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THE BEST ICE CREAM

How do Dallas dips fare against the rest of the country?
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Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia – the scientific name for the painful headache you get when you eat too much ice cream. It’s also the only medical term we’ve ever heard that directly pertains to ice cream. That was just one of the maladies our judges had to contend with when Philadelphia magazine challenged its counterparts from across the country to bring their best ice cream to the city of brotherly love for an unbiased, blind taste test. The judges also had to contend with the same 95-degree temperatures and high humidity that plagued our founding fathers when they hammered out the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Not far from the Liberty Bell, our ice cream judges -including editors and writers from 10 magazines and the New York Daily News– sampled some 23 dishes each.

Shipped from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Cincinnati, Washington, Boston and New York, the ice creams were sitting cozily out of the sun in a rented freezer. Only the judges were melting. Altogether, we challenged 26 major American cities. And though it’s conceivable that there’s a little old lady out in Idaho with a hand-cranked freezer who makes better ice cream than our judges selected, it’s not likely. We have to assume that those who declined the challenge just weren’t up to it.

Ten years ago, this would have been easier. Ice cream was ice cream. Now the market is glutted with every kind of European gelato, water ice, gourmet sorbet and imported Kool-Pop. In the old days, you chose between four or five flavors; the biggest decision was wet or dry nuts. Today you have to know how much but-terfat you want and how much air you’d like pumped into your scoop. The flavors are so varied, so imaginative and occasionally so downright weird that shopping for ice cream involves the kind of decision-making once reserved for choosing a career. We decided to get back to basics. Even with all the new, unusual flavors, national opinion polls still show that the most popular is Vanilla. Over the cries of some manufacturers who said they were too busy thinking up ridiculous new combinations to worry about Vanilla, we decided that our tests for the best would be conducted using Vanilla. Not French Vanilla -this is America!

So our magazine representatives chose their city’s best. In our Philadelphia tasting, the winner was Bassetts. In a blind pretasting, our staff also gave Bassetts the edge. Representatives of the other city magazines chose their best by various methods, and judges and ice cream arrived in Philadelphia. After a short sightseeing tour of the city, we were taken to Head House Square in historic Society Hill. Then the dipping commenced.

First we tasted 11 different vanillas; Miami’s vanilla -a casualty of Eastern Airline’s baggage department -never made it. Among the judges were Deputy Director of Commerce Mary Foerster Friedman, representing the city of Philadelphia; editor Ron Javers and me representing Philadelphia magazine; Chris Wohlwend from D Magazine in Dallas; and Arthur Schwartz of the New York Daily News. Schwartz offered to represent the Big Apple after New York magazine editor Ed “Stuffed Shirt” Kosner told us huffily that he was above ice-cream tasting. Once we sat down to test, we were amazed at the variety of interpretations of a seemingly straightforward flavor. “1 never knew how varied ice cream could be,” one judge observed -“or how bad.”

Some of the judges were professional food critics; they busied themselves in ritual smelling, poking, swirling and languishing. The rest of us just gobbled, recording our findings on the forms that the accounting firm of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company provided for the official and unimpeachable tally. To cleanse our palates, we drank ice water between tastes or relied on the old Philadelphia tradition of munching pretzels with the ice cream (a tradition that baffled many of the judges). One ice cream, Chicago’s Al Gelato, had to be disqualified because its interesting blend of cream and Day Glo lemon flavors was deemed distinctly non-Vanilla.

While the judges seemed to be enjoying themselves, their ballots indicated that they were being tough on the ice cream. “The speckles don’t save it; this is bland,” harrumphed one judge, describing an entry heavy with ground vanilla beans. “This tastes like melted marshmallows,” wrote another.

But they lavished praise on others. “This is a man’s Vanilla,” one judge wrote, describing a top finisher. “An unusual flavor, light and frothy,” wrote another.

For the second less-structured round, we had an astonishing array of flavors – some dazzling, others appalling. Bassetts entered its Irish Coffee, which was one of the very first “gourmet-style” flavors in the annals of ice-cream history. While these second flavors weren’t officially rated, the judges had a great deal to say about them. Washingtonian’s John Sansing described one -LA’s Raspberry-Chocolate Truffle – as “the last word in ice cream, or the first word in bituminous coal.” The stricter constructionists objected to the very weirdness of some flavors: “I’ve always thought that mangoes [Miami’s flavor] taste like peaches that have been soaked in kerosene,” said D Magazine’s Chris Wohlwend. “Nothing with raisins in it gets my vote,” declared San Francisco’s Bob Thompson after taking one look at Boston’s Chocolate Cinnamon Raisin combo.

When the judging was over, the ballots were collected and sealed by the accountants, and a Brink’s armored truck whisked them away for the official tabulation. The winner? San Francisco’s Double Rainbow. That’s it, the best ice cream in America, scoring 91 out of a possible 110 points. Believe us, it’s good stuff. Philadelphia’s Bassetts was second with 89, and New York’s Alpen Zauber ran a close third with 86 votes. These three left the rest of the pack in their dust. Here’s how they finished:

1. San Francisco -Double Rainbow. San Francisco magazine’s Bob Thompson brought this highly touted Bay Area ice cream only after finding out that Italianstyle ice creams weren’t allowed. San Francisco has an able imitator of the classic Italian ice creamery-Vivoli’s of Florence – and Thompson was sure it would win. But Double Rainbow, the Bay Area’s best American-style ice cream, created by two Brooklyn-born imports, Steve Fink and Michael Sachar, took the crown. But the company’s unusual-flavor offering, White Pistachio, did not fare well. One judge claimed it “catches in the throat and has an unpleasant aftertaste.”

2. PHILADELPHIA – BASSETTS. Thehometown favorite, a family business formore than 100 years, is now run by AnnBassett. The company, which still maintains a stand in Reading Railroad Terminal, where it all began, submitted IrishCoffee as its unusual flavor. It got mixedreviews. One interesting facet of thesecond-flavor judging was seeing if thetasters could identify what the flavorswere. The ones who recognized this asIrish coffee were ecstatic; those whocouldn’t were just confused. One judgewrote, “You’d take a frowzy blonde outfor a dish of this after a dinner date.” Sowhat’s wrong with frowzy blondes?

3. New York – Alpen Zauber. A relative newcomer on the New York gourmetice-cream market, that competitive battle-ground where companies like Haagen-Dazs started the whole gourmet boom, this Brooklyn-made dessert finished a close third in the basic vanilla category. The company, started by a family of Russian plumbers named Kroll, is just beginning to expand, and Alpen Zauber is now available in some Philadelphia outlets. While it didn’t win, the New York brand was the contest’s most consistent performer-both its Vanilla and its second flavor. Butter Pecan, got high marks.

4. Columbus -G.D. Ritzy’s. Julia Os-borne of Columbus Monthly brought thewares of this rapidly expanding restaurant/ice-cream parlor, whose director ofdistribution, Charles Pagnatto, camealong to watch the tasting. His Vanillaranked fourth, and his Peanut-ButterCup, (a mixture of chocolate ice cream,chocolate bits and peanut butter) was considered “busy” by most of the judges.While one judge claimed the ice creamhad a “peanut-skin aftertaste,” anotherthought it was “silly but good.” Ritzy’sdeserves a special mention, too, for its flavor called Philadelphia-Style Vanilla.

5. Washington -Bob’s Ice Cream.Bob Weiss was a lawyer when he decidedhe liked scooping better than subpoenaing. At 35, he bypassed a mid-life crisis byopening what soon became one of Washington’s most successful ice-cream parlors. Washingtonian’s entry ranked fifthin Vanilla, but in the unusual-flavor category, the Orange-Chocolate ChocolateChip was the favorite of the judges. Onecalled it “rich and sinful.” Sounds likeWashington, all right.

6. Detroit- Alinosi’s. Monthly Detroit couldn’t send a taster, but the editors shipped a sampling of their local favorite. Alinosi’s Vanilla was described as “smooth but uneventful,” and some judges wanted the dish disqualified: They thought it was actually French Vanilla. Alinosi also offered a Spumoni, which was disqualified since it violated our American-only rule.

7. Cincinnati – Graeter’s. Stephen Koff, from Pete Rose’s hometown, brought a brand that competes with Bassetts for the title of America’s oldest. Louis Graeter opened his ice-cream parlor only nine years after Bassetts opened its. In fact, Graeter’s ice cream is often compared with Bassetts, although our judges thought there was no comparison. Most said the Cincinnati Vanilla was too sweet, but Graeter’s second flavor, a Chocolate-Chocolate Chip made with melted Nestlé chocolate, was well-received.

8. Los Angeles -Via Dolce. Robin Rose was in the truffle business when she decided to go into ice cream. Los Angeles magazine’s Denise Zweben brought their Vanilla, ranked eighth by the judges, and Via Dolce’s Chocolate Raspberry Truffle – easily the contest’s most controversial flavor. The deep-purple concoction, made with ground Chambord liqueur truffles, drew such comments as “vile,” “unbelievably bad” and “the worst.” One judge offered pity to the ingredients: “This is some kind of poor berry mussed up by chocolate.”

9. Boston – Joey’s. Boston Food Editor Steve Raichlen brought Boston’sinteresting unusual flavor, Chocolate Cinnamon Raisin, which mixed some ingredients not often found combined in icecream. The result was variously describedas “strange” and “subtle and fun.”

Dallas- Neuhaus. One of thecontest’s youngest entries, Neuhaus is actually the product of a Belgian chocolatestore in Dallas’ NorthPark Center. Neu-haus has one store and produces only 60gallons of ice cream a week, according toowner Mervyn Sacher (no relation to thetorte folks). His Vanilla ranked a distant10th, but his Burnt Almond -a creationthat is somewhere between ice cream andgelato-fared well with the natural ingredient fans among the judges. It was loadedwith pure almond extract.

11.Chicago – Al Gelato. Chicagomagazine’s Carla Kelson told us beforehand that Al Gelato made the best icecream in the world. But as company representative Joe Lecuzzo looked on, theWindy City entry did poorly. Part of thiswas bad planning -the Vanilla was disqualified because it didn’t taste likevanilla, it was more like lemon. Then, instead of entering that flavor in the secondcontest, where it would probably havedone well, they offered a specialty flavorcalled Creme Brulee. This is one of thoseflavors you either love or hate, and thispanel liked it even less than the abhorred Raspberry Chocolate Truffle. In a worldwide tasting, where European hybrids are allowed, Al Gelato would have ranked higher. Perhaps the editors at Chicago magazine would like to sponsor the World Finals next year?

No RANKING: MIAMI – LA GLACIER. Pity poor Erica Rauzin from Miami magazine. Not only was her plane late, whichcaused her to miss half the tasting, butEastern Airlines lost most of her icecream. All the judges got to taste was amango flavor, which got a very high ranking, even though some judges objected toit because they hate mangoes. The MiamiVanilla finally arrived in our offices abouta week after the contest -and a day afterthe airline, trying to make good, promisedto deliver it. At an impromptu tasting, ourstaff declared it “pretty good” -consum-ing a half gallon in about five minutes.A second Miami offering, a combinationof chocolate, rum and fruit, was deemed”creative” by our crew, but many thoughtit “didn’t work conceptually.” (That’swhat they said.) Miami and Eastern get theprize for effort, anyway. And everybodywho came to Philadelphia gets our Awardfor Good Sportsmanship. We are left,then, with another important question:Who has the best pizza?

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