20140714-best-ice-cream-primary.jpg

What makes great ice cream?

Clarity and intensity of flavor, sure. And a smooth creamy texture. Points for originality or nostalgia and add-ons like hot fudge.

But to my mind, great ice cream comes down to one thing: delight. Ice cream, even just mediocre ice cream, tastes like joy. Great ice cream—nutritionally indefensible, creamy and sweet in a category all its own—should feel like nothing less than pure pleasure. Great ice cream makes you feel thrilled to be eating it.

Below is our roundup of what we consider the best ice cream shops in New York City. They all trade in delight, but with different points of view. Do you want a chunky Ben & Jerry's-like scoop full of candy bars? How about pristine gelato? Or creamy frozen custard, so rich it can barely support its own weight? Whatever your ice cream vice, you can find it here.

For this guide we've focused on ice cream shops, not pint ice cream manufacturers like Steve's and Brooklyn Larder or frozen-treat makers like La Newyorkina and Steve's Key Lime Pies. We've also [mostly] steered clear of ice cream in restaurants, except where it's a reasonable thing to go in and sit down for ice cream alone, or take a cup of ice cream to go. That's an unfair stance, as some of the city's best ice cream can be found in restaurants like North End Grill and Amali, but for our purposes, ice cream isn't just a way to end a meal—it's a meal unto itself.

The guide is broken up into four sections: ice cream, gelato, soft serve, and novelty treats. You'll notice that of the 20 recommended locations, only five are what we'd call American ice cream shops. What gives? Truth be told, New York's ice cream shops on average fall behind other cities like San Francisco. Where do we excel? Worldly gelato and homey soft serve; there's no shortage of great places to get either.

Ice Cream

Eddie's Sweet Shop

20140714-eddies-sundae-max-falkowitz.jpg

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

When newfangled faux-retro ice cream parlors make their employees wear white paper hats as they serve ice cream across marble countertops, they're riffing on places like Eddie's. But Eddie's beats them all.

I'll admit to a hometown bias; Eddie's, located way out on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, was my childhood ice cream parlor. But the shop, which is fast approaching its hundredth year, captures the ineffable delight of a simple scoop of ice cream better than anyone else. As more mom and pop shops cut corners with pre-fab products, the owners of Eddie's remain committed to make everything themselves: all their 20-odd ice cream flavors, their marshmallow sauce, their mountains of whipped cream to rival Peter Luger's, and their gorgeous hot fudge.

The ice cream itself is not the star of the show at Eddie's. It's an eggless base that's creamy and well stabilized, but offers few surprises. And that's okay—flavors like bittersweet coffee and a bracing mint chip don't need to pull any punches.

But you don't go to Eddie's for a simple scoop of ice cream. You go for their herculean sundaes, loaded so generously with hot fudge that it oozes like lava down into a waiting saucer. You go for a banana split served in a proper pewter dish. You go to sit on a worn-down wooden stool at a cool marble counter and to dig in on something ludicrously sweet that tastes lost in time. You go to make faces like this:

20140714-eddies-robyn-max-falkowitz.jpg

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

And the milkshakes and malteds. Those are awesome, too.

Back to the full list »

Ample Hills Creamery

20140710-ample-hills-brownie-sundae-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Since opening in 2011 to a sold out first weekend, Ample Hills has become the Brooklyn heir apparent to the Ben & Jerry's school of ice cream: rich, quite sweet, and loaded with crunchy and chewy mix-ins.

Just three years later, Ample Hills looks practically old school in the wake of a dozen new ice cream shops that owe it at least some thanks. Their Salted Crack Caramel is already a new classic: smoldering burnt sugar hit heavily with salt and studded with "crack" cookies made of saltines, butter, and sugar; it's almost too much to take down a scoop by yourself. That's why you should also try the Sweet as Honey, a honey ice cream with honeycomb sponge candies, or their dark chocolate and cinnamon Mexican Hot Chocolate.

If you want subtlety, don't go to Ample Hills. But if you're the kind of person who enjoys attacking a pint of Ben & Jerry's by yourself, it's just what the doctor ordered. Their ice cream has a thick, almost chewy texture that takes well to toppings. A reserved approach to toppings should be their hot, fudgey brownie sundae; or you can go all-out with a little thing they call The Trough: eight scoops of ice cream with all the fixin's, served on a 9-inch gooey chess pie.

Back to the full list »

OddFellows Ice Cream Co.

20140714-oddfellows-chocolate-max-falkowitz.jpg

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

OddFellows is a retro-looking gold-and-red-striped ice cream parlor with a very not-retro pastry chef: Sam Mason, who made his name pushing the dessert envelope at wd~50. That's why, amid simple ice cream flavors like dark chocolate and sprinkles, the shop also sells a chorizo caramel swirl and a foie gras ice cream.

Not every flavor is a slam dunk, but the texture is always spot-on: thick and luscious, almost chewy, but with a clean, mild melt. Go for simple flavors—Mason does a great vanilla—and creative-but-reigned-in offerings like blueberry buttermilk honey, which is summery and tart but also berry-sweet; or Thai iced tea, which has a fudgy glimmer like sweetened condensed milk. Sorbets are also worth exploring; I was struck by the precise herbal-meets-tropical cooling sweetness of cilantro and lychee, which also featured a beautifully rich texture.

But the real pro move at OddFellows is to order a homemade waffle cone, which is made fresh throughout the day and perfumed with cinnamon—a serious upgrade to any ice cream.

Back to the full list »

The Ice Cream Shop Formerly Known as Lula's Sweet Apothecary

20140710-lula-sweet-apothecary-vegan-peanut-chocolate-chip-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

What's a vegan ice cream shop doing on a Best Of ice cream list? Simple—it's not just the best vegan ice cream I've ever had, but it's one of the city's top American-style ice cream shops, period. Really.

The ice creams, made from bases of soy or cashew milk, don't have the same buttery lightness of those made with dairy. But they don't taste like nut milk, don't feel greasy on the tongue, and aren't icy in the slightest. Actually, these vegan ice creams have a creamier, lusher texture than most of the new school ice cream parlors that have opened in the past few years. Nutty flavors like peanut butter chocolate are your best bet—they own up to their soy or cashew heritage most readily.

Lula's goes whole hog on the old timey ice cream shop shtick, from the jazzy soundtrack to scoops served in glass sherbet cups. But it works—you step into a tiny East Village storefront and suddenly feel like you've entered a shop like Eddie's. And when they ladle on that thick hot fudge (also vegan; also excellent), it just feels right.

Lula's closed last year but re-opened recently as a shop that as of now has no name. So let's call it the Ice Cream Shop Formerly Known as Lula's.

Back to the full list »

Hay Rosie

20140617-hay-rosie-ice-cream-sandwich-max-falkowitz.jpg

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Hay Rosie in Carroll Gardens is just a month or so old, but ice cream maker Stef Ferrari is already churning out flavors like a memorable, blissfully not-salty muscovado caramel ice cream or a sriracha-popcorn with just a lick of heat. Her ice cream base—which she pasteurizes herself in a shoebox-sized kitchen—is made without eggs, so it has a distinct light, almost fluffy quality compared to more dense and rich custard ice cream. That allows her to approach bold flavors (don't expect a plain vanilla on the menu) with surprising and welcome delicacy.

The tiny shop, really more of a counter, is only open on the weekends for now, and prices are on the high end of New York's ice cream spectrum. But they're worth it for a taste of well-made ice cream with original flavors that aren't loaded with kitsch. Best of all may be her take on an ice cream sandwich: ice cream and optional fudge sauce and oat crumbles stuffed inside a toasted pretzel roll. It's called a barnburner. You want it.

Back to the full list »

Gelato

Otto

20140710-otto-gelato-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Truth be told, New York does gelato far better than ice cream, and you can find an O.G. of that tradition in the kitchens of Otto pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman. Her flavors are simple but sometimes surprising; she's best known for her outstanding olive oil gelato (don't miss the seasonal coppetta topped with sorbet, granite, citrus curd, candied fruit, and tangy sauces), and when her blue cheese flavor comes back on the menu, fans are quick to pass along the news.

What's made Kurtzman's gelato so enduring through the years? It's always clean and her flavors are always clear. But her textures may come as a surprise to Italian die-hards, as they're richer and more ice cream-like than most gelati.

Otto is a restaurant, not an ice cream shop, but most of the time I go I treat the large bar area as one big ice cream counter. This is one restaurant where coming just for dessert—and only dessert—is highly encouraged. (Not that a few plates of pasta and vegetable sides before can hurt.)

Back to the full list »

A. B. Biagi

20140710-ab-biagi-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The Brazilian-born Antonio Biagi spent seven years studying under gelato masters in Italy and France before opening a small gelato and coffee shop of his own in Nolita, and for my money he's the most exciting new ice cream maker in New York. When I asked how he makes his outstanding chocolate sorbet—dark and chewy like cooled hot fudge, at once bitter and sweet and fruity—he emailed me bench notes of a process involving multiple sugars, chocolates, and heating-cooling techniques so complex I literally couldn't understand them.

There's nothing lean about this gelato: each and every scoop is full of body, which melts slowly in your mouth, giving you time to fully explore its flavor. In hazelnut, that means you'll go back and forth between dairy sweetness and rounded nutty flavors before appreciating the tiny crackles of hazelnut bits he's left you.

That hazelnut is a must-order, but so is any nut flavor like pistachio and peanut. The latter is actually a vegan sorbet, but it's so creamy you wouldn't know it. Also keep an eye out for straciatella made with high quality chocolate and a refreshing basil pine nut.

Back to the full list »

L'Albero dei Gelati

20140714-lalbero-dei-gelati-vicky-wasik-3.jpg

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

If A. B. Biagi is all about big, bold body in its ice cream, L'Albero dei Gelati takes the opposite approach: gelato here is dense but more milky than creamy. That lends it a more natural and rustic feeling, and it brings delicate but nuanced flavors to the forefront. On the traditional end you'll find pistachio and coffee in natural tans, and you'd do well to order them both. But L'Albero also plays around with savory flavors: basil, saffron, or white pepper asparagus to name a few.

They'll even set you up with a plate of charcuterie, cheese, and ice cream and a glass of wine in their back garden. (Excellent Italian-style cakes, leavened with eggs and coated in crackly crusts, are available too if so much savory isn't up your alley.) That's an experience you won't find much elsewhere.

Back to the full list »

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

20140710-il-laboratorio-del-gelato-chestnut-honey-green-tea-grapefruit-sorbet-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

With a streamlined, almost industrial operation, Il Laboratorio del Gelato's wholesale prices are lower than almost every craft ice cream-maker in the city. That's one reason you'll find their ice cream in so many restaurants. The other, of course, is that it tastes so unique.

I feel hard-pressed to call Il Laboratorio's ice cream traditional gelato; it sits too neatly in a cone and feels too rich in the mouth. But it's not quite American ice cream either. Whatever you call it, that texture is the same in virtually every ice cream they make, and the absolute consistency means the focus of each scoop is on its very specific flavor.

Ice cream-maker Jon Snyder is the kind of guy who doesn't think twice about selling two fig ice creams at once—one Mission, the other Turkish—because of course they're different enough to merit making both. That precision and directness means pumpkin ice cream has the vegetal aroma of squash, not cinnamon, and pink peppercorn is as fruity as the namesake spice with just a kiss of tongue-tingling heat.

The flavors are so single-minded and pure that I find they work best in careful combination. My favorite: something sweet like chestnut honey, something green like mint or tarragon, and something citrusy like yuzu or grapefruit sorbet for brightness and balance. With dozens of flavors available in the shop's display case at once, you won't have a problem combining your own.

Back to the full list »

Osteria Morini

20140710-osteria-morini-sorbet-trio-vicky-wasik.jpg

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik

Most people don't think to do so, but you can indeed walk into Michael White's Osteria Morini in Soho, order some gelato and sorbet in a paper cup, and walk right out to keep on your way. And you should: Altamarea Group pastry chef Bob Truitt does amazing things with gelato and sorbet, especially fruit flavors.

His ice cream is on the lighter side, but his sorbets are plush and jammy, fresh and tinged with plenty of acidity. Every sorbet flavor is worth a look, but the apricot and blackberry sorbets are particularly complex—the purified and intensified essence of those fruits. Also memorable is a vanilla gelato that balances the pod's floral sweetness with especially buttery dairy. Don't sleep on this one any longer.

Back to the full list »

L'Arte del Gelato / Dolce Gelateria

20140710-larte-del-gelato-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

These two companies used to be one in the same, but an owner break-up has transformed the West Village location of L'Arte to Dolce Gelateria (L'Arte's Chelsea Market cart remains intact). No matter: Dolce's recipes are similar-to-identical to L'Arte's, and they're both shops worth seeking out.

Of all the gelato featured on this list, Dolce/L'Arte's is probably the most intensely creamy and rich, as if the Italians decided to take a spin on Midwestern frozen custard. The flavors don't come through as clearly as other shops, but if you keep your order to reliable favorites like pistachio, hazelnut, and chocolate, you'll do quite well.

Back to the full list »

Soft Serve

Mr. Softee

20140714-mr-softee-max-falkowitz.jpg

What, were you expecting something else? Mr. Softee, and his copycats Master Softee, Captain Softee, Mister Ice Cream Soft, etc., run this town, and it doesn't matter what kind of ice cream fan you are: you're never too good for a taste of that glossy, swirly, how-is-this-so-soft-but-not-melting soft serve.

Mr. Softee's ingredient list is surprisingly straightforward (there's nothing in there you won't find in Baskin Robbins or Ben & Jerry's), and unlike McDonald's and DQ's soft serve, it meets the legal definition for being called real ice cream. (DQ and McDonald's sell "ice milk.")

Most importantly, Mr. Softee anticipates your ice cream needs. Every other ice cream shop on this list requires you to go somewhere, to have the presence of mind to realize you're craving ice cream and then act on it. Not so with Mr. Softee—he's always waiting around the corner. Just for you.

Back to the full list »

Shake Shack

20140710-shake-shack-concrete-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Real Midwestern frozen custard is soft like soft serve, dense like gelato, and even richer and more buttery than ice cream—the ne plus ultra of the frozen dessert world. And who has the biggest custard game in town? Shake Shack.

I'm most partial to Shake Shack's plain chocolate flavor, but the real draw is their constantly rotating custard calendar with flavors ranging from peach to coffee and doughnuts—they consistently have a clarity of flavor matched only by Midwestern specialists like Kopp's. Shake Shack's concretes—thick Blizzard-like shakes whizzed together with fudge sauces and chunky mix-ins—are also best in class.

Back to the full list »

5 Oz. Factory

20140714-5-oz-factory-custard-max-falkowitz.jpg

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Shake Shack may have the biggest frozen custard game in the city, but it doesn't have a monopoly. And I actually prefer 5 Oz. Factory's plain custard—it's a little more rich, dense, and chewy, even if the flavors don't hit home quite as deep. But that's alright, as 5 Oz. Factory has a whole candy store of topping options to add some chewiness or crunch to your custard. Chocolate-covered pretzels are a good way to go.

Back to the full list »

Victory Garden

20140710-victory-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

This small cute West Village shop is fighting the good fight: convincing well-heeled Villagers that real craft ice cream is always a better idea than mass-market fro-yo. How? The base for all of Victory Garden's soft serve is made with New York state goat milk, not cow, which affords the ice cream a lighter, tangier flavor and deep barnyardy grassiness. If you find most soft serve tastes blandly sweet and vanilla, this is the ice cream for you.

Chef and owner Sophia Brittan uses Mediterranean ingredients like rosemary and mastic (a resinous gum with notes of pine) to keep her flavors interesting. Chocolate rosemary is among her best for how well it layers that light goat dairy with fruity cocoa and a finish of sweet pine, but her salted caramel, neither too sweet nor too salty, is also deservedly a hit.

Back to the full list »

Big Gay Ice Cream

20140710-big-gay-ice-cream-salty-pimp-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (and its subsequent East and West Village shops) earned a nationwide following for their creative embellishments to plain Mr. Softee ice cream. (Think about that the next time you turn your nose up at a not-so-big-gay ice cream truck.) But last year the team switched to a new ice cream base made by Ronnybrook farms, and it's some of the tastiest, freshest soft serve you'll find anywhere.

Now the ice cream is big and buttery and full of vanilla body. The chocolate has a real depth of chocolate flavor. The texture is markedly improved: rich like frozen custard but not as heavy. And with a neutral base, the shops can now make their own flavors like coffee and cardamom (amazing as a swirl), all well worth ordering. This isn't just playful soft serve kitsch anymore—it's real ice cream craft.

Back to the full list »

Nicoletta

20130808-nicoletta-affogato.jpg

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The Midwestern-ish pizza at Michael White's Nicoletta is heavy and cheesy, but the restaurant's soft serve is light and full of class. I don't do full meals at Nicoletta now, but every summer I take a sidewalk table for an aperitif and a serving of their glossy soft serve.

That soft serve—which only comes in fior di latte because that's all you really need—can be topped with anything from candied pistachios to crushed amaretti cookies. Or it can be made into a float with a slurp of Manhattan Special coffee soda on top. Part egg cream, part ice cream float, it's the most delicious and New Yorkish thing about this Midwestern pizza parlor.

Back to the full list »

Dessert Club, ChikaLicious

20140710-chick-alicious-banana-custard-pie-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Is the soft serve at Chikalicious as distinctive as some of the others on this list? Does it has a fine dairy pedigree or especially rich texture? Not really. But it does have something you can't get anywhere else: sugar biscuits.

Yup, cubes of toasted buttery biscuit, rolled in sugar, and stuffed right into a swirly mound of soft serve, with some sliced bananas to make it healthy. Or you can get a pile of ice cream loaded with an equal volume of cookies for the city's most intense cookies and cream. Or get an eclair stuffed with ice cream, because of course eclairs should have ice cream in them.

But really, try the biscuits. As a research partner asked on one trip: "Why can't I always get biscuits in my ice cream?" Why indeed.

Back to the full list »

Culture

20140710-culture-frozen-yogurt-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

When made with good ingredients, frozen yogurt can be just as delicious as any other kind of ice cream, and Culture makes the city's best. It helps that they make their own yogurt in-store, the kind of creamy, tangy, lactic-fruity stuff that's not afraid of a little fat. When spun into ice cream it's as lush as any soft serve but with a pronounced tang.

Purists may prefer it plain, but a ladle of ripe strawberries soaking in balsamic vinegar is a tart, welcome addition.

Back to the full list »

Novelties

Melt Bakery

20140710-melt-bakery-thai-fighter-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

No one makes a better classic ice cream sandwich than Julian Plyter of Melt Bakery. His ice cream is tailor-made and -frozen to the job: creamy and ice-free but not too rich. And the frozen puck of ice cream doesn't smoosh out of the cookies once you bite in. Those cookies would be great on their own—other bakeries wish they sold cringles as nice as Plyter's crackly chocolate versions—but they're perfect for ice cream: firm to bite into but not slabs of concrete once frozen.

Melt keeps the innovation subtle, and there's really nothing to improve on their Thick Mint, bracing mint ice cream sandwiched between those chocolate cookies. But I still long for a sandwich from their early days at the Hester Street Fair, before they got a retail shop: a coconut-curry cookie sandwiching chocolate habanero ice cream. If by some happenstance you ever see it on their menu, order it. And save me one.

Back to the full list »

Francois Payard Bakery and Patisserie

20140710-payard-ice-cream-robyn-lee.jpg

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

What's a fancy French pastry empire doing on a humble ice cream list? An ice cream treat I look forward to every summer: macaron ice cream sandwiches. In this dessert, Payard's excellent macarons come shaped into bars, and they sandwich not one but two flavors of ice cream: one ice cream and one sorbet.

Raspberry-pistachio may be the best of the lot: a juicy raspberry sorbet swirled with nutty pistachio ice cream and smushed between bright green macarons that stay chewy even when frozen. But all these sandwiches, with their light, flavor-forward ice creams, are worth a look.

Back to the full list »

Comments

Comments can take up to a minute to appear - please be patient!

Previewing your comment: