Sunday, March 9, 2014
When The Gelato Fiasco (I’ve never understood the intent of the name) opened in Portland on Fore Street across from the newly established Gorgeous Gelato I thought it was a dastardly move to compete. Why position your business in the face of another brand so close at hand?
I suppose it’s done all the time. Just look at our restaurant rows throughout the city, on Middle Street, Wharf Street, Congress, Monument Square and Longfellow. But the difference is, each one is wholly different from the other.
I’m not sure if the Fiasco-Gorgeous triangle created an outright war between the two gelato makers, but they certainly set themselves up for the fisticuffs of battle.
That said, we have plenty of other local small-batch gelato/ ice-cream purveyors, all of whom profess to use the freshest, most natural local ingredients possible. Some do to a degree.
From left to right, ice creams from Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream, Catbird Creamery, Palazzollo's, Gorgeous Gelato, The Gelato Fiasco and Maple's Organics
I thought it was time to take a look at the players, and in my evaluations, I’ve only included Portland area ice cream makers, not the national or regional brands.
Herewith are the local small-batch frozen desserts that I’ve sampled, with rants and raves accordingly. They’re listed in descending order of best to worst.
A note on tasting criteria: I started out choosing only vanilla ice cream from the various producers because if you make a great vanilla ice cream the rest of the flavors generally follow suit.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t easy to get vanilla. They all make it but some didn’t have any on hand. So I had to expand my flavor categories somewhat. Ultimately I was looking for texture and creaminess beyond the embellishment of flavor flourishes.
1. Catbird Creamery: This Westbrook storefront makes the best ice cream of them all. The texture is the creamiest and richest with such unique flavors as salted chocolate, brown-sugar vanilla, strawberry balsamic and basil green tea. They serve the ice cream at the shop in handmade cones, in sundaes or by the dish, and they also have a terrific ice-cream sandwich—mounds of ice cream of your choice wedged between two homemade chocolate chip or sugar cookies. The ice-cream maven is Andrew Warren who for many years was the pastry chef at Five-Fifty Five. His is definitely world class ice cream. It’s available at Aurora Provisions, at various restaurants and at his ice cream shop at 846 Main Street, in Westbrook.
Catbird Creamery on Main Street in Westbrook is tricky to find (if you go past the BOA bank building you've gone too far)
These scrumptious scoops at Catbird Creamery are terrific
Ice-cream maker Andrew Warren at Catbird Creamery holding his balsamic strawberry ice-cream sandwich in a sugar cookie
2. Captain Sam’s: In the heart of the tourist brigade on Commercial St., this family run shop looks like any other scoop-to-go emporium. Appearances, however, are deceiving. Their ice cream is made on the premises in small batches using sugar, heavy local cream and flavorings. Their vanilla is terrific, and the butter-pecan is one of the best I’ve had. The ice cream varieties are many — perhaps less esoteric than Catbird Creamery’s but it’s just as creamy and fine. Don’t pass this off as just a place for the Commercial Street throng. It’s the real ice cream deal.
At Captain Sam's it's a serious ice cream shop, with many flavors of rich-tasting frozen desserts
An itsy-bitsy cone of butter pecan at Captain Sam's; there are larger sizes, too
3. Gorgeous Gelato: The big difference between gelato and ice cream is in the process. Gelato minimizes the amount of air churned into the ice cream, resulting in its ultra creamy texture. And Gorgeous Gelato is the creamiest of the gelatos in Portland. Made in small batches at their Fore Street shop, proprietors and gelato savants Donato Giovine and Mariagrazia Zinardi moved here from Milan to open up their business. I’ve had many of their gelatos and have always been impressed by the luscious texture and fine flavors. I recently sampled the panna cotta, a rich but subtle gelato dessert. And their vanilla and chocolate is first rate, too. Their ingredients list shows that they use cream, milk, cane sugar and some harmless stabilizing agents.
4. Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream: From their shop on tourist-heavy Exchange Street, this brand sells the original Mt. Desert ice cream. In years past I began to notice them at various farmers’ markets along the mid-coast. They now have shops in Bar Harbor and Portland. This is very nice ice cream, not extraordinary, but the vanilla had very good flavor and creamy texture.
5. The Gelato Fiasco: I tried their House Chocolate (made with semi-sweet) and the texture was creamy, soft, with intense chocolate flavor. However, besides the usual natural and/or local ingredients, their ice cream has such stabilizers and emulsifiers as mono- and diglycerides, which are questionable additives but not uncommon in processed foods to stabilize and extend shelf life. Why not use the real thing if you’re going to go to some much trouble to toot your horn? I like Gorgeous Gelato more because of the richness of their gelato's texture and terrific creaminess.
6. Maple’s: When they first opened their small shop off Forest Avenue, they caused quite a sensation: organic ice cream made by hand in a small shop in Portland. Years later they’ve hit the big time and you can buy the ice cream everywhere. It’s the only one made from a custard base, though a careful read of the ingredients list shows things like organic locust and guar gums in addition to local milk, cream and eggs. The vanilla I tried was unpleasant, almost sour tasting. Other flavors like salted caramel are equally unctuous. Overhyped.
7. Gusto’s Italian Food Truck. More of a pizza wagon than ice-cream vendor, they tout their gelato nonetheless. It's one of the few food trucks operating under Portland’s new if not arcane food-truck ordinance (basically one that allows limited operation, if at all). Upon inspection it turns out their gelato is made in Michigan by a highly touted artisanal producer called Palazzollo’s. While it has a multitude of natural ingredients it also has plenty of additives and stabilizers. The ice cream itself was not very good, and served in these dixie cups--unlike the photo on their website that shows big vats of creamy gelato.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.