I woke up toasty warm, snuggled comfortably under two billowy down comforters.

A quick glance at my phone showed it was minus 11 degrees outside. Perfect day for ice cream.

My editor thinks it’s crazy to walk around with an iced coffee in the middle of winter. I’ve always argued that it’s not so strange – after all, people in the South don’t give up drinking hot coffee in the heat of summer, do they? Why shouldn’t Northerners enjoy a cool beverage – or even some ice cream – on one of the coldest days of the year?

So, on a day so cold that politicians kept their hands in their own pockets, I headed to the Old Port and Gelato Fiasco to hang out for a few hours. Would anyone come in for frozen gelato on a day when you might not be surprised to see a polar bear wandering down Fore Street?

Walking to the shop in the bitter chill, things did not look promising. It was nearing lunchtime, but few pedestrians strolled along the Old Port’s brick sidewalks, which by now were dusted almost completely white with ice-melting salt. Thick chunks of ice covered the stone benches that tourists sit on during summer. It was the kind of cold that literally takes your breath away.

When I arrived, Gelato Fiasco was empty except for one employee who had been making gelato that morning and a “scoopologist” named Jessica Beer. The bistro chairs lined the walls and the front window like lonely toy soldiers. All was quiet. It was about 11:30 a.m., and I had just missed their first customer. A local parking garage attendant, a regular, had come right after the doors opened at 11 a.m., when it was minus 2 degrees outside, for a hot coffee and a dish of lemon cream cookie gelato.

The employees at Gelato Fiasco are more in tune with the weather than most other ice cream shop employees because the company has a “frozen code” that gives customers a 1 percent discount for each degree the thermometer falls below freezing. The garage attendant, therefore, got a 34 percent discount. Sometimes this policy drives more customers into the store just after opening or right before closing, when it’s coldest outside.

I had just sat down with a big cup of hot chai when, at 11:44 a.m., a woman walked in and ordered a chocolate chip cookie. I got over my disappointment that she wasn’t buying gelato by checking out her cute outfit: a short quilted coat with a fur-lined hood that looked like something Mary Tyler Moore would wear, and smart-looking, knee-high boots.

On such cold days, customer traffic is “moderately slow,” Beer said. People start trickling in on their lunch breaks for a hot coffee, hot chocolate, cookie – or gelato. At 3 p.m., a before-dinner “rush” starts when people are walking around downtown and kids are getting out of school. After dinner, regulars who would eat ice cream during a raging blizzard come in with their families for dessert.


For now it was quiet, and Beer dipped into the mascarpone caramel pistachio because she hadn’t had breakfast.

“We’re encouraged to try every gelato upon the start of a shift just to be sure that everything tastes right,” she explained, estimating she eats a treat-sized dish (the smallest size) of gelato every day she’s at work.

The curved case held 30 flavors. Called a gia, it came from Italy and looks like the front of a sleek silver train from the 1940s.

A guy walked by the front picture window at a good clip, all bundled up with a wool hat covering his ears, his breath streaming from his mouth in a cloud, like a dragon. Fresh flowers sat in the window under holiday lights. A silver wreath hung on the inside door. When it’s quiet like this, Beer does the chores that help keep the store looking spic and span – stocking, cleaning, organizing. Sometimes she makes cones.

By 12:32 p.m., it had warmed up to 5 degrees outside. Two women entered and immediately start pointing at flavors.

“Can I try the raspberry truffle, please?” the younger one asked.


“Ooh, pomegranate-chocolate chunk,” she said, perusing the gia as if it were a case full of diamonds in a jewelry store.

“And can I try the key lime, please?”

In the end, Ellen Jewett chose the mascarpone pistachio caramel, the raspberry truffle and the dark chocolate caramel sea salt, the last because, “I feel like it needs a bit of a chocolate balance.”

She grabbed her dish, grinned and let out an “Ahhh!”

Her mother, Kathy, ordered cake batter, raspberry truffle and lemon cookie cream. Beer pulled her sleeve down over her hand to dig out Kathy’s gelato. The cold weather affects the gia, making the case much colder and the gelato harder.

The pair got a 27 percent discount, but that’s not why they had come. Jewett was headed back to Yale the next day, and this was one last mother-daughter outing.

“We’re Mainers,” Kathy Jewett said. “We can eat ice cream anytime.”

Beer told me that lots of customers order more than one flavor. She has, more than once, crammed all 30 flavors into one little cup.

While Ellen Jewett licked her cup clean, she gave Beer a review on the mascarpone caramel pistachio: “It’s like a cannoli filling, but in a creamy gelato.”

Good lord. I didn’t have any breakfast, and my stomach was starting to rumble. That frozen cannoli filling tempted me. But the longer I stayed, the chillier it was getting. I let the feeling pass.

The Jewetts finished their ice cream, then headed down the street to Gritty’s, where they planned to indulge in macaroni and cheese for lunch, with grilled cornbread and fried jalapeños. It was an eat-dessert-first kind of day.

Things got quiet again. I noticed a pile of untouched board games on the back counter – Trivial Pursuit, Jenga, Cranium – for those warmer days when customers hang out in the comfortable chairs or at the small table for four I had all to myself. Beer sampled another flavor and bemoaned her loss of willpower. “I need to find a new job,” joked Beer, who studies printmaking and art at the Maine College of Art when she’s not scooping gelato. To stay warm on this day, she had dressed in two pairs of leggings and a pair of jeans.

Maybe it was seeing Beer take a bite, or the fact I was getting hungrier (and colder) by the minute, but suddenly instead of wishing for hot soup I succumbed, too. I chose all the flavors I’d been hearing about – the mascarpone caramel pistachio, the lemon cream cookie and the dark chocolate noir, which is so thick it’s almost like eating a gooey chocolate bar. I also ordered a big mug of hot green tea to warm my hands and balance the frozen gelato.


At about 1 p.m. another pair of young women came in.

Then, more quiet. Going into my third hour, I started to get bored. I checked my email. My thoughts wandered. I spent time thinking about that word “scoopologist.” Big potential to be more annoying than “mixologist.” What’s next? Should I call myself a “writeologist?”

During the dull moments, I’d been staring at the rugs and the paintings. Something tickled at the back of my subconscious, but before it could step forward and introduce itself, I moved on to wondering: Why are all the people coming in for gelato women? Then, as if the universe itself was answering my random thought, in walked Mark Leahy and his daughter, Caitlin Reum. They came for her free dish of birthday gelato, a perk of membership in the Red Spoon Society, the company’s reward program.

“Eat ice cream a lot in the winter?” Beer asked them.

“Yeah,” Reum said.

“I don’t care if it’s cold,” her father added.

It was 1:40 p.m. and 9 degrees. I was tempted to ask them to stay because I wanted the company. And, with sugar in my system, I was starting to yawn.

Then it dawned on me. That red design I’d been staring at on the black rugs, tickling my subconscious, was supposed to be a red spoon. Suddenly, I was seeing red spoons everywhere. A Van Gogh-like painting – a take-off on “Starry Night” – on the wall had red spoons hidden in the stars.

At 2 p.m., two University of Southern Maine students who had just finished track practice treated themselves to large dishes. I guess if you run long enough, you stay warm whatever the temperature is.

Moments later, the mailman came in with the mail. “Stay warm,” he called out as he went back outside. Beer seemed disappointed. “He usually yells something in Italian,” she said.

Tick, tick, tick.

By 3:30 p.m., it was a balmy 14 degrees outside. (Double digits!) No customers had been in during the last hour and a half. If Beer’s theory held, the afternoon “rush” was upon us. But, all I could think of was how cold I was.

After four languid hours, it was time to go. See you in summer.