Summer means something different to each of us, but there are a few things that seem to be intrinsically linked to the year’s hottest months. There’s air-conditioned movies with lots of explosions, swimming, and ice cream. How we would survive without the sweet sustenance of ice cream and its younger brother, frozen yogurt, is a question I hope we will never be forced to tackle. In the interim, I paid a visit to four places in our neck of the woods that specialize in the official desert of summer to determine which best satisfy the sweet tooth's cravings.
Choosing one simple flavor in order to rank each place is to ignore what separates each store from one another. Why get chocolate at the when there’s three crazy flavors I’ve never heard of? Ditto to toppings, which is one of the signature aspects of San Anselmo’s new frozen yogurt shop. Essentially, I opted instead not for consistency but to order what I felt was the best each location had to offer, and to draw my opinions from those choices.
I’ve been going to Gelato for at least fifteen years, and I’m proud to report that nothing has changed. The store front is small, with a counter that leads back into seating against the San Anselmo Creek from across the park. Gelato Man, which is not his real name but how my family and I have always referred to him, is fast with a scoop and ready to serve.
I’m most partial to the Coppa Classica, which is a sundae of sorts. You select two flavors and with them come chocolate syrup, walnuts, whip cream and, maybe, the fabled triangle cookie. Many a visit has been spent trying to decipher what exactly inspires Mr. Gelato to christen a given sundae with a wafer cookie stabbed atop it. Honestly, I prefer the mystery to whatever the answer may be.
The gelato is exquisite – rich, creamy flavors based in the Italian tradition of ice cream. Certainly the flavors are not exotic, but the standard offerings are truly amazing. Coppa mista, dark chocolate, java chip take their place next to refreshing sorbets. In our modern world there seems to be an emphasis placed on what is edgy, different, breaking from the mold. In the case of Gelato, everything that makes it so delightful is that its your parents' ice cream parlor – the original stuff done right.
Full disclosure: I know that TCBY is a chain, but for the sake of comparing all the options available, I’ve included it.
Before I’d ever tried it, the concept of frozen yogurt sounded like a parent trying to compromise with their child by letting them watch CSPAN instead of Goodfellas. There are no records of my first interaction with fro-yo, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved a birthday party and TCBY.
Since I learned of the parfait, it has been my go-to order when paying a visit to The Country’s Best Yogurt (we’ll hold our opinions on that acronym for later). The parfait, in theoretical execution, is a topping, a yogurt flavor, a topping, a yogurt flavor, and a topping -- each one different. However, once I'd tasted that sweet elixir known as white chocolate mousse, diluting its flavor with another seemed downright criminal.
TCBY also brings us to the discussion of toppings. While Gelato is old-school (syrup, fudge, nuts), TCBY adheres to the popular new philosophy of “anything can be a topping.” Actually, they were more like pioneers, paving the way for U-Top-It to take this concept to its apex. Available toppings at TCBY include chocolate chips, graham crackers, Butterfingers, strawberries and caramel syrup.
I fear for toppings that clash with your yogurt’s flavor, as well as ones that too drastically alter the consistency of your product. I mainly stick with walnuts, and occasionally the cookie dough bits. Remember, if your main ingredient is quality enough, there’s no need to douse it in other sweets.
For many of you, the Scoop is clearly the winner of this little adventure in weight-gaining, and I understand why. The Scoop has deep roots in its Fairfax home, a line seemingly everyday, despite the weather, and some of the most perplexingly appealing ice cream flavors you’re likely to find anywhere.
Lucky for the Scoop its storefront is situated in a stretch of downtown Fairfax, because there’s little room inside for anyone except the line of customers and a couple very busy scoopers. The flavors are all organic and handmade, and aside from a few staples, you’re never sure what you’ll find under the glass case up front.
A couple favorite flavors include Grasshopper, which is a light mint ice cream with crushed Newman-O’s (Paul Newman brand Oreos), and Love Parade, made of chocolate, peanut butter and vanilla. I was recently introduced to Earl Grey tea ice cream, which is what I’d call a “small-doser” – delicious, but you never really want to eat a bowl’s worth of it -- and last Halloween brought the return of my beloved Pumpkin.
What seems to set the Scoop apart? Flavor. Quality, impressive, varied flavor. Ask most residents of Fairfax if they have a favorite Sccop flavor, and they’re almost guaranteed to light up as they gush over which of the store’s many concoctions reaches them deepest.
The new kid on the block is U-Top-It, where the name says it all. Fill a cup with one of half a dozen frozen yogurt flavors and make your way to the mammoth toppings bar. Your treat is charged by the ounce, regardless of what its contents are.
The yogurt choices are unique, from margarita to tart peach to chocolate pudding. Most of them are fat-free as well. Be sure not to overfill your cup with yogurt, as the toppings are a pivotal player in this new (and trendy) approach to the ice cream parlor. Think of every sugar cereal, every candy bar, every cookie and a dozen kinds of fruit. Add in four kinds of hot syrup, including Reese’s peanut butter, and you’ve got some idea of what toppings are available.
The inherent challenge with the U-Top-It model of desert is having the restraint to mix and match well. The thought of combining peach tart yogurt and Reese’s syrup turns my stomach, but chocolate pudding yogurt and Reese’s could be a decent match. As you arrive at the toppings bar, it is imperative you strike a balance between knowing you like Captain Crunch and knowing it isn’t meant for your margarita frozen yogurt.
My only complaint is that the pivotal flavors of U-Top-It are brand name products. Sure the yogurt flavors are decent, but to only buy yogurt and not top it seems like a notch below a misdemeanor, while at Gelato or Scoop this would just be common sense.
My final conclusions are two-fold: there is an objective best ice cream store and there is the ice cream store that defines your childhood.
The former is Fairfax Scoop. I’d be crazy not to pick it, with their robust, rotating flavor menu, cone bowls, and icon-like status in our community. As long as you are willing to endure the endless line of a humid August afternoon, the rewards are certainly worthwhile.
The latter is Gelato. For those us fortunate enough to have grown up getting ice cream from a specific place, it becomes much more than a dessert repository. Gelato, and Gelato Man, are aspects of my past and present that hold a tremendous amount of significance for me. I’d like to clarify by saying that if Gelato’s ice cream wasn’t absolutely tremendous, the sentimentality would not be the same. But, since it is, I choose to note it not as the winner of the best ice cream in San Anselmo/Fairfax, but an important part of downtown San Anselmo and one that we should cherish for as long as we have it -- and especially in the summer.