"Why does your ice cream look so strange?" mumbles an earnest young man in red and black Nikes, wandering in to peer at the brightly tinted tubs at Staccato Gelato. The mint is white. The contents of one is a fresh bright green, but it's pistachio. Another tub is labeled "Honey Lavender," but it's not lavender--it's white, too! He recognizes chocolate, but what's this? "Chocolate orange?" The tubs are not round cylinders but oblong trays, and the ice cream itself is thick and elastic-looking. He scowls in bewilderment.
"It's not strange," comes the patient reply from Staccato Gelato's smiling server. "It's
The sun is finally creeping back to Portland, triggering the season's first cravings for a big, drippy double scoop. But while summer slept, two new parlors--Staccato Gelato and Scooters--laid in for the high season. Both challenge what you think you know about ice cream, offering new recipes and combinations, inventive preparation and fresh and organic ingredients. The sophisticated and often surprising treats from these vendors pose a crucial question to the ice cream connoisseur: If a foamy, frostbitten brick of Neapolitan from Safeway is what you call ice cream, aren't you the one with strange ideas?
Staccato Gelato is a pint-sized, orange storefront on the now-bustling strip of Northeast 28th Avenue between Burnside Street and Sandy Boulevard. Citing loyal traffic from a nearby junior high, Staccato gets a heavy rush from sweet-seekers in the late afternoon. Twelve flavors, which rotate often, are made fresh every morning, including traditional tastes like crema and pistachio, dairy-free fruit sorbettos in succulent mango and pineapple, and exotic flavors like that honey lavender. The ingredients are prominent--mango has chunks, strawberry has seeds, coconut has threads of coconut meat--but the flavors are mellow and perfumey--that subtle, European kind of sweet. Although you can get gelato in a waffle cone, the standard format is in a cup. Here, "cups" are fancy acrylic goblets with a pair of plastic ducks floating in pink liquid inside the stem. You can choose to eat "not a lot," ($2), some ($2.50) or "a lot" ($3.50), which roughly translates to one, two or three scoops.
But "scoops" in gelato-land are different from the chunk-studded balls of hardpack you remember from Ben & Jerry's. Gelato simply signifies "ice cream" in Italian, but it is smoother and softer than its New World cousin, more conducive to slow spooning than savage bites. It also differs from good ol' American ice cream in flavor and fat content. The USDA demands that any frozen dessert carrying the label "ice cream" contain at least 10 percent butterfat (that Vermont stuff spikes to 25 percent). Gelato hovers in the single digits for fat and gets its smooth texture from the way air is pumped through it as it's frozen, the air increasing its volume by 20 to 40 percent, compared to as much as 100 percent in American ice cream (the amount of air is called "overrun"). The result: a denser, more intense dessert experience with much less fat. Arrivederci, Safeway.
Scooters builds on the "fresh, local and good for you" mantra that nourishes and sustains its burrito-and juice-bar neighbor, Laughing Planet Cafe. Turning his attention to the dessert course, owner Richard Satnick serves ice cream from local creameries, including some sugar-free and soy varieties. The 16 tubs are split between Cascade Glacier, a creamery near Eugene, and selections from Noris, a husband-and-wife dairy near Salem. Allegedly, the strawberries in the Noris ice cream come from the Norises' own back yard, and the folksy feeling comes through everywhere at Scooters--from the vintage push scooters and origami cranes suspended from the ceiling to the old-school popcorn popper behind the counter (the popcorn's organic, of course).
The ice-cream flavors celebrate Northwest produce--marion-strawberry, Huckleberry Heaven--without neglecting veteran stars like vanilla and chocolate. The Noris caramel blackberry is, oddly, a success, melding the buttery tones of caramel with the tartness of the fruit (its one drawback may be its color--an uninviting gray-beige). Several of the Cascade Glacier flavors, like Polar Bear White Licorice and lemon custard, are refreshingly unassertive, the licorice barely scented with anise, the custard run through with a citrus swirl. Moose Tracks, which mixes vanilla with chocolate fudge and broken peanut-butter cups, has a busy, Ben & Jerry's-like sweetness. For those who dodge dairy products, there is soy soft-serve, which has a perky vanilla flavor but tastes more like raw cookie dough than ice cream. The sugar-free varieties contain aspartame, disappointingly, but if you're used to the brain-numbing bite of NutraSweet, you'll barely notice.
Despite the newfangled flavors and ingredients, Scooters ice cream manages to evoke nostalgia, a wistfulness for the halcyon days before ice-cream stores were franchised and flavors began to be named after defunct hippie jam bands. Remember that school field trip you took to a local dairy when you were a kid? Remember that gorgeous, gloppy pile of mint chocolate chip that teetered on your sagging sugar cone and trickled down your knuckles? That's what kind of ice cream we're talking about. The source of the vivid green coloring in Cascade Glacier's mint chocolate chip may be a 21st-century mystery (it's not listed in the ingredients and it sure as heck doesn't look "organic"), but a double scoop from Scooters will still feel as familiar as the return of summer.
232 NE 28th Ave., 231-7100. Noon-11 pm Tuesday- Sunday.
3312 SE Belmont St., 235-0032. Noon-9 pm Sunday- Friday, 10 am-9 pm Saturday.