find all over southern Italy.
The sandwich, called brioche con gelato, is simply a brioche bun stuffed with a fat smear of ice cream. But in Sicily you may as well call it breakfast during the sweltering summer months. (Don't you love the Italians?)
Not just any brioche will do. The bread must be baked into a bun-sized roll so it can be split and filled with ice cream like a burger or hot dog. In the U.S. that usually requires a custom order to a bakery, and that bakery may have to use a special recipe just for ice cream-bound bread. As ice cream melts in the sandwich it sogs up the brioche's delicate texture, so you need a bun that's sturdy enough for the job but tender enough to work well in a sweet dessert.
But for the best brioche con gelato you need to add some heat—toasted brioche brings a crisp contrast to the soft ice cream and makes the whole sandwich more fragrant and buttery. At pro gelato shops like Pitango in Washington, DC, that means the brioche is served warm from the oven, crackly around the crust but extra soft within. [Update: Pitango writes in to say they no longer offer brioche con gelato.]
Other gelato makers seek mechanical assistance from machines that look like the Italian version of a waffle iron. That's the setup Antonio Biagi has in his New York shop A. B. Biagi, where he sells a toasted brioche con gelato he calls "PainGelato." His brioche is a custom recipe developed by Brooklyn's Bien Cuit, which also sells the sandwich.
The machine is essentially a sandwich press with a shallow concave dome on top. You slice your brioche bun in half, fill it with ice cream, and press the lid down for a just a few seconds. In that time the brioche's crust toasts and the edges seal closed, forming a solid ring of toasted bread to protect your gelato payload.
Biagi found his press, which he identifies as a "coccinella," at the famed Fiera del Gelato in his grandmother's hometown of Rimini, Italy. The press is hardly widespread but is winning over new fans, including the restaurant El Celer Can Roca in Spain, where the kitchen makes an "oxymoron" ice cream sandwich so named for its hot brioche base and cold filling.
Some Americans are getting in on the action too, such as Hay Rosie, a new ice cream shop in Brooklyn. Owner Stef Ferrari has a press of her own that she uses to make a "Barn Burner," a toasted pretzel roll filled with the likes of muscavado caramel or buttered popcorn-sriracha ice cream. And in true American ice cream fashion she offers hot fudge and oat crumbles to go inside the sandwich as well.
As with pizza, sometimes it takes American innovation to improve on Italian brilliance.