Pizza is clearly my number one food, but my second favorite is ice cream. They’re both simple on the surface but much deeper upon examination. Ice cream brings us back to our youth, just like pizza. It’s not uncommon to see ice cream or gelato in a pizzeria, but not all shops have the real estate to squeeze in the equipment. I’ve noticed an interesting ice cream solution popping up at hip new shops across the country that takes up less space, is easier to serve, and makes it easier to customize unique flavors. It seems like every new pizzeria I walk into has a soft serve machine. At first, I thought it was just a quirk at a few pizzerias, but the sight of soft serve has become common enough for me to think it might be the next big thing.
The soft ice cream of my childhood wasn’t very good. It was grainy and flavorless, plus it melted way too quickly. On the contrary, soft serve I get at pizzerias now is creamy and sturdy, with stiff peaks that don’t disintegrate in the summer heat. It’s more like frozen custard than the stuff you get from a Mister Softee truck in New York City.
Pizzerias that serve soft ice cream all seem to be of the upscale variety, so they’re springing for the better machines and higher quality ingredients. These are the pizzerias that obsess over their fermentation process and nitpick over the settings on their ovens, so it’s only fitting that they’re extending the concept to their dessert options. Rather than buying gallons of somebody else’s hard ice cream, they’re creating their own flavors by adding fresh fruit, concentrates, syrups, nut butters and other natural flavorings to a soft serve base.
Just last week I had a phenomenal swirl of pistachio and cantaloupe at a pizzeria in Brooklyn that creates new flavors every week. I love how they’re able to employ the concept of seasonal rotation with soft serve just as pizzerias do on their pizzas. They must love it because I buy way more soft serve when I know I’m getting a limited-edition flavor that won’t be around next time I swing by.
For the operator, soft serve has plenty of logistical benefits over hard ice cream and gelato. The machine takes up less space than a reach-in freezer, so all you need is some available counterspace. Service is faster because it doesn’t require scooping. Most machines have just two flavor banks, so the customer doesn’t spend 35 minutes tasting and choosing between a million different flavors. There’s very little cleanup and maintenance unless it’s time to swap in a new flavor.
Just like with hard ice cream, toppings are a fantastic way to notch up your soft serve. The first time I experienced high end soft serve at a pizzeria was about 12 years ago at Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur, California. This was the first time I saw extra virgin olive oil and flaky sea salt on ice cream. It was a serious revelation for me because it combined the humble experience of eating ice cream with the upscale panache of fancy unexpected toppings. This past March, Chef Wylie Dufresne opened Stretch Pizza in Manhattan. Chef Dufresne is known for his incredibly creative and playful cooking methods, so it should be no surprise that Stretch’s dessert menu features a banana soft serve with optional peanut butter dip and babka breadcrumbs.
Pizza in general is becoming more mature and thoughtful as pizza makers dig deeper into their process. It’s a joy to see that ice cream is doing the same.