Plenty of places in America have an ice cream story. Forty years ago, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield launched an ice cream empire from their little parlor in Burlington, Vt. A decade later, Le Mars, Iowa (home of Wells Dairy and its Blue Bunny brand) declared itself the ice cream capital of the world for churning out more ice cream than any other place.
But no city, currently, appears to claim to be the Ice Cream Capital of America. Obviously, that title should go to Philadelphia.
Philly’s ice cream history runs deep. Besides an entire style of ice cream named for the city (one sans eggs), George and Martha Washington were said to love the dessert, and records show that in 1784, America’s first president bought an ice cream maker in Philadelphia.
In 1792, Richard Briggs’s The New Art of Cookery, published in Philadelphia, contained the first ice cream recipe printed in the U.S. And in 1846, Philly resident Nancy Johnson got a patent for an “artificial freezer” — essentially a hand-cranked ice cream churned — which made the dessert faster and easier to make, and simultaneously revolutionized the industry.
As Michael Strange, president of Bassetts ice cream (and fifth-generation Bassett to work in the business) points out, many ice cream brands got their start here, including Breyers, Abbotts, and Dolly Madison. “Being the oldest remaining ice cream brand in the U.S., we were a part of that history,” he says.
“In recent years, a wave of new artisan ice cream makers have established themselves in Philly — Franklin Fountain, Zsa’s, Weckerly’s, and plenty more — each with their own unique attributes, making Philly again a center for quality ice cream. We are proud to be a part of that community.”
The ice cream world continues to grow, with a raft of new, expanding local offerings and artisanal darlings — Ohio-based Jeni’s and Brooklyn-based Van Leeuwen are both slated to open in 2021. From swirls of sprinkle-festooned cones to gooey, cake-topped sundaes, here are 12 of the best places to find ice cream in Philadelphia, the reigning ice cream capital of America.
One of Philly’s newest ice cream makers, Milk Jawn, run by Amy Wilson, Ryan Miller, and Cathryn Sanderson, kicked off with pop-ups and deliveries last summer. “I think Philly needs more craft ice cream, and I had a ton of great recipes that I had created and wanted to share,” says Wilson, the founder and self-proclaimed ice cream lover who gets inspiration from childhood flavors and “pure experimentation.” Those recipes — made Philly-style, without eggs — have included vegan mango sticky rice and “Take Me Out to the Phillies,” an ice cream with a buttered popcorn base, peanuts, and a caramel swirl. Milk Jawn’s most popular flavors so far: milk and cookies, lemon curd with blueberry basil swirl, and Earl Grey with honeycomb. For now, order pints on their website, or find the brand at pop-ups at spots like Greenstreet Coffee Roasters and Herman’s Coffee.
Since 2013, Andre Andrews has been mixing up batches of homemade ice cream and water ice in flavors inspired by his grandma’s cooking. This summer, find his scoops of banana pudding, sweet potato pie, or strawberry shortcake ice cream, and water ice in flavors like mango lemonade on a roving truck or at Spruce Street Harbor Park.
Jen Weckerle and Andy Satinsky’s ice cream shop has been a hit since it opened in 2012, with pastry chef Weckerle whipping up the mix-ins and experimenting with new flavors and creations from her test kitchen. Nowadays, you can find pints of seasonally changing flavors and flawless ice cream sandwiches in their Fishtown flagship store and also in West Philly, thanks to a new partnership with ice pop and pie destination, Jeanne Chang’s Lil Pop Shop. Keep your eyes peeled for Popalong, too, the duo’s adorable new treats truck, making appearances at events around Philly.
The Germantown-based shop not only crafts its ice cream from scratch, using local, grass-grazed dairy, but nearly every mix-in and topping is made from scratch. Dark chocolate wafer cookies for their cookies and cream; salted caramel for their cookie jar; chocolate-coated, sugar-glazed almonds for chocolate almond crunch; and their own magic-shell made with pink ruby chocolate. The ice cream sandwiches are some of the best in town, or opt for a scoop on a cone from gourmet waffle cone company Konery.
Best known for beautiful trays of salatim and grilled meats cooked over an open fire, CookNSolo’s Laser Wolf also sells stellar ice cream. There’s only one dessert on the menu, but it’s the only dessert you need. Made by Caitlin McMillan, the company’s culinary director who’s also responsible for Goldie’s shockingly delicious vegan tehina shakes, the sundae’s base is brown sugar vanilla soft serve and it’s topped with Sicilian pistachio-rice crunch and sour cherries.
For 160 years and more than six generations, the family-run ice cream brand has been serving scoops over the original marble counter of their Reading Terminal Market stand. According to Strange, “Of the roughly 40 flavors we sell at any given time, vanilla represents more than a quarter of our volume,” adding, “I personally believe trying an ice cream brand’s vanilla flavor is the best way to judge the quality of their product.” Made with Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, the premium ice cream is a worthy introduction to the company, but don’t miss coffee fudge truffle (inspired by WMMR radio show Preston & Steve), matcha (inspired by the green tea from a neighboring market vendor), or any of the other 40-some odd flavors the company makes. Also, look out for the newest menu addition — chocolate fudge brownie.
1-900-Ice Cream is one of the toughest pints in the city to procure; you have to really want 1-900 to get 1-900. And (within limits) you should do whatever it takes. Ryan Fitzgerald has been making batches of inventive, sometimes unhinged, flavors since 2018, using local dairy and tapping classic childhood flavors elevated by exceptional ingredients (think: Madagascar vanilla beans, Van Leer chocolate). Try Only Child Syndrome, with cupcake custard ice cream mixed with birthday cake crunch; Nilla Wafers, with rainbow chocolate chips swirled with Nilla Wafer pudding; Banana Dream Supreme, with salted banana ice cream, butter toffee pecans, Valrhona chocolate chips, and a salted caramel brûlée swirl. With over 400 flavors so far, flavors are made weekly and usually not repeated. To get a taste, sign up for the flavor drop email list; drops usually happen on Friday nights. When you get the email, don’t linger too long deciding which pints to buy. Just put them in your cart like you’re in a virtual version of Supermarket Sweep and make your way to the checkout. Pickup is usually on Saturdays in Fishtown.
Chris D’Emilio draws on his grandmother’s recipe, plus plenty of local and seasonal ingredients, to make his popular ice treats. But his soft serve is also a must-try. Made with a mix from a local dairy, dense swirls are perfect whether stuffed into a soft pretzel pocket for his version of brioche con gelato (which the shop offered as a special), layered into a gelati with ice treat flavors like guava strawberry or tart cherry, or in one of his deluxe sundaes, doused in toppings.
Find the platonic ideal of soft serve at one of six outposts sprinkled around the Philadelphia region. The closest to Center City is in Prospect Park, in Delco, where from umbrella-covered tables you can try classics like chocolate- or peanut butter-dipped cones, plus sundaes, shakes, burgers, and fries. Plan a stop after a visit to the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, a few miles away.
Pastry chef and co-owner of the Queen Village Italian restaurant, Justine MacNeil is obsessed with gelato, and it’s obvious when you taste her ever-rotating roster of flavors. “Gelato is the epitome of a perfect dessert to me,” she says. “The possibilities are, in all actuality, endless. You can manipulate the flavors, the textures, the base mediums, the mix-ins, the vessel in which it goes in.” She keeps a notebook with all of her polished recipes, plus flavors and mix-ins that pop into her head, and taps employees and Instagram followers for new ideas. “I sincerely work best with collaboration, if not I’d just make rocky road every week. Is there anything better than rocky road?” Try her version of the chocolate-marshmallow-almond flavor, or opt for the strawberry lemon delight, chocolate peanut butter, or honeycomb, made with homemade candy pieces.
Come to this Italian Market staple, located catty-corner from South Philly Barbacoa, for a colorful array of classic Mexican treats including spicy mango chamoyadas, paletas made with tropical fruit like guava and mamey, and homemade ice cream. Plenty of flavors are on offer, from blackberry con queso to birthday cake, but try one of their specialties like chocoflan, and rompope, or eggnog.
The Old City mainstay started in 2006 and is known for its homemade ice cream and other old-timey soda fountain delicacies. While the shop draws crowds in the summer, those in the know can skip the line with a visit to the Franklin Ice Cream Bar next door for scoops, hot fudge sundaes, frozen custard, and more. This spring, they also unleashed nondairy ice cream sandwiches for dogs, so bring your pup to feast on flavors like cheddar bacon bit and strawberry pretzel.
The magic of this neighborhood gem, which uses Bassetts ice cream, is in its over-the-top, wildly fun sundaes, splits, and shakes. Try the classic Somerset Split, made with three scoops of ice cream and all the fixings, or the Stock’s strawberry sundae, made with chunks of dense pound cake from the famed Port Richmond bakery. Or try one of their specials, where they seemingly shop the junk food aisle for add-ins like Dunkaroos, Nutter Butters, a slice of cake, and Cool Ranch Doritos (not all together … yet) with gloriously gooey results.
A robust menu filled with homemade hand-dipped ice cream and soft serve, plus splits, shakes, and sundaes made with an equally robust list of toppings, means there’s something for everyone at this old-school neighborhood spot, which has been in operation since 1951.
About the author:
Regan Stephens is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, covering food, travel, business, and lifestyle topics for outlets like People, Food & Wine, and Fortune. Follow her on Instagram for photos of ice cream.
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