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I grew up in an ice cream town. Not New York – Boston, the birthplace of “mix-ins,” and home to several important shops and innovators with national profiles. I once heard that Boston consumes the most ice cream per capita in the United States, but I have no idea if that’s true or if it matters anyway: I’d put my personal ice cream consumption up against anyone’s. And it’s probably only grown during the decade I’ve spent in New York. 

For the sake of (comparative) brevity, I’m deploying a fairly limited definition of ice cream for this curated run-down of my favorite destinations in the City. There is great diversity in New York’s ice cream community, but it is expressed most often through flavor rather than technique – hard scoop and soft serve are so ingrained in local ice cream culture, they are the dominant medium through which ice cream specialists communicate. 

This also means that chains do proliferate. Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens with some of the city’s best Greek and Arab food, for example, has an astonishing eight Baskin-Robbins outlets but no dedicated booza or kaimaki shops. It goes without saying that this is far more Baskin-Robbinses than one neighborhood really ought to have. 

There also happen to be several places to get wonderful, original ice cream in vibeless, anodyne settings. For some reason I can’t explain, these are more often than not gelaterias. Since this category is so ubiquitous in New York, I’ve included a couple of shops that subvert the dominant corporate aesthetic. 

Though I enjoy ice cream year-round, if it’s between April and November, and I’m within at least a 30-minute walk of any of these places, you’ll find me at one or more of the following.

Soft Serve

Any discussion of ice cream in the City must acknowledge Mister Softee, the truck whose siren call forms an important constituent part of New York’s summer soundscape. Not all Mister Softees are created equal, and there is an astounding amount of variation from truck to truck, not to mention the many off-brand trucks that proliferate alongside. The most dependable Mister Softees I’ve encountered are outside the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Public Library, along Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights. 

But much as I love Mister Softee, sometimes I need ice cream that doesn’t just taunt me with a haunted jingle, I need ice cream that tells a story. For this I go to Malai, in Carroll Gardens, whose founder Pooja Bavishi specializes in South Asian flavors. The scoops, featuring combinations like cardamom-pistachio crumble and apricot-mace, are wonderful. But its soft serve – pistachio, saffron, or pistachio-saffron swirl – is unbelievable: light, creamy, and perfectly balanced, with an understated pastel palette. 

For something a bit more in-your-face, I love the creamsicle (orange-vanilla) soft serve at L&B Spumoni Gardens, a decades-old pizza destination in Gravesend. While L&B is known for its titular Italian American frozen treat, there’s no other way to say it: the soft serve is better than the spumoni. And while the pizza here is my favorite in the city, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to show up just for ice cream. 

Even more in-your-face is Soft Swerve, with a few outlets in Manhattan, plus locations in Flushing and Downtown Brooklyn. Its Instagram fame belies a pretty no-frills ambience, at least at the Chinatown shop, along a quiet stretch of Allen St. But the ice cream itself, in flavors like Hong Kong milk tea and black sesame, is as intense as the most frenetic TikTok. I have a weakness for bright purple ube – “New York’s Yammiest Soft Serve,” according to its Instagram bio, and I haven’t found reason to disagree. 


Last year, a stylishly kitsch gelato stand appeared like a Wes Anderson mirage next to the restaurant Locanda Vini e Olii on a brownstone block in Clinton Hill. Biddrina has remained a sort of neighborhood secret – locals know they can trust the handful of selections on the stand’s very limited menu. A recent scoop folded bitter orange marmalade into dark chocolate-cardamom gelato; I have similarly been impressed by a pitch-perfect vegan pistachio gelato and a novel, refreshing cantaloupe gelato. 

A bit more classically Italian is Park Slope’s L’Albero dei Gelati, an under-the-radar window across from a neighborhood park. Stracciatella, gianduja, and pistachio taste exactly as they would in Italy; not only creamy in texture, but in a way that you can really taste the cream. This would be a standout gelateria in Rome; how lucky are we to have it in New York. 

Hard Scoop

I feel very fortunate to live around the corner from my favorite hard scoop spot, Crown Heights’ Island Pops. The friendly Trinidadian-owned shop with a sharp point of view offers Caribbean flavors like grape nut (my personal favorite), Guinness caramel, and soursop. And its owners aren’t messing around: they studied ice cream at Penn State, and their mastery of texture is evident. This is perhaps most impressive in the sorrel-rum sorbet, deep magenta and smooth as anything.  

Conversely, I’m upset to live quite far from Ridgewood’s Ice Cream Window, the pandemic passion project of Polish-German artist Elizabeth Smolarz. Headquartered out of her husband’s design studio, and only open weekends, the window’s flavors – announced by a lovable orange puppet on Instagram – reference its European roots. May heralds the arrival of herbal waldmeister (sweet woodruff), a pale green wonder redolent of vanilla and tarragon. Mak (poppyseed) is earthy and delightful, cut through with lemon zest. And Styrian ice cream features roasted pine nuts and Austrian pumpkinseed oil. 

These two are indie artists compared to the major-label vibe of Caffe Panna, run by Hallie Meyer on one of the Flatiron’s most beautiful corners. The panna is imported from Italy, but flavors are more American in their sensibility: “red flag” swirls strawberry jam with graham cracker crumbs; daily sundae specials pile on cookies and syrups. Standard flavors are available too, though, and the best move here might be a classic affogato with vanilla ice cream. 

These days I’m more likely to visit Superiority Burger which, yes, is a restaurant, but you can go just for ice cream. Brooks Headley really pushes the boundaries of salt (I would say this is his calling card); I’ve never really tasted any ice cream like it. Flavors change constantly – allspice with pineapple ripple, vegan pandan – and special plated desserts incorporating ice cream are not to be missed: a recent dish paired toasted sticky rice ice cream with mango, Makrut lime, and a crunchy-chewy strip of sticky rice. 

Less than a block away is Bad Habit, where affogato can be made with either espresso or unbelievably thick hot chocolate – and scoops like tres leches, roasted banana caramel, or hojicha might form the basis of high-concept sundaes and ice cream sandwiches. Husband and wife owners Javier and Jesse Zuniga have a fine-dining background, maybe most evident in the shop’s dual personality as a natural wine bar. Do they put ice cream in the wine? No, but they do pour sparkling wine over strawberry sorbet. 

Sometimes I just want the no-nonsense flavors of my childhood, served in an objectively uncool setting that feels like walking through a portal to 1990s suburban Boston. For those moments, there is Emack & Bolio’s, founded in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1975, which has seven locations across three boroughs (its also in three other states, China, and Korea). I guess that makes it a chain, but a scoop of grasshopper (mint-oreo) ice cream on a warm night is undeniable. 

It’s a testament to the amount of great ice cream in Boston that I actually never tried Emack & Bolios as a kid – I had to move to New York. 

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Header image: by Luke Pyenson.

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