Sunday, September 11, 2005

Scoops - New York City Entry #4

Central to my culinary consciousness are the lazy summer evenings that I spent in Somerville, Massachusetts, patiently waiting for my turn at the counter of Steve’s Ice Cream. This was the moment at which Alice Waters was refining fine dining in Berkeley, but considering the intense flavors, custom mix-ins, and the perfectly sinful, erotic richness, Cantabrigians had the better of it. Steve Herrell reconstructed frozen desserts, changing custard forever.

In 1977, Steve sold his name to others, and eventually opened a smaller, eponymous location - Herrell’s - right off Harvard Square, serving his ice cream in what seemed to many former fans as frighteningly akin to an assembly line. Steve’s decision produced a shock among his legions similar to learning that Chef Waters had sold Panisse to Pillsbury, only to open a bistro in the Bellagio.

But from the moment that the sacred Steve’s opened, ice cream was never the same: the platonic cone was simultaneously counter-cultural and indulgent, hippie and dippy. Frozen dessert belonged to Cultural Studies.

New York has never fully shared the dessert culture of Boston (pumpkin pie, Friendly’s cabinets, and, of course, Boston cream pie), and never took super-premium ice-cream to heart like its New England rivals. For the 20th Century the Yankees would wallop the Bosox, but after dinner Boston could not be licked. Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Gotham now imports Emack & Bolio’s.

So, it was with some trepidation that I espied two of the high-end Village artisanal “gelato” emporiums: Otto and Cones. Let it be said that both are worthy ventures. If they don’t have the upright Jewish ambience of Schrafft’s or the outer borough’s let’s-feed-them-to-excess of Jahn’s, they have a scrubbed yuppie earnestness.

Each serves winners and failures. Neither recaptures the mix-in, have-it-your-way culture of the Boston home-made establishments (or their funereal imitators, Cold Stone and Marble Slab: Cold Slab, served “Six Feet Under”).

The treasure at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria (Gelato and Sorbetti), a pizzeria-cum-ice-cream-parlor, overseen by the Mario (Batali), is their superb Corn Gelato. This is as subtle a concoction as one might find in any high-end restaurant. In fact, if the silky corn amuse bouche at Blue Hill were properly whipped and frozen, it might taste like this. This is a subtle and haute version of the rough, but flavorful Maiz ice cream that one finds at neighborhood Filipino creameries in Chicago.

In contrast, Otto’s Black Raspberry was a huge disappointment. Aside from the annoying seeds, proving only that raspberry droppings were somewhere about, and a garish purple color, the ice cream had a heavy vanilla profile. Baskin-Robbins would have had more skill.

The third choice was a Cantaloupe Sorbetti that was powerfully rich with cantaloupe flavor, although somewhat more lumpy that one might have expected from a dessert with a Batali pedigree. By taste alone this was a treat, but perhaps the mixing had not gone quite right.

Cones had a somewhat different problem. It is designated as Argentinian, and in fact, in its heaviness (and occasional gloppiness), it is reminiscent of Penguin in Chicago. These icemen were not afraid to use flavors (although I don’t think of them as the traditionally lighter European gelato in their mouthfeel). The Dark Chocolate, Almond Cream, and Coffee Mocha Chocolate Chip were powerful, perhaps overpowering, in their flavor. All three, but particularly the Dark Chocolate, may have been too sweet, an occasional problem at Penguin.

The great disappointment here was the Cantaloupe Sorbet, which unlike Otto’s lacked a strong cantaloupe profile, and was disagreeably icy. I was given a taste of a refreshingly sour Grapefruit Sorbet, so pungent that I chose not to mix it with the other flavors. I will return for a full scoop of Grapefruit, but will stay away from the Cantaloupe, my standard for a proper sorbet.

Even at their worst, ice creams, gelatos, and sorbets are not lukewarm, but cool. Yet, as in all things, perfection is hard to reach. Of the eight flavors, Corn at Otto and my tease of Grapefruit at Cones bid to be memorable moments in late summer Manhattan.

Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
1 Fifth Avenue

272 Bleecker Street

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