Some are staunchly old-fashioned parlors, serving cones, sundaes and other classic frozen desserts to generation-spanning crowds of loyal locals. Others are hip upstarts, building widespread buzz for their epicurean experiments. But they’re all destination-class ice cream shops, so consider this your itinerary for the coolest summer road trip ever.
Best ice cream shops in America
The New York Times called it the best ice cream in the world—just one of the many accolades the Cambridge shop/café has collected since it was co-founded by Steve's alum Gus Rancatore in 1981. Toscanini’s continues to push the flavor boundaries with such intriguing and satisfying combinations as B3 (brownies, brown sugar, brown butter) and the amazing burnt caramel, which was actually created by accident. But if you insist on gilding the lily, order a “micro sundae,” a small scoop topped with house-made hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts and sprinkles.
Ample Hills now has two brick-and-mortar locations plus an outpost in Gotham West Market and seasonal kiosks in Brooklyn Bridge Park and Rockaway Beach. The two-story Gowanus, Brooklyn, follow-up to husband-and-wife team Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna’s Prospect Heights scoop shop churns out ever-changing, off-the-wall flavors that will please inner and actual kids alike. Snap Mallow Pop, an überrich, jet-puffed marshmallow number studded with crunchy, toasted rice-cereal nibs, is as comforting as bake sale Rice Krispies Treats.
Bi-Rite’s creamy salted-caramel ice cream launched the craze for this heavenly pairing in San Francisco, and it’s still the bar that all others strive to reach. Since then, it has introduced other taste sensations that have garnered cult followings, like balsamic strawberry, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl, honey lavender, basil and ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodle cookies). Next door, the bake shop features house-made cupcakes, cookies and seasonal sweets. The Creamery is the offshoot of the gourmet Bi-Rite Market down the street, so if the line is too long, you can always opt for a pint or a quart from the store.
Since launching Salt & Straw in 2011, Kim and Tyler Malek have been liberating ice cream from the dessert course with their farm-to-freezer haute cuisine. The cousins essentially operate as restaurateur and chef, working with local brewers, chocolatiers and other craft purveyors as well as farmers to present an ever-changing list of scoops that reads like any upscale menu today—melon and prosciutto; foie gras and peanut butter; bone marrow and bourbon-smoked cherry. Unsurprisingly, then, their quartet of shops (including an L.A. outpost) bear some resemblance to hip bistros, with their reclaimed materials and custom artworks.
Plain-Jane flavors get their due at this soda-shop throwback from pastry-bag-wielding restaurateur Nicholas Morgenstern (Goat Town, El Rey). Morganstern’s gives scoop purists five creamy, extremely vanilla-y vanillas (bourbon, Madagascar, burnt honey, maple and angel food) to choose from. Succumb to the gluttony and get them all in the colossal King Kong Banana Split.
Azucar owner Suzy Batlle takes the best flavor combinations from her childhood and churns them into delicious “Cuban” ice cream, including the wildly popular Abuela Maria—vanilla ice cream, Maria crackers, guava and cream cheese. The dairy queen can often be found concocting new flavors from local ingredients, such as her recent creation with Knaus Berry Farm: cinnamon buns soaked in bourbon.
PSU’s beloved “cow-to-cone” operation, Berkey Creamery, has been milking its reputation for 150 years—literally. The university’s own dairy cattle do their part to ensure the ice cream couldn’t be fresher. Though the production facility doubles as a research lab, sheer wholesome quality trumps innovation here; still, the weekly changing selection of about 20 flavors does have its twists—think Apple Cobbler Crunch with pie pieces and a swirl of applesauce or the marshmallow-packed Coffee with Cream and Sugar.Photograph: Mike Houtz
For more than 80 years, the awning-covered picnic tables of the Far South Side’s Original Rainbow Cone have been packed with locals indulging their sweet tooths. The signature five-flavor Rainbow Cone features scoops of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio and orange sherbet stacked one on top of the other for an unbeatable classic.
Forget the vanilla. At Mashti Malone’s, a small ice cream shop in a Hollywood strip mall, you’ll find delicately perfumed Persian ice cream in exotic flavors such as rosewater saffron, orange blossom, creamy mango and herbal snow. Go crazy with your tastings—the staff is patient when you ask to try five different flavors—but know that the more you try, the harder it will be to narrow down your scoop selection.
This pint-size ice cream parlor comes courtesy of Victoria Lai, a former lawyer who churned her love of sweets into a full-time vocation. The shop, which overlooks the Anacostia River, turns traditional flavors on their heads with creative concoctions like caramel popcorn and cardamom with black pepper. Lai also makes a mean Thai iced tea, which is a vibrant orange and goes down easy.
The look is old-school—pink walls, checkerboard floors—and so is the approach to craft: small batches, local ingredients and influences. The results Creole Creamery delivers, however, are anything but. Cayenne and chicory root, sassafras and Scotch bonnet peppers, Doberge cake and bananas Foster, café au lait and loads of booze: In paying homage to New Orleans’ proud culinary past, this two-branch hometown hero is helping to shape its future. For outright originality, meanwhile, how about a scoop of smoked gouda, buttered-lemon–pine-nut or roasted-red-pepper–pineapple?Photograph: Courtesy Creole Creamery/Spencer Bergeron
Don’t mind the plain storefront: A constant line out the door is decoration enough for Sam Kopicko and Chia Basinger, who reserve their artistic powers for the kitchen—churning out endlessly inventive flavors and receiving countless national accolades in the process. We’re talking honey cornbread, tequila-jalapeño cream cheese, molasses-peppercorn and even sour-cream-and-chive, as well as a slew of one-offs spiked with local beers and spirits. While Sweet Action is our local champ, Ice Cream Riot warrants an honorable mention as an emerging cult favorite for irreverent munchie cures made with frosted Pop Tarts and cheddar Goldfish.
Walk into Scooter’s and disregard the hot dogs, Italian ice and anything else that doesn’t contain the words frozen and custard. Order a Boston shake, and quiver in awe as the towering milkshake topped with hot fudge and whipped cream is handed over. As you taste how dense, thick, buttery and rich the custard is, you’ll soon be on your way to a full stomach and an ice-cream headache. And it’ll be worth it.
Chef Helen Yung puts her training at Le Cordon Bleu to good use in creations as tastefully chic as the digs they’re dished up in: coconut-cashew curry, lemon-shiso leaf, honey-blue cheese. But it’s the lavish sundaes she and Sweet Republic partner Jan Wichayanuparp offer at their Scottsdale and Phoenix locations that have earned the adulation of Arizonans of all ages—every element is house-made from top (bacon brittle, salted caramel sauce) to bottom (waffle bowls).
Using carefully sourced cream and eggs for a base that clocks in at a whopping 16 percent butterfat, the husband-and-wife team behind Izzy’s pair of mod parlors manages to get the whole community involved in their creative process. Not only does the constantly rotating selection showcase local beers, coffees and even baked goods like Norwegian cardamom toast, but a biennial contest—the People’s Flavor Awards—turns customers into collaborators, yielding winners like this year’s cabernet de l’orange. Speaking of wine, keep your eyes peeled for dark chocolate zin or umeshu, a blend of Japanese plum wine and cocoa.
Against all climatic odds, New England has long been a hotbed of ice-cream ingenuity. Mount Desert Island Ice Cream—Linda Parker’s artsy, blue-hued trio of scoop shops in Bar Harbor and Portland, Maine—honors that heritage, combining the quaint charm of the seashore with a cosmopolitan flair. On the one hand, you get such nostalgic nods to regional cookery as Indian pudding and blueberry-sour-cream crumble; on the other hand, you get savory-toned, modern flavors like celery leaf, chocolate-wasabi and miso-butterscotch. What you don’t have is three hands, which is too bad, because then you could get a Chiller (Parker’s sorbet-based take on a Slurpee) to boot.
Located in an old house (which it shares with a toy store) and favoring flavors that feature cereal and soda pop, the Pied Piper Creamery is “pretty much where every kid wants to live,” says owner Jenny Piper-Osborne. Not that every adult with a sweet tooth and a sense of humor doesn’t feel the same way, given the lineup of quirky concoctions with goofball names—from the key-lime sherbet called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita, to the staple Trailer Trash, loaded with candy and cheese puffs—supplemented by sophisticated stuff like, pear-Riesling and basil-tomatillo. (Bonus: house-made waffle cones.)Photograph: Courtesy The Pied Piper Creamery/Christie Hafner
Amid increasingly fierce competition (looking at you, Lick), Lone Star State franchise Amy’s remains an institution on the strength, not just of long-established quality but also of Bat City–bred nuttiness. Over three decades, Amy Simmons’s team of trendsetters has developed hundreds of flavors, among them such headshaking oddities as the vodka- and brine-infused Pickle Shot and the Mexican vanilla-based Doña Salsa (that’s right, salsa, courtesy of fellow local fixture Tacodeli). Not that you can’t stick with good old chocolate—no one’s trying to keep Austin that weird.
Fifty years ago, the owners of this wood-paneled country kitchen offered (in addition to their signature breaded-pork tenderloin sandwiches) milkshakes and sundaes in three flavors. Hooray for progress: Today you get a mind-melting 100 choices, be it the Sticks & Stones—a chocolate shake with pretzels and cookie dough chunks—or the cherry-nougat sundae, vanilla soft-serve topped with marshmallow fluff, maraschinos and pecans. Artisanal, Ivanhoe’s is not; an iconic slice—or rather scoop—of Americana, it most certainly is.
Since its founding in Cincinnati at the turn of the 20th century, Graeter’s has expanded nonstop to become a regional chain. But it’s still family-run; it still uses the French-pot method of production, with which it also made its name. And in Ohio, that name is still synonymous with ice cream—not to mention with famously huge chocolate “chips” and retro fountain treats like the double-dip vanilla soda made with seltzer and flavored syrup.
“Nothing is off-limits, except maybe road kill,” jokes Michael Darby, founder and “chief creative” behind this instant hit. Indeed, in the few short years since launching LICK, he’s already experimented with nearly 200 recipes. At any given time, the chalkboard behind the counter at his brick-and-mortar HQ (which opened in 2014) may list smoked strawberry, brown butter, chili-papaya sorbet and the double take–worthy pork belly-pecan. Even his ice cream sandwich is a sly novelty, trading cookies for a fried bronut (or brioche-doughnut hybrid). Still, it’s the crème brûlée (a.k.a. the M2) locals go gaga for—an innocuous name for an addictive mystery whose flavor oscillates between burnt sugar, nougat, toffee and chocolate.