Sublime scoops for sophisticated palates
While most of America is still consuming its 22 quarts per capita per year of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream, more adventurous devotees are going for tofu ice cream, frozen yogurt in 25 flavors, homemade specialties, or Italian ice creams like those served at Vivoli, a famous shop in Italy.
The Italian shop has even been praised by Sir Edmund Hillary, perhaps from the memory of sheer, icy triumph, an ascent to frozen pinnacles.
''I would gladly climb Mt. Everest again, if Vivoli were at the top,'' the first conquerer of the world's highest peak has said.
Vivoli ice cream is ultrasmooth and silky, and somehow indescribably different from either American ice creams or other Italian frozen desserts.
Cantaloupes, honeydew melons, raspberries, and other fruits are crushed and transformed -- not into refreshing sherbets or crystalline ices, but rich, delicious ice creams.
Also touted worldwide are Vivoli variations on chocolate, coconut, and nut flavors.
But it is in America that ice cream outsells every contending pie, cake, or custard, however creamy or chocolate, a representative of the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers recently confirmed.
America leads the world in ice cream consumption, with Australia second, New Zealand third, Canada fourth, and Sweden fifth.
Even though Americans in general are consuming fewer desserts these days, gourmet ice cream sales have boomed.
In response, ice cream and dairy-related food innovators across the country have been perfecting new flavors, varieties, and combinations, as different from one another as the 50 states.
Italian ice creams like those produced at the Florentine shop may soon become available at select franchises nationwide.
Meanwhile, Californians enjoy Italian ice cream from a shop in Berkeley.
''Part of the Italian secret is that no air whatsoever is whipped into the pure, rich ice cream mix during the freezing process,'' explained Jean Howe, co-owner of the Berkeley Vivoli's, named after Italy's famous shop.
Since 1978, she and her two partners, Beverly Sullivan and Mary Ann Frey, have been making an Italian ice cream, smoother and creamier than most American brands, by this method.
For every five quarts of mix that goes in, Ms. Howe explained, exactly five quarts of ice cream emerge from the freezer. Most domestic ice cream manufacturers whip between 20 and 80 percent air into their products.
The Berkeley product differs from its Italian prototype in that it contains completely natural ingredients, including the most expensive vanilla on the market, which costs $180 per gallon. In Italy the famous ice cream sometimes comes in exotic greens and pinks, derived from artificial colors.
Vivoli's ice cream is available in exquisite, sophisticated flavors like bittersweet, dark ''chocolate correia,'' mocha almond fudge, fresh blackberry, raspberry with truffles and cream, and, during the appropriate seasons, pumpkin and egg nog.
The Howe-Sullivan-Frey team has plans to market its ice cream through franchises in other parts of the country.
One distressed Vivoli's customer, exiled from the West Coast recently, tried to arrange for the shipment of quarts of ice cream from Berkeley to Boston in dry ice. Republic Airways will transport a frozen carton east -- ice cream express -- for $40.
Fortunately, before being compelled to spend all of her savings, she discovered that other American ice cream innovators have also come up with superior products.
While ''Toscanini's'' may sound Italian, this new ice cream-maker in Cambridge, Mass., is, in fact, as American as the Oreo and Hydrox cookies it crushes into vanilla ice cream, one of its 88 rotating flavors.
Toscanini's, founded by Gus Rancatore and Curt Yaeniche (whose grandfather did at one point perform under Arturo Toscanini) -- with much assistance from Gus's inventive brother Joe -- is characteristic of the one-of-a-kind homemade ice cream parlors that have sprung up in many American cities.
Fans have proved willing to queue up and wait for the ''strange fruits'' and chocolate candy flavors featured by the new store.
''I like vanilla frosting straight off the beater, so maybe somebody else will,'' Gus Rancatore thought. The next day vanilla frosting ice cream dazzled Toscanini patrons.
Toscanini's owners encourage customers to sample flavors. But making a final choice, after trying plum, grapenut raisin, kiwi banana, and sweet chocolate, can be an ordeal.
''It's harder for some patrons to choose an ice cream,'' concludes the patient, good-natured Joe Rancatore, ''than to name their firstborn child.''
Unusual but popular flavors include sour cream vanilla, cinnamon-peach, coconut-chocolate chip, nilla ''Nilla Wafer'' banana, ginger snap, black raspberry, hazelnut-chocolate, ginger, lemon, Snickers-bar, and mango.
Not to be ignored among icy sweets is frozen yogurt, especially at Marty Piscovick's super-successful ''Yogurt Park,'' where he swirls cones and dishes in 25 rotating flavors, probably five times as many choices as are found in most frozen yogurt dispensaries.
At Yogurt Park, also in Berkeley, yogurt is available in six flavors every day, like mandarin orange, cherries 'n cream, chocolate almond, peanut butter, and mint chocolate.
Available also are fresh fruit and natural toppings such as cashews, coconut, walnuts, and cookie crumbs, among others.
Probably the most unusual of all is ''Tofutti,'' which looks and tastes like ice cream, but is made from tofu, the white, protein-rich Oriental food made from soybeans.
Tofutti, a brand name, is the latest rage in New York City, where Bloomingdale's 40 Carrots restaurant reports 20-minute waiting lines.
Soon to be marketed in other parts of the country, it comes in pure vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, maple walnut, carrot raisin, and almond banana, which is sweetened with wildflower honey and fructose alone.
The soft-serve Tofutti is the result of more than seven years of development research by a former caterer and food retailer, David Mintz.
Response has been terrific so far, reports Mr. Mintz, who has dropped his successful retail and food catering businesses to concentrate on marketing Tofutti in other parts of the country and overseas.
Requests have already come to Tofu Time, Mr. Mintz's Brooklyn headquarters, from parts of Central America. Travelers to the Panama Canal Zone in the next few years may find that Tofutti has made it there before them.