The first important thing to know about the burnt caramel ice cream at Toscanini’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that it is nothing like salted caramel, that other, similar-sounding, terribly fashionable ice cream flavor with French roots that Americans cannot get enough of. Burnt caramel was created by accident, years ago, in the kitchen of one of the country’s most essential ice cream parlors, which you can just call Tosci’s, everybody else does, and it tastes exactly like it sounds. It is caramel, but then somebody burned it; and it turns out that the end result, intended or accidental, tastes pretty great. For long time now, people have been lining up on warm summer nights, on any night, really, to eat the stuff, and probably not for the first time, either.
Like crunching down on the crackle top of an over-enthusiastically-brûléed crème brûlée, with only a hint of sweet custard stuck underneath to save you, burnt caramel is extremely in your face. It is aggressive, bewilderingly so, like a Red Sox fan after a few too many beers, or sometimes before. Supposing you love ice cream, but you have not yet tried this, or any of the other many very specific, very sought after flavors that Toscanini’s makes, from rich, nostalgic cocoa pudding to fragrant-with-cardamom kulfi, to that very-New England homage to Grape-Nuts cereal, you should come to Boston, immediately if not sooner, taste, and see for yourself. It’s not like you haven’t had plenty of time—Toscanini’s has been open, after all, since 1981.
When considering the way the national ice cream landscape has recently been reshaped, one might be tempted to think of something from the early 1980s as a classic; in Boston, a place with a well-documented love of ice cream going much further back than that, Toscanini’s is practically a youngster. For generations, this had been the land of Howard Johnson’s, the land of Friendly’s; it was in 1973 that Steve Herrell opened his first ice cream shop, Steve’s, over in Somerville’s Davis Square.
Armed with a sociology degree and a clear passion for pushing ice cream to the next level, Herrell was something like the Jeni Britton Bauer of his time. Often referred to as the grandfather of high-end American ice cream, Herrell would drive over to the Hood dairy in Charlestown, picking up his own milk and cream, to make sure that everything was as fresh as he could possibly get it. He invented the idea of mix-ins, which he called smoosh-ins; he loved the idea of low overrun, which means letting less air in the ice cream, leaving you with a richer, creamier, nicely dense end result.
Steve’s was where brothers Gus and Joe Rancatore got their start; their Cambridge shop began as a passion project, growing into what the New York Times would eventually refer to as “the best ice cream in the world,” long before there was the sort of competition that we now enjoy, both at home and abroad. That competition begins right here in Boston, certainly. There’s no longer a Steve’s; Herrell sold off in the late 1970s, and the company was never quite the same, disappearing from the landscape by the early 1990s, but other contenders—all followers in Herrell’s footsteps, mind you—remain. Emack & Bolio’s, which now has franchises all over Asia, is still very much a thing; there’s J.P. Licks of course, and, very important, Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream, not to mention Joe Rancatore’s long-running spinoff—called Rancatore’s, because why not—out in suburban Belmont. (Steve Herrell left town years ago, and has since retired—his one-location-only Herrell’s, way out in Northampton, is now run by his business partner.)
At a time when it seems every fashionable neighborhood now requires its own Instagram-ready, artisanal small-batch ice cream shop, at a time when we talk so much about brands that were practically born yesterday, revisiting one of America’s most long-running ice cream capitals seemed like a fine idea. Could the classics hold up? I recently spent a sunny afternoon in Boston and Cambridge, pursuing the answer to this very important question. Here’s how it all went down.
Ice cream shops are supposed to have a certain look these days, all clean lines, bright light and ready to be photographed. The dark, rather dated Charles Street branch of this local institution, founded back in 1981 in the Jamaica Plain section of the city by twentysomething Vince Petryk, is about as far from photogenic as you can get, and the shop was empty—everyone was still hanging out in the Public Garden, where I’d just come from—on this very nice day. However, the lone, very friendly employee on duty patiently answered all my questions, offered samples, including their stellar cookies ’n' cream (smooth as silk, with a nice crunch for contrast), and scooped me a cup brimming with rum raisin, the sort of flavor you just don’t see often enough, anymore. Walking toward the Longfellow Bridge, I couldn’t have been happier—it was as if each juicy raisin had been injected by hand, with delicious rum; this was a technically perfect ice cream, one literally bursting with flavor.
How much does Boston love Toscanini’s? When the Cambridge institution fell behind—like, a lot—on their taxes, customers rallied to help Gus Rancatore pay his bill. That’s how much. A fixture on the scene since 1981, today’s visitor will find Tosci’s in a state of flux, currently operating out of a very different kind of space in a brand-new building (there are a lot of these in Cambridge) way down on First Street. (Their original home on Central Square is currently being redeveloped.) Experiencing an institution like Tosci’s in such a modern setting takes getting used to, but here’s the thing—the ice cream, it turns out, is very much still the ice cream, even if a couple of flavors that I tried (I nearly got to ten, before showing myself out) seemed slightly less than stellar. The cocoa pudding was as close to happy childhood, chocolate-pudding-for-dessert memories as you’re going to get, the B3—brown sugar, brown butter, and brownies—was as rich and ridiculous as you might expect, and I ate every bite. There was the burnt caramel of course, that fascinating, almost acrid punch in the schnoz, a disappointing mint chocolate chip (the consistency was off), and a too-delicate French Vanilla, which, poor thing, simply couldn’t stand up to the bolder flavors. But that’s fine—I’ve never come here thinking I’d like something plain and safe before; why start now.
Named for the daughter of the guy who bought out a J.P. Licks location in 1983 to open up his own shop, it was Ray Ford, the the next owner, who seems to have really made this Inman Square institution famous, thanks to a penchant for outrageous (and outrageously fun) flavors. Long before today’s ice cream superstars were mixing it up, so to speak, Ford was experimenting with the likes of ancho chiles and saffron. Stepping into Christina’s, with its well-worn wooden surfaces and vintage energy is an experience in itself; that afternoon, there were just two occupied tables, both eating ice cream in absolute silence, in what appeared to be a nearly meditative state. With Toscanini’s in relative upheaval, Christina’s currently offers the quickest, most effective link to Boston’s ice cream heritage—a humble shop in a relatively casual part of Cambridge, with a list of flavors that would make your head spin. From adzuki bean to salted caramel, you’ll want to try it all, at least I did—I’d hoped for their famous cinnamon rice pudding, which they didn’t have, but they had Irish cream, another old-timer they’re known for. There was a chewy, almost taffy-like quality to all of the ice cream I tried here, a pleasant call back to the old Steve’s style; the flavor was, once again, right bang on; I’d hoped to just grab ice cream and run, to beat the traffic heading north, but instead, I just sat there, on the bench in the window, silently eating ice cream, feeling very fortunate indeed.