Summer’s here: Tasting Berkeley’s best ice cream

Elle Holland, who is interning at Berkeleyside this summer, chose an appropriately seasonal mission for her second article for us (her first assignment took her to Willard Pool where she spoke to regular swimmers before the pool closed for good last month). Elle, a sophomore at Berkeley High where she writes for the Jacket student newspaper, ventured out to some of Berkeley’s most popular ice cream parlors to partake in some comparison taste testing.

Gelateria Naia, 2106 Shattuck Avenue. This gelato shop has a knack for presentation, and each flavor container includes a small visual clue, whether it be a piece of the fruit from which to gelato is made, or an object that relates to the flavor — for instance a miniature parrot to represent Madagascar Vanilla.

Although Gelateria Naia first opened in the Bay Area, it has many other locations in California. But, given that it’s a chain, it does a very good job incorporating local ingredients into its gelato: Numi Tea, Blue Bottle Coffee, and produce from local farmers’ markets. Naia boasts that each of its flavors has its own unique texture too.

Almare Gelato, 2170 Shattuck Avenue. Almare’s greatest appeal is its authenticity. Many Italian foods and products line the walls of Almare Gelato, and all of the signs are in English and Italian.

Almare’s owner, Alberto Malvestio, learned how to make gelato from his great-uncle who has been selling gelato in Italy for 60 years.

The flavors at Almare are almost all traditional Italian flavors and fruit sorbets. All of the fruit for the sorbets is  bought at Monterey Market or Berkeley Bowl, and the hazelnuts and pistachios hail from Italy.

Lush Gelato, 1511 Shattuck Avenue. Lush’s Piedmont Avenue store had already received high praise from many Berkeleyans. Lush Gelato took over the Ciao Bella Gelato space in the Epicurious Garden in April and its gelato is made fresh in Oakland with all local ingredients.

Lush’s style of gelato is Argentinean as apposed to the usual Italian variety. All of the gelato is made by owner Federico Murtagh who is from Buenos Aires. Since gelato is a milk-based dessert, Lush uses milk from Strauss Family Creamery in all of its dairy products.

The majority of the fruit, and sometimes even vegetable ingredients, for their gelato is purchased at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market Tuesdays on Derby Street. Lush makes sure the flavors they are serving are all from ingredients that are in season, to ensure the highest quality gelato.

Flavors at Lush range from basic, such as chocolate and vanilla, to more experimental flavors like basil and fromage blanc & strawberries.

Tara’s Organic Ice Cream, 3173 College Avenue. Tara’s, christened after owner, Tara Esperanza, and the Hindu goddess of peace and protection, is a colorful and upbeat ice cream store.

Tara’s Organic Ice Cream originally opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but moved to Berkeley in the summer of 2009. There is art on the walls and statues in the corners creating a modern Indian vibe.

All of the recipes are created by Tara behind a curtain made of sari fabric. Tara’s flavors include in-season fruit, spices, and alternative sweeteners like agave.

Ici Ice Cream, 2948 College Avenue. Ici is as well-known in Berkeley for its infamously long lines as its delicious ice cream.

The ice cream at Ici Ice Cream is made with top-notch ingredients from local farms and created by Mattea Soreng, PJ Pawelek, and Mary Canales, the latter an ex- Chez Panisse pastry chef. Not only is it just the ice cream that is impressive, Ici has a very pleasing aesthetic. It is a sweet little French-styled store with complimentary bubble water and compostable spoons made from potatoes. Eleven flavors are offered daily, ranging from the classics to creative, artisan flavors such as green tea and brandied cherry.

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  • Ryan CS

    Heard a rumor a few months ago that Ici was closing due to poor returns, any truth to that?

  • s z underwood

    Unless the rent is astronomical, I assume Ryan must be jesting here. The length of the lines at Ici on warm evenings, most weekends and many summer nights remind one of disaster relief distribution. 30-45 min. is a common wait and I think up to an hour is even possible. If a small, hole in the wall ice cream shop can’t sustain itself with that type of demand, then capitalism really is dead in Berkeley.

    I do think that the lines at Ici could be sped up enormously by a more sensibly devised taste testing system and, perhaps, ice cream vats that are not so deep and rock hard cold that AFTER finally ordering your scoop, it can take as long as 5 min. just to get one scoop onto those delicious homemade cones.

    The problem seems to be that the serving area is so tight and crowded that only one or two servers can labor in the ice cream “pits” at one time. Beyond that, once your server can finally gain access to your flavor choice, I don’t know why it takes minutes (literally) to dredge out one scoop. It looks like back breaking labor! Maybe CAL OSHA should investigate?

  • I love your image, SZ, of working in the pits. Evokes images of Yorkshire coal miners digging out ice cream at Ici.

  • s z underwood

    Thanks. Lance. Let me add as an addendum that the sometime interminable wait is worth every minute. Ici is a local treasure!

    One evening, around graduation time, we even observed a pair of young coeds pull up in a taxi which then idled in the redzone right in front of the shop with the motor running (while we choked on the fumes) for a good 30+ minutes until the young ladies could hop back in with their scoops. I assume that someone was generously funding this evening’s entertainment!

  • EBGuy

    John’s Ice Cream on Shattuck — home of the dollar cone. Is this even dairy? Who knows? Who cares? The price is right — I’ll buy some Bud’s if I need to get fanatical about quality.

  • To avoid long lines at Ici’s head a couple blocks down College near Alcatraz and try Tara’s. More flavors to choose from and a shorter wait.

    We hear that soon to open Addie’s Pizza Pie on Adeline at Alcatraz will offer wonderful custard-style ice cream. We can’t wait for more delicious offerings from Jennifer who also opened Sweet Adeline’s Bakery.

  • Shelley R.

    I love Three Twins organic ice cream (Marin County company) which is served at Bobby G’s on University. I haven’t tasted anything better and beats Ici by a mile!!

  • Dan

    Fianlly, a subject I can speak of as a firsthand expert— Ice Cream! Since Ici opened, I have raved to just about everyone about Ici’s magnificence. When Tara’s opened, my stepson insisted I would find it just as good, but I wasn’t having any of that.

    After going back and forth on that subject for about a year, he organized a blind tasting party with me and several friends. He had at least one entry from Ici, Tara’s, and another ice cream maker (can’t remember which) represented, totalling five different samplings.

    I was not surprised that I could easily recognize and preferred the Ici entry, but had to admit some satisfaction that Ici was the overall winner. As someone already said, we are very lucky to have Ici!

  • Thanks for the hard data from your tests, Dan. My subjective judgement is similar.

    The big question is whether the opportunity cost of Ici, with those long lines, still keeps it ahead of Tara’s, which is very good.

  • John

    @robin and @dan: i think Ici is wonderful, but I’m a Tara’s fan myself. Have you triedmthe rosemary pear?! Robin’s insight about lines is spot on, too.

  • Atman Fuchs

    Tara’s definitely! There is a second, smaller outpost on Telegraph in Temescal near lanesplitters.
    White Pepper Chip
    Lemon Blueberry

    Lush also has great Gelato, some of the creamiest in Berkeley. Rocket Ship Vegan ice cream at the Beehive market is pretty tasty for vegan and worth a sample. Hand’s down best ice cream in the world is Christina’s in Inman Square in Boston. Nothing in the Bay Area comes close to its fatty goodness.

  • Second mention of Christina’s in Boston in as many days. Allegra Goodman raved about it yesterday on Berkeleyside:

    Given that almost everyone has a view about ice cream, maybe we should be thinking of Bostonside…

  • Today I found a Half price offer on Living Social deals in my emails for Tara’s Organic Ice Cream. The coupon purchase is available for one day only, (Thurs. 7/15), but you have months to use the coupon.)

    Here’s a link.

  • stacy

    I have not heard too many mentions about Lush Gelato here, but they have the best, hands down, gelato/ice cream in the Bay area for me: Cafe with Chocolate ribbons of dark, great quality chocolate, basil!!!, Strauss Yogurt, Ricotta, banana, you name it. All perfectly fresh from the farmer’s market. Earlier this summer I asked why they had so few fruit flavors: “been too cold for good fruit this early in the season…..” Made sense. I like that if the quality of the ingredients are not up to snuff, they make a different flavor. I really enjoy following them on Twitter where they post the day’s available batches. I think they are very worth a visit!

  • italian foods are very tasty and most of their recipes are heart friendly too ;;,