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The joy of autumnal ice cream, in Italy and in Los Angeles

The joy of autumnal ice cream, in Italy and in Los Angeles
Roasted apple ice cream. (Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

When I first traveled to Italy in the 1970s, everything was seasonal — it wasn't a choice, it's just how it was. Supermarkets didn't exist, grocery stores were tiny, and although there were the beginnings of industrialized food, the old ways were still part of daily life. Ice cream was so seasonal that many gelaterie just closed down after the hordes of idling summertime families went back to work and school. But there were always a few outliers that insisted on remaining open, perhaps with limited days and hours and — to an American — wacky offerings, like porcini, chestnut, celery or quince gelati or sorbetti. And, yes, pumpkin, which is common now but not then.

I love how ice cream can be the vehicle for exploring the vividness of flavor. Just as watermelon can deliver the essence of summer, roasted nuts, pears or apples can be a perfect expression of late fall. The temperature transforms the experience of the fruit, shifting the cool vibrancy of raw apple to the deep caramelized richness of the same fruit when it's roasted. You'd think that the richness of the dairy and the chill itself would dampen the flavor, but the opposite seems to be true.

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And while the chill of iced cream or milk (in the case of gelato) cools you off on a hot day, the calories involved can warm you up over time. Think of Italians linked arm in arm, bundled in quilted jackets enjoying a cold-season cone as they take a short walk after dinner. Or folks in Santa Monica or downtown L.A. ice skating under bright 60-degree skies — our version of winter.

With a focus on seasonality in most restaurants these days, it should come as no surprise that scoop shops have joined in the fun. If I were to plan what to eat for Thanksgiving Leftover Day, I would set out a buffet of iced seasonal offerings from the best L.A. gelato and ice cream shops.

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Leo Bulgarini has not one, but four expressions of pear on the autumn menu at his Altadena gelateria: Lemon Seckel, Bartlett, Red Crimson and Bosc. I'd pair them, as it were, with the best Dolcelatte gorgonzola I could find for dessert or even as a starter. Who says you can't start the most decadent eating of the year with ice cream? Save the pie for second dinner or breakfast.

Roasted apple ice cream.
Roasted apple ice cream. (Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

And speaking of pie, if you don't want to make it but still want the flavors of it at your table, both Salt & Straw and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams are currently making sweet potato with marshmallow ice cream. (I can get down with marshmallows in ice cream more than in a hot casserole.) And McConnell's Fine Ice Creams has Cardamom & Gingersnaps, which sounds like it'd be pretty good on top of a wedge of pumpkin pie.

Since I tend to go for single fruit flavors with little embellishment, the newish Fatamorgana in Studio City satisfies. (The name refers to the shimmering mirage you see at the horizon of sea and sky.) Passion fruit sorbetto is strangely seasonal, and along with fichi d'India (prickly pear) is a riot of color and zingy flavor, plus seeds for crunch. And if you're looking for pumpkin, the shop has four different expressions of the stuff in rotation.

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In the last week, I've enjoyed roasted apple ice cream with an apple butter ribbon at Friends & Family, the newish East Hollywood bakery and restaurant from chef Daniel Mattern and pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, who happily gave us her recipe. Rather than making tart apple ices, Jullapat roasts the apples before adding them to the ice cream base, giving us a salute to apple pie.

If you're a fan of pumpkin spice but your friends back away from the stuff, give them a cone made of actual pumpkin and see them come around. Other warming flavors of the season to play with? Ginger and pear, black pepper with chocolate, or rum and nutmeg. Eggnog anyone?

Kleiman ran Angeli Caffe for 27 years. She's the longtime host of KCRW-FM's "Good Food" and a member of the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.

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