- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Summer’s here. That means beach, barbecue and baseball, but most of all it means the cold delight that gets poor mortals through the wilting heat — ice cream in its many delectable varieties.

Just ask Trisha Jones, a visitor from New England caught savoring a double scoop of chocolate ice cream on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown one day last week.

“There is nothing like a good cup of ice cream on a hot summer day — for me the two just go hand in hand,” she says.

Call it frozen custard, sorbet, gelato or just plain ice cream, the chilly treat is international but has a long and honored history in this country: George Washington is reputed to have spent about $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790.

In 1984, President Reagan followed his lead, designating July as National Ice Cream Month and its third Sunday — July 16 this year — as National Ice Cream Day.

These days, the United States leads the world in the annual production of ice cream and related frozen desserts; the U.S. Department of Agriculture pegged 2004 output at about 1.6 billion gallons, or around 211/2 quarts per person.

Cream of the crop

Whether Washingtonians down that much ice cream each year is unknown. What’s certain is that ice cream fans here are lucky, indeed: According to the Internet entertainment guide cityguide.aol.com, they’ll find 112 ice cream shops within a 25-mile radius of the city. To put that in perspective, in that same area there are only 87 coffee shops.

Among these ice cream sellers, the cream of the crop, so to speak, are the local purveyors, the dozen and some who make and sell their own.

Shops such as these don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules. Owners — in many cases brother-sister or husband-wife teams — can experiment with new flavors, new trimmings, new serving ideas. They can design their own decor and express their personalities through their shops.

Best of all, in many cases their customers can see their frozen desserts being made right behind the counter.

For a look at some of these shops with a homegrown flavor, come along.

The household name

You don’t become a household name just overnight. Gifford’s Ice Cream has been working at it for nearly 70 years, using the same recipes so dear to John Nash Gifford when he founded the company in 1938.

“For many people in Washington, Gifford’s was the ice cream they grew up with. We served everyone from presidents to the region as a whole,” says co-owner Neal Lieberman while sitting in Gifford’s newest shop, which just opened in April in the Penn Quarter section of the District.

At times it’s been a rocky road to 2006. The business has changed hands and buildings often, and during the 1980s was even closed for several years. In 2004, Mr. Lieberman teamed up with owner Marcelo Ramagem, who had bought Gifford’s in 1999, and now they’re thinking expansion. Besides its new shop in Penn Quarter, an opening is imminent in Chevy Chase, and a Rockville outlet is in the planning stages. Those are in addition to Gifford’s flagship store in Bethesda.

True, the ice cream isn’t made on-site at each shop. But it is made locally, at a central factory in Gaithersburg. At the end of this month Gifford’s will move to a brand new factory, in Silver Spring — where, Mr. Lieberman says, the company will host ice cream tours for groups and children’s birthday parties come early fall.

“We are focused on the D.C. area and we want to keep the tradition of Gifford’s alive,” Mr. Lieberman says. “We still make the ice cream in small batches with a creamy, rich texture just like they used to. We have the same great flavors, like Swiss chocolate and peppermint stick, that the people of this area grew up with.”

Out of the 25 flavors that rotate through, the classic peppermint stick seemed to remain a favorite during my visit, with espresso medley and other coffee-flavored concoctions coming in a close second.

From customers to friends

Anyone who visits Max’s Best Ice Cream in Glover Park must plan on becoming a repeat customer. If a patron stays away for too long, owner and ice cream maker Max Keshani will ask why it took so long to return.

As Mr. Keshani likes to say: “The first time you come, you are a customer; the second time you come, you are a friend.”

Max’s is like a neighborhood pub, minus the booze and plus the ice cream — more than 200 flavors of it. If you have a favorite flavor and they don’t have it, mention it to Mr. Keshani or his wife, Marsha, and he’ll probably try to make it.

When one of Mr. Keshani’s “friends” became pregnant he found out that his ginger ice cream soothed her upset stomach. As a friendly gesture, he kept the ginger ice cream in stock for her entire pregnancy. To repay the kindness, she named the child Ginger.

At Max’s, which has been a neighborhood fixture since June 1993, the ice cream business is a family affair. Max and his wife not only make the ice cream in a small back room, they also scoop up your frozen treat at the counter. When parents and children enter the shop, the Keshanis will talk about their own daughter and show off the many photographs of her that grace the exposed brick wall, which runs parallel to the glass-enclosed counter.

The photograph wall has thousands of photographs of Max’s customers, and he seems to know nearly every one.

“Here is James Baker. Here’s Martin Sheen, and, ooh, here’s my daughter with some of her friends. Here is a school group that came in to learn about ice cream,” he says as he points with both hands.

But what about the ice cream? The shop’s 200-plus flavors range from the standard vanilla and chocolate to orange chocolate chip, rum raisin and seasonal fruit concoctions. The day’s offerings are posted on colorful signs that hang from the ceiling — and anyone who can’t decide can ask Mr. or Mrs. Keshani for a sample. Also listed are fat-free and sugar-free options, along with several frozen sorbets.

All in the family

Lazy Sundae may remind some of a good ol’ mom-and-pop ice cream shop, and that’s not far from the truth. But it isn’t mom and pop who run the show, it’s the sibling duo of David and Rebecca Tax.

A staple for nearly a decade along Wilson Boulevard in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Lazy Sundae was serving homemade ice cream long before the fancy stores and high-rise condos sprouted in the area.

“In the beginning, there wasn’t any ice cream shop in the area that people could walk to,” Mr. Tax says.

“We looked into the whole franchise thing, but we decided it would be better to try it on our own.”

With no experience, they learned how to make ice cream through trial and error — “a good bit of error,” Mrs. Tax, who has kept her maiden name, said from behind the counter.

The shop now produces more than 200 ice creams which range from your basic chocolate and vanilla to seasonals like pumpkin and the eccentric like Guinness-flavored ice cream, all of which are in a rotation of 20 or so at a time.

The shop itself has its own character. Coca-Cola in glass bottles, ice cream flavors handwritten in colorful chalk on a large blackboard, glass jars full of candy, stool seating along a large L-shaped bar, Dominion root beer on tap for ice cream floats: Lazy Sundae has everything one hopes for in an ice-cream parlor.

That makes customers regret all the more the change that’s coming at the end of July: Lazy Sundae is moving out of its original location to a new shop in Falls Church.

But the Taxes aren’t leaving entirely. Look for a blue, cloud-covered ice cream truck sporting the Lazy Sundae name come August. It will be a regular sight on Wilson Boulevard, around one block north of the old shop near Highland Street.

Chunky custard

After years as a pastry chef at fine dining restaurants Liz Davis decided she needed something new — and in June 2001 she opened her own shop, one specializing in the Wisconsin-style frozen custard she grew up with. The shop, originally named The Del Ray Dreamery, was changed to The Dairy Godmother eight months ago because of a naming rights issue.

Ms. Davis’ shop, in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, has become one of the most popular frozen custard and dessert parlors in the area. Offering three types of Wisconsin-style frozen custard each day — Wisconsin-style frozen custard is a custard that has chunks of flavoring added at the end of the manufacturing process — Ms. Davis takes flavor risks that others may not. Some of this month’s special flavors include Bordeaux cherry, buttered pecan, coconut cream, hazelnut latte and summer pudding.

In addition to the single flavor of the day, Ms. Davis keeps vanilla and chocolate in stock.

She also pushes the envelope with her eclectic array of sorbets. On a given day, she’ll offer flavors like honey citron, strawberry and balsamic vinegar, lemon lavender and apricot ginger.

The shop draws on her memories of her Wisconsin childhood with the shop’s interior resembling a backyard scene complete with a real picket fence and a starry night mural painted on the wall, along with picnic tables and benches.

For the day’s flavors, look no further than the chalkboard behind the counter, which list both the custards and the sorbets available.

Small-town chain

Customers of Nielsen’s Frozen Custard in Vienna are in for a special surprise if Nielsen’s employees have the hand-built, all-steel, patented custard machine churning out custard when they arrive.

The sound of the swirling custard, along with the sweet smell of fresh vanilla, is a sensory experience. Then you add the taste.

“I have had custard at a lot of places, and this by far is one of the best frozen custards I have had,” Andrew Uscher, a business executive who works in the District, says while enjoying a vanilla cone. “It has good density, a real smooth, creamy texture and great flavor.”

While Nielsen’s is part of Midwestern chain of frozen custard restaurants, this is their first and only location on the East Coast and it has a very small-town feel, with local accents.

Antique black-and-white photographs of old Herndon and Vienna grace the walls while a working stone fireplace creates a living room ambience. Large wooden tables with spindle-back chairs could be the ones your grandparents used and offer plenty of seating for visitors.

Like other traditional frozen custard shops, Nielsen’s offers only three flavors each day: vanilla, chocolate and a flavor of the day. Coffee-flavored custard is always available on Friday. Such flavors as peach, strawberry, lemon and caramel also get into the mix each week.

Argentine gelato

Watching co-owner Robb Duncan at work in the basement of Dolcezza, his Argentine gelato cafe in Georgetown, is like viewing a scientist conducting a laboratory experiment. Only in Mr. Duncan’s case, his ingredients include sweet fruits, nuts, cream and the occasional spice.

“Making good Argentine gelato is like having the touch of an artist and the palate of a great chef,” he says as he offers small samples of his latest gelato concoctions — tequila and strawberry and then a mango, lime and chili powder that is still in raw testing form.

Any of Mr. Duncan’s gelatos or sorbets contains a range of local and international flavors. Local blueberries, hazelnuts from Italy, Dulce de Leche from Argentina, vanilla from Mexico: These are just a sample of what makes it into the freezers.

“The best gelato always starts with fresh ingredients,” he says — and that freshness can be found in just one small taste.

“Eating a scoop of the passion-fruit gelato tastes just like biting right into one,” he says before offering a customer a small sample.

Dolcezza came about through, let’s say, destiny. While vacationing in South America, Mr. Duncan met a woman name Violeta who introduced him to Argentine gelato. Soon after, Mr. Duncan fell in love with both the gelato and Violeta.

After marrying, the two then started two years of training with a traditional Argentine gelato maker to learn the art of making gelato.

The couple then moved to the District after a short stay in Richmond and found a location for their gelateria. The bright, airy space on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Q Street Northwest is in the heart of Georgetown and offers them the international crowd they were looking for.

The two have spared no expense in an attempt to re-create the Argentine gelateria experience here. From the gelato-making equipment and the freezers, to the marble counters and the espresso machine, all of it has been shipped from Argentina.

What separates Argentine gelato from the other types of gelato is that it contains no eggs. It also has more cream than the popular Italian gelato. The result is a denser, more creamy texture that melts in the mouth.

“True Argentine gelato should have an evolution in your mouth,” Mr. Duncan says. “Each flavor should blend together but also have its own individual place. Some may start strong but finish mellow, while others begin sweet but finish with a spice.”

Dolcezza also offers an array of sorbets, which have the same flavor intensity as the gelatos.

What’s in a name for frozen dessert?

It’s the constant question: What really is the difference between ice cream and custard and all the other frozen treats?

Many people use the term “ice cream” whenever they refer to anything with a dairy base, but there are major differences between ice cream, frozen custard, sorbet and gelato.

Ice cream is made from a mixture of dairy products, mainly cream or milk, flavoring and a sweetener. By law, ice cream must contain at least 10 percent milk fat, but local favorites like Gifford’s Ice Cream contain around 17 percent, according to co-owner Neal Lieberman.

Frozen custard is also made from dairy products, but contains 1.4 percent egg yolk (pasteurized) along with at least 10 percent milk fat. Besides the egg yolk, one of the main differences in frozen custard is its dense, creamy consistency. This is done by using a special custard-only machine that controls the amount of air beaten into the mixture, which is called the overrun. Frozen custard has on average a 20 to 25 percent overrun, while ice cream may have up to 100 percent overrun.

Other types of frozen deserts include gelato — which has a dairy mixture, sometimes egg yolks and flavoring but very little butterfat, usually around 6 percent — and sorbet, which contains no dairy products and is made with fruit or other types of flavoring and then frozen.

Area hot spots for cool treats

Sure, we all scream for ice cream — but even louder when it’s made fresh locally. Here’s a selection of Washington area ice cream parlors where you can get close to homemade.

District

• Dickey’s Frozen Custard: 1710 I St. NW. 202/861-0669.

• Dolcezza: 1560 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/333-4646.

• Gifford’s: 555 11th St., NW. 202/347-7750.

• Larry’s Ice Cream: 1633 Connecticut Ave., NW. 202/234-2690.

• Max’s Best Ice Cream: 2416 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/333-3111.

• Thomas Sweet: 3214 P St. NW. 202/337-0616.

Maryland

• Bob’s Famous Ice Cream: 4706 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 301/657-2963.

• Gifford’s: 7237 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301/907-3436.

• Ice Cream Factory and Cafe: 13700 Old Brandywine Road, Brandywine. 301/782-3444.

• Moorenko’s Ice Cream Cafe: 8030 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301/588-5656.

• Simple Pleasures Ice Cafe: 6948 Laurel-Bowie Road, Bowie. 301/809-5881.

• York Castle Tropical Ice Cream: 9324 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301/589-1616.

Virginia

• The Del Ray Dreamery: 2310 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703/683-7767.

• Lazy Sundae: 2925 Wilson Boulevard, Clarendon. 703/525-4960.

• Milwaukee Frozen Custard: 13934 Lee Jackson Memorial Highway, Fairfax. 703/263-1920.

• Moorenko’s Ice Cream Cafe: 1359 Chain Bridge Road, McLean. 703/752-1919.

• Nielsen’s Frozen Custard: 144 Church St., Vienna. 703/255-5553.

• Pop’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream: 109 King St., Alexandria. 703/518-5374.

• Scoop Grill & Homemade Ice Cream: 110 King St., Alexandria. 703/549-4527.

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