Cool Treats, Hot City

The top 10 ice creams, gelatos and soft serves of Downtown 

Ice cream, in its many incarnations, has long served as an antidote to scorching summer temperatures. Ladies of the Persian Empire sucked on grape juice poured over ice in the summer capital. In the early 10th century, blends of ice, milk and sugar were widespread throughout the largest Arab capitals. And, of course, first lady Dolley Madison famously introduced the confection to U.S. palates at her husband’s inaugural ball in March of 1813. It seems that wherever there is heat and hunger, ice cream will follow.

With the millionth heat wave of the season upon us, what better time to cool off with the finest frozen treats Downtown has to offer? We’ve scoped out the best in our neck of the woods and rated them accordingly on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest.

Check out our reviews, then tell us what you think at nypress.com/best-ice-cream-downtown. The winner of our readers’ poll will be featured in our Best of Manhattan issue this fall. In the meantime, we encourage you to embark on your own taste test.

—compiled by Alissa Fleck, Nick Gallinelli, Marissa Maier, Regan Hofmann and Adel Manoukian

 

Photo by Jonathan Springer.

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream
48 1/2 E. 7th St. (at 2nd Ave.), 718-701-1630,
vanleeuwenicecream.com

Flavor: 9
Inventiveness: 7
Value: 5
Brain Freeze Factor: 6
Melt Factor: 6
Presentation: 9

One of the many food-truck-to-shop conversions of the past few years, Van Leeuwen’s cafe in the East Village is a lovely place for a cup of coffee and a pastry. All cream walls and gold filigree, it’s reminiscent of an aristocratic sitting room—nothing like an ice cream parlor. But the ice cream is there, in all of its impeccably sourced, seasonal (hoping for the currants and cream flavor? Try again next year) glory. While big-ticket varieties like Maker’s Mark bourbon caramel and Ceylon cinnamon might steal the show, our favorite is the palm sugar, a luxuriously caramelized, almost molasses flavor that, somehow, isn’t too sweet. Top it with cacao nibs (unsweetened, roasted cacao beans) for a decidedly grown-up experience fit for a duke.

 


Photo by James Kelleher.

Grom Gelato
233 Bleecker St. (betw. Leroy & Carmine Sts.),
212-974-3444, grom.it

Flavor: 9
Inventiveness: 7
Value: 6
Brain Freeze Factor: 8
Melt Factor: 5
Presentation: 5

One NY Press reader recommended we try nocciola and tiramisu, which is what we ended up getting. We weren’t going to eat the whole thing, but then we couldn’t help ourselves. Grom’s gelato is understated and delicious, and the flavors blended well, though we wish they would have been a bit more distinct. The nocciola boasts Italian hazelnuts, while the tiramisu blends espresso, wheat biscuits and Colombian chocolate chips. A sign on the wall at Grom advertises “no preservatives, no colorants, no flavorings,” which comes across in the subtle flavor. We have nothing but praise for Grom’s gelato, even at $ 7.25 for two scoops.

 

Photo by Jonathan Springer.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard St. (betw. Mott St. & Bowery), 212-608-4170,
chinatownicecreamfactory.com

Flavor: 10
Inventiveness: 9
Value: 8
Brain Freeze Factor: 7
Melt Factor: 8
Presentation: 5

 

The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory’s mascot is a dragon laughing gleefully over a dish of ice cream. He may be laughing at the number of tourists who come in there and stand, agape, trying to build up their courage to get the durian or taro ice cream—or maybe he’s just on a sugar high. The “exotic” flavors are the draw for a reason—if you want mint chip you can have it, but you really ought to go for the black sesame or the almond cookie. The place is covered with hand-written notes about new treats that are littered with exclamation marks; move fast and you might still be able to get Linsanity, blue and orange sprinkles and mochi balls, on your scoop.

 

Photo by Madeleine at Tiny Banquet Committee.

L’Arte del Gelato
75 7th Ave. (betw. S. 7th Ave. & Bleecker St.),
212-924-0803, lartedelgelato.com

Flavor: 8
Inventiveness: 9
Value: 8
Brain Freeze Factor: 6
Melt Factor: 9
Presentation: 5

 

With flavors like olive oil and frutti di bosco (forest fruit), this little artisan shop offers extremely creamy gelato that is surprisingly handmade in their store with whole milk instead of the usual cream. This doesn’t take away from the creaminess factor, however. The ice cream tastes fresh and may make customers wonder if actual ice was ever used at all in the recipe. The pistachio flavor offers a light, nutty aroma with few actual nuts. The interesting olive oil flavor seems rich with oil, making the gelato taste heavy. Two flavors will set you back $ 4.90—with all the traditionally Italian choices, make sure to stop by more than once.

 

Photo by Jonathan Springer.

Emack & Bolio’s
73 W. Houston St. (betw. Wooster St. & W. Broadway), 212- 533-5610, emackandbolios.com

Flavor: 9
Inventiveness: 10
Value: 7
Brain Freeze Factor: 2
Melt Factor: 4
Presentation: 10

A huge hub of different full-fat (yum), low-fat (kind of yum) and frozen yogurt (no yum), Emack & Bolio’s boasts an array of quirky-named flavors based on common oldies. We were recommended grasshopper pie by the shop’s well-informed employee, and the new variation on mint chip was satisfying and just creamy enough to taste rich but somewhat light. If you give it a try, its variety will keep you coming back for more. How could you doubt the people who were, supposedly, the first to mix Oreos into ice cream?


Photo by Jonathan Springer.

DBGB Kitchen & Bar
299 Bowery (betw. Houston & E. 1st Sts.),
212-933-5300, danielnyc.com

Flavor: 9
Inventiveness: 10
Value: 7
Brain Freeze Factor: 8
Melt Factor: 4
Presentation: 9

DGBG Kitchen & Bar is maybe not the place you would expect to go for ice cream, as their menu boasts 14 varieties of sausage, jazzed-up burgers and other fancy, meaty French fare. Nonetheless, their ice cream did not disappoint. We ordered the Apricot-Honey Sundae (two scoops ice cream, cookie crumble, candied pine nuts, honey-roasted apricot, thyme sauce, whipped cream; $ 9), but because they accidentally brought out a miniature size, they brought us a sampler including miniature versions of all three of their sundaes. The Chocolate-Hazelnut was a favorite (praline gelato, chocolate truffles, hazelnut cookies, chocolate fudge, whipped cream), but only held a narrow margin over the Raspberry-Mascarpone (anise meringues, ladyfingers, raspberry compote, whipped cream). These sundaes scored a solid 10 for creativity, and the wait staff didn’t even seem to mind that we were mostly there for a sugary fix.

 

Photo by Jonathan Springer.

Lula’s Sweet Apothecary
516 E. 6th St. (betw. Aves. A & B), 646-481-5852,
lulassweetapothecary.com

Flavor: 8
Inventiveness: 10
Value: 6
Brain Freeze Factor: 7
Melt Factor: 5
Presentation: 9

Remember when a soda fountain was basically a pharmacy—those glory days when Coca-Cola was a wonder cure and ice cream was health food? OK…us neither. But Lula’s Sweet Apothecary does, and this tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shop in the East Village is kitted out with all the glass jars and tiny-drawered cabinets of an old-fashioned drugstore. And while we know now that ice cream isn’t exactly a superfood, the offerings at Lula’s come as close as you can get—everything there is vegan. The ice creams, which rotate often, are made with soy, nut or coconut milks, as flavor dictates; anything with coconut is your best bet for an unbelievably creamy, slightly tropical escape. Build it into a sundae, flurry or banana split with sauces to choose from like gluten-free marshmallow and peanut butter, and tell yourself it’s all for your health.

 

Photo by Arnold Gatilao.

Momofuku Milk Bar
251 E. 13th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.), 347-577-9504, milkbarstore.com

Flavor: 8
Inventiveness: 8
Value: 5
Brain Freeze Factor: 5
Melt Factor: 7
Presentation: 6

Hailed by some as a gamechanger on the dessert front, Momofuku Milk Bar—an offshoot of David Chang’s Momofuku empire—was the brainchild of pastry chef Christina Tosi. With Milk Bar, Tosi has refined her amazing knack for making the lowbrow high in a subtly delicious way. The two flavors of soft serve in their East Village location change regularly; of the Blueberry Miso and Cereal Milk we tried, the latter is truly the standout. While the Miso interestingly mixes sweet and sour, Cereal Milk can only be summed up as tasting like childhood—familiar, yet surprising. It recalls countless mornings as a kid slurping down the sugary milk in your breakfast bowl after the Frosted Flakes had been devoured. We suggested pairing your soft serve with the cornflakes topping, which is more salty than the cereal you are accustomed to. Our only caveat of this truly heavenly dessert experience: the slightly too-small-for-comfort cups the ice cream is served in.

 

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

125 E. 7th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 212-533-9333,
biggayicecream.com

Flavor: 7
Inventiveness: 8
Value: 5
Brain Freeze Factor: 4
Melt Factor: 8
Presentation: 7

 

With the moniker Big Gay Ice Cream Shop and offerings called the Salty Pimp and the Bea Arthur, what’s not to love about this East Village sweet shop? The shop pairs a sense of humor with winning soft-serve combinations, giving each cone character. A citrus lover might opt for the Mermaid, vanilla ice cream, key lime curd, crushed graham crackers and whipped cream, while a chocolate connoisseur will reach for the Monday Sundae, twist ice cream, nutella lined cone, dulce de leche, sea salt and whipped cream. We went for one of the shop’s most popular flavors: The Salty Pimp. On a hot day, a melting sugar cone of soft serve is usually an unwelcome byproduct of the heat. With the Pimp, however, the hard chocolate exterior perfectly mixed with ravines of caramel and vanilla ice cream.  While the ingredients are fairly standard, the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop has found its strong suit in unique flavor pairings.

 

Photo by Jonathan Springer.

Il Laboratorio del Gelato
188 Ludlow St. (betw. Houston & Stanton Sts.),
212-343-9922, laboratoriodelgelato.com

Flavor: 9
Inventiveness: 9
Value: 10
Brain Freeze Factor: 7
Melt Factor: 7
Presentation: 7

This “laboratory” offers unique flavors that change almost every week. The toasted almond is full of bits of nuts, making you crunch through every tasty bite. The mint is delicate, with flecks of mint leaves. Although the shop offers a wide variety, all their flavors have one thing in common: they’re not very strong or overwhelming. This isn’t your average Breyer’s, though—the gelato is chilly without the sting of ice and is good enough to cool you off without skimping on cream.

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