My life has long revolved around ice cream. Growing up in my house, it was not uncommon to eat a bowl for breakfast. One of the only memories I have of being yelled at by my dad is for eating a hefty chunk of Chocolate Chip in front of an episode of Sesame Street before school, though his anger was due not to my 6 a.m. sugar rush but rather to my choice of eating straight from the carton.
This was the ’80s, after all. A simpler time when kids were expected to say no to drugs but yes to sugar. And though breakfast was a free-for-all, we had to wait ’til after dinner for our next hit. This might mean a rainbow of Napoleon or a dose of Mint Chocolate Chip, or, if my father was working in the North End that week, a box of Spumoni he picked up on the way home. During the excruciating time it took for the ravioli to rise to the top of their bubbling pot, I would open the freezer to stare at that frosty, squat yellow box, barely able to contain my growing excitement for the exotic trio of flavors—pistachio, chocolate, cherry—that came in four individually plastic-wrapped triangles I thought of as magic slices of cake.
And speaking of cake. For birthdays we got an ice cream variety from Baskin’ Robbins, if only for that wondrous layer of chocolate crunchies in the center. For good report cards and/or bad news, we were driven to an enchanted land called Putnam Pantry, an ice cream smorgasbord out on Route One that offered a make-your-own ice cream sundae buffet of dreams. In those days I often chose Bubble Gum as my base—they had the reliably good pink kind, not that insanity that is colored blue—and my sister Sarah often got the same. Like any decent big sister, I pretended to be annoyed by the way she copied me, but the plain truth was: I was proud.
In sixth grade, I went out for a cone with my friend Cindy only to discover that a new flavor had arrived at The Dairy Dome: Cookie Dough. Halfway into my double scoop, I hopped on my bike and pedaled home so my mom could try a bite of the ’90s’ best invention before it melted all over my Huffy ten-speed. In ninth grade, Cindy and I both got jobs at Friendly’s. We worked the takeout window on hot summer nights, killing slow hours by abusing the label maker to create nametags that led customers to say things like, “Could I have a Chocolate Fribble, Ludmilia?” In eleventh grade, I returned to Route One, though this time to its opposite end, where my friend Mango worked nights at her family’s ice cream shop. We smoked in the back room and flirted with the boys who worked the batting cages up the hill. We concocted gigantic ice cream sundaes and ate them while staring up at the massive orange T-Rex that hovered over our heads from the mini golf place next door.
In college I devoured pints of Ben and Jerry’s between classes—Peanut Butter Cup, Chunky Monkey, Heath Bar Crunch—and when I moved to New York after graduation, my friend Talia and I sought out the weirdest flavors we could find—Black Sesame, Corn, and other stuff that was still unique in 2006. When my husband (then-fiance) first took me to Hawaii to meet his parents, we all went to dinner. Afterwards, his mom suggested we go home, put on our pajamas, and make ice cream sundaes with the myriad of Tropical Dreams flavors she had tucked in the freezer, and I knew this was a family to which I could marry in.
Now I live in Los Angeles, where frozen yogurt joints outweigh ice cream shops at least three to one (though, if I’m being honest, on most days, the Nutella flavor at Froyo Life makes life worth living). Still, LA has been going through something of an ice cream renaissance these last few years, and when I find myself with a bit of a hankering for the nostalgia that only dairy can muster, these are a few of my favorite places to get my fix.
As a person not ashamed to associate ice cream with breakfast, I am naturally predisposed to this little neighborhood shop in Sierra Madre because of one particular flavor: Cornflakes. No crunchies mixed in here, just the perfect creaminess of that sweet milk left after a big bowl of cereal. With more pure flavors such as Raw Honey, Avocado, and Rosewater, Mother Moo will soon be calling you toward the 210 like the milky siren she is.
With several locations around town—my personal go-to is on York in Highland Park—there’s just no excuse as to why this place isn’t your nightly impromptu after-dinner treat. Their unique and ever-changing flavors—Sesame Tiramisu, Red Velvet Oreo, Dr. Pepper, Brown Bread (with Grape-Nuts!)—bring me back to that ice cream buffet of my youth, except now I’m enjoying someone else’s wacky and wonderful combinations. With lots of soy/vegan options for picky lickers, one scoop that actually means two, and prices that cannot be beat, well, I really don’t even know why you’re still reading this right now and not already in your car.
Let’s be clear: Pitfire is no ice cream shop. It’s a pizza place, and a chain at that. And yet I find myself wandering downtown more often than not, sometimes for their pizza, which ain’t bad at all, but mostly for their soft serve machine that pumps out a single, flawless flavor—Straus Farms Vanilla—that calls to mind summer nights filled with swirl cones and nothing else. At Pitfire, they top that vanilla perfection with extra virgin olive oil and salt, adding a bit of adult to a classic childlike treat.
This semi-cheesy, uber-welcoming Italian-American haven is where I go when I want a plate of ravioli, meatballs, and red sauce, complete with minestrone soup, iceberg lettuce salad with Italian dressing, and moon-white bread, all for a whopping $13. But don’t go for the dinner, go for dessert: a lengthy list of classics that should all be ignored but for the Spumoni. Oh, Spumoni. Theirs is served in a big bowl—or, if you’re smart, a take-home quart—rather than a slice of magic cake, but the flavors are all as they should be: swirls of chocolate, pistachio, and cherry, complete with those godforsaken florescent red maraschinos that can’t help but leave an aftertaste of home.
Sometimes instead of going out and buying ice cream I find enough inspiration and energy to pull out the ol’ Cuisinart and mix up my own creamy concoctions. My most successful creations have long been due to the books of Jeni Britton Bauer and her splendid ice creams. The bad news is that my Cuisinart might soon be gathering a whole lot of dust, as the good news is that she’s finally opening an LA shop in Los Feliz any day now. In the meantime, her truck is around town, testing our sunny waters with her flawlessly textured flavors such as Salty Caramel and Toasted Brioche with Butter and Jam. Yes, please.
Photo via The Inside Scoop