When ice cream obsessives kneel down and pray, they turn their bodies toward New England. Or at least they should, if they know their ice cream history and have sampled enough around the area's local scoop shops. Because once you do, you can't help but admit that New England has the highest density of great ice cream in the nation.
Sure, the Midwest has its frozen custard. San Francisco's Straus Creamery bases are as clean and fresh as the local produce. And New York has more daring flavors and good gelato than I know what to do with. But no place has done more to further American scoop shop culture than New England, particularly Boston and its satellite towns.
Here you'll find a style of ice cream all its own: dense to the point of chewy, so thick it bends your spoon, and so slow to melt you can eat it directly under the sun. That richness is thanks to the exceedingly low amounts of air that ice cream makers pump into their churns, far less than at most American ice cream shops.
Instead of bulking up ice cream with air, New England makers add all manner of cookie crumbles, snappy chocolates, gooey swirls, and nappy ribbons of bittersweet fudge sauce. You know that Coldstone Creamery deal where they smoosh mix-ins into your ice cream on a marble slab? It started in nearby Northampton, and it's not the only element of local ice cream culture that's spread its influence all over the country.
But even in a top-notch ice cream town like Boston, not all ice cream is created equal. Which is why Daniel and I set out last Thursday to spend four days sampling scoops of ice cream all across the city. That meant 14 shops in all, everything from the big dogs (J.P. Licks and Emack & Bolio's) to modern spots (Christina's and Toscanini's, just to name a few) and a host of small-town shops along the city's fringes. While I'd consider Herrell's and Kimball Farm a bit far out for a Boston-area roundup, Arlington, Newton, Belmont, and Dorchester all have favorites frequently passed over by the local listicles, and some are positively destination-worthy.
My picks below all exhibit the New England preference for the dense and chewy without a crunchy ice crystal in sight, and they achieve it with clean-tasting bases that don't leave a sticky film on your tongue, a telltale sign of less scrupulous or skilled ice cream makers who favor an abundance of stabilizers* over careful technique.
Not that there's anything wrong with stabilizers when used properly!
While that rich-yet-refreshing texture was at the top of our scorecards, flavor matters, too, whether it's a simple malted vanilla or a smoky burnt caramel. So out went any bland scoops, or ice creams as sweet as candy, or off-balance ingredients that had us scratching our heads more than licking our bowls clean.
What remains are six excellent ice cream shops where you can order with confidence, knowing you're about to get something great. As for which shop you'll make your favorite, well, that all comes down to how you take your ice cream.
The New England Classic: Chilly Cow
You want ice cream so dense and chewy you have to bite it off your cone? You want it to taste clean and rich with milk, and loaded with mix-ins like Boston cream pie? Oh, and you want to dance in your chair to some dad-rock on the stereo while you polish off that absolutely massive "single" scoop? Chilly Cow serves quintessential New England ice cream in the quintessential neighborhood scoop shop, and it's well worth a visit even if you don't live in Arlington.
Chilly Cow actually advertises three types of ice cream: conventional, "frozen custard," and "Midwestern frozen custard." The latter two are a hair more rich than the ice cream, and the Midwestern style is served a little softer, but it's all basically top-notch hard ice cream, done up in simple but fun flavors like a super-buttery butter pecan, a java chip loaded with chocolate-covered espresso beans, and a bracing mint cookies and cream (admittedly made with peppermint extract). Regardless of flavor, expect to find beautiful swirls and peaks as you bite through your scoop, the trademark of dense ice cream that holds it shape without the benefit of extra air bubbles.
Skip the too-sweet hot fudge, but if you're feeling it, don't be too afraid of the $8 lobster roll on the menu. While hardly destination-worthy, it scratches an itch, and I've had less satisfying ones in Boston for twice the price.
The New Classic: Lizzy's
Lizzy's in Cambridge styles itself after the suburban scoop shop experience, the kind where you'd happily throw a birthday party for your kid, and it achieves that goal, but it's all a little more posh. You won't find a ginger ice cream like theirs at any sundae bar, or for that matter in the Boston area, and after sampling dozens of flavors around town in the name of research, I can't help but come back to this one as my favorite.
The ginger is gorgeous, crisp and sharp with a soft breath of heat, and loaded with tiny nublets of spicy ginger rendered perfectly chewable by a heavy sugar syrup. Other winners: butter crunch, a smart spin on butter pecan with an honest buttery base and extra-buttery chunks of praline, and a mocha chocolate lace with a gentle coffee buzz and ribbons of crunchy, not-sweet caramelized sugar.
Lizzy's sets itself apart from its more celebrated neighbors thanks to an especially fresh-tasting base that boasts clean, milky flavor to complement any added ingredients. The ice cream's delightfully chewy, if a little lighter than Chilly Cow's, and on multiple visits across the span of months I've never crunched on an ice crystal—a statement I can't make for more vaunted shops nearby.
The Modern Must-Try: Picco
The Pizza and Ice Cream Company—Picco for short—is hardly a Boston secret. It's also a restaurant, not an ice cream parlor, but you can order scoops of ice cream to go right at the front bar. And you absolutely should, because when it comes to fancy restaurant ice cream, Picco has it down like no one else.
You can still expect rich, chewy ice cream, but it's more flavor-forward and a little lighter, with a density that veers away from the New England fudgy standard for something even more sophisticated. That makes for an ice cream bursting with, say, electrifying passionfruit, deeply nutty pistachio, and cherry vanilla imbued with the moody essence of stonefruit and layered with soft (not icy!) halves of ripe cherry.
Most Creative Flavors: Toscanini's
I'll take amazingly creamy ice cream over some spiffy new flavor any day, which is why I have a complicated relationship with Toscanini's, the reigning champion of Boston-area ice cream emblazoned on the exterior with "THE BEST ICE CREAM IN THE WORLD" – NEW YORK TIMES. It's not that Tosci's doesn't make excellent ice cream—it certainly does—but in recent years they've developed a consistency problem, something other local ice cream fanatics will confirm to me in hushed voices.
The way I see it, you call yourself the best ice cream in the world, you have no excuse for selling ice cream with ice crystals visible from the freezer case, or for offering flavors that occasionally miss their mark into the overwrought, both of which I experienced back in November and again on this trip. Perhaps Tosci's is resting on its laurels, or it's making too many flavors in quantities too large to keep the quality control as obsessive as I'd like. But I'll happily admit that when Tosci's is on, it's on, and they do the most creative flavors around.
Consider a sorghum offering with a molasses-like base that captures sorghum syrup's quintessential twang, adds a finish of gentle wheatiness, and punctuates the whole thing with perfect nibble-sized chunks of walnut. Or the banana pudding, fluffy and light just like the namesake dessert, tasting genuinely of vanilla pudding and banana slices. These scoops are awesome, as is the famous burnt caramel, which is so smoky and savory it barely registers as sweet. Also great, and rarely talked about: the house soft serve, which is more slick, silky, and more dense than typical, with smart flavors like Ovaltine nocciola.
Toscanini's favors a lighter base than the some examples of the New England standard. It's still plenty dense and chewy, but definitely more modern than Lizzy's and Chilly Cow. That makes it all too easy to plow through tasting a dozen flavors to find one that speaks to you.
Superhuman Sundaes: Cabot's (Serving Richardson's Ice Cream)
Richardson's is a popular Middleton, MA creamery that wholesales to restaurants and sells pints across the Boston area, and if you're looking for some simple, quality, no-nonsense ice cream, it holds its own to top-quality national brands like Häagen-Dazs.
That ice cream reaches its apotheosis at Cabot's Ice Cream and Restaurant in Newton, a diner-cum-sundae bar that dates back to 1969. There, in an retro red-and-white dining room under stained glass lamps, you can order a sundae done the right way: served in a glass the size of your head and overflowing with hot fudge and whipped cream. If you want that old fashioned sundae bar experience, no one does it better than Cabot's.
Your choice of ice cream, all of which is good (I liked the coffee and toffee crunch flavors), matters less than your choice of hot fudge, of which Cabot's offers three. The bittersweet version is noticeably dark and bitter, and it chills to a lovely tacky texture on contact with ice cream. Alas, the whipped cream is from a can, but it's a superior brand that arrives in an artful swirl. Your other note of caution: this sucker is huge. Bring reinforcements.
Best (Okay, Only) Frozen Custard: Abbott's
Upstate New York-based Abbott's is a regional chain that now stretches as far south as Florida and as far west as Colorado, and fortunately they have an outlet in Brighton as well. I'd tell you to go even if it wasn't the only place in the area to get real-deal soft serve frozen custard like you'll find in the Midwest, because this custard, always served fresh (just a few hours old so it firms up a bit but retains that ethereal lightness), compares to the best of Wisconsin.
Custard like this is served in floops, not scoops, so dense and soft it can't support its own weight. Abbott's rendering is silky and marvelously creamy with a hint of that custard egginess and plenty of fresh milk flavor. As with most custard, flavor comes secondary to texture, so Abbott's serves muted chocolate and vanilla, but I couldn't get enough of a recent special: chocolate malt bolstered by toasty Sam Adams for a double dose of sweet graininess that plays nicely off gentle cocoa. Toppings are a must here—you don't appreciate how soft and smooth this custard is until you bite into a chunk of toffee for contrast. Is it New England-style? No way, but it's a happy import.