St. Louis’ Ice Cream Revolution
Written By Johnny Fugitt
Photography By Carmen Troesser
“I only caught a glimpse between the billows of nitrous oxide, but I think I just saw Willy Wonka” whispered the teenager to her mother after receiving her butter pecan ice cream.
“I’m in LOVE!!!” texted the young woman to her friend. “Oh yeah?!? When are you seeing him again?” was the instantaneous response. “Oh, he was kind of boring, but the Chocolate Cabernet ice cream won my heart!”
As she sat on bustling steps and basked in the sunshine, a tall, suited acquaintance approached; the dapper couple made plans to spend the rest of the day together. Roman Holiday or Forsyth Boulevard?
Given the ice cream cone’s debut at the 1904 World’s Fair and St. Louis’ sweltering summers, it’s no surprise the city delights in frozen treats. From famous frozen custard to beloved burger and shake shops, variety abounds to satiate our collective sweet tooth. Ice cream is in the midst of a revolution and three St. Louis women are leading the way.
“Third Wave Coffee” is a term used to describe the artisanal trend in coffee production. The first wave was the ubiquitous office pot of Folgers. Starbucks spearheaded the second wave and the likes of Sump and Comet Coffee represent the third wave in St. Louis. Similarly, the supermarket box of vanilla, chocolate, or, if the family was feeling frisky, mint chocolate chip ice cream, was the go-to a few decades ago (that or a swirling, drive-through frozen concoction on a cone). Then, big brands like Ben & Jerry’s made their way into storefronts from coast to coast, introducing richer tastes and bolder flavors. Today, sweet treats from Ices Plain and Fancy, Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery, and Pastaria beg the question of why we ever settled for less.
Ices Plain and Fancy, in Shaw, is best known for using liquid nitrogen, which creates a more theatrical experience than the simple scoop. Liquid nitrogen was first used to create ice cream by Agnes Marshall, a food writer and entrepreneur in late-19th Century England. Her inaugural book, Ices Plain and Fancy: The Book of Ices, influenced the future of ice cream – remember that Southern Illinois product called Dippin’ Dots?
“We don’t just use the process as a gimmick,” says Owner and Operating Manager Darla Crask. The process delivers a final product with a “silky, dense texture.”
Ices is active in St. Louis philanthropic circles, specifically backing organizations that support children such as Cardinal Glennon, The Magic House and local schools. With the upcoming opening of a meeting space next door, Ices plans to host birthday parties, meetings and demonstrations for school groups – something they could not previously accommodate in their 600 square foot storefront.
“We are St Louis proud and plan to stay that way,” says Tamara Keefe, who creates decadent frozen treats at Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery in Lafayette Square and Clayton. “Nice” treats include the Gooey Butter Cake, one of Keefe’s favorites, made with chunks of the real deal from Park Avenue Coffee and the Blackberry Buttermilk made with Missouri blackberries. “So much thought, time, effort go into every flavor,” says Keefe, and that includes two non-dairy options. “As a microcreamery, and the only all-natural ice cream maker in the state, we use locally sourced ingredients where we can, so that makes it fun for me to work with local farmers and artisans in creating my unique flavors.”
“Naughty” options include a frozen version of 4-Hand’s Milk Chocolate Stout and a creamy, frozen Old Fashioned. Keefe continues: “Our ‘Naughty’ ice creams are amazing and super boozy to boot. We have a patent-pending trade secret process to infuse the alcohol into ice cream up to 18 percent. It’s a huge competitive differentiator. No one in the country can do what we do with our boozy ice creams. Others claim to make boozy ice cream but are really using artificial flavor or sprinkling it in the ice cream. We've changed the ice cream game as far as that goes.”
With Keefe’s resume including experience in food safety and marketing food products, it’s no surprise Clementine’s has done so well. The recent opening of the Clayton shop, and plans to open more St. Louis stores, indicate big things are ahead for this budding St. Louis brand. “Based on the overwhelming response to my ice cream, I now feel America really needs to experience Clementine’s,” says Keefe. We don’t disagree.
If much of Clementine’s success is a result of innovative techniques, one of Sarah Blue’s secrets is to stick closely to tradition. Serving gelato instead of ice cream and spanning only a fraction of the menu verses the main event, the frozen treats at Pastaria differ from those at Ices and Clementine’s. Blue, however, pastry chef for Gerard Craft’s family of restaurants, says Pastaria is the restaurant that occupies most of her time due to the sheer volume of gelato scooped, served and savored.
Blue has a deep regard for the nostalgic power of gelato. A taste of gelato can summon memories of childhood, vacations or celebrations. For Blue, it’s the simplest of flavors she appreciates most. “I really love the vanilla right after it’s been spun and it’s at that perfect, fresh consistency. Some people think vanilla is boring, but I think vanilla’s great.”
Pastaria’s ever-changing flavors include American favorites, traditional Italian standards and experimental medleys. Some are more suited as stand-alone dishes while others compliment a full meal. “We do a basil gelato with an olive oil ribbon through it,” says Blue. “That’s a really nice flavor that people don’t necessarily think of as being a sweet flavor, or a gelato flavor in general, but it definitely opens people’s eyes to the versatility of olive oil and herbs in a gelato base.”
Blue believes the gelato is just as essential to Pastaria as the pizzas or pastas. She concludes, “You haven’t had the full Pastaria experience if you haven’t had the gelato.”
The innovative minds, adroit senses of taste and business acumen of Darla Crask, Tamara Keefe and Sarah Blue are raising the bar of St. Louis’ standards for scoops. Especially as the temperatures rise, we’re exceedingly grateful for their products and proud of their successes.
Johnny Fugitt is the author of The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America.