In Buenos Aires, they’re passionate about their ice cream

Special to The Times

Buenos Aires

Forget the exquisite beef, the fine wines for a moment. Buenos Aires has another sophisticated side: its ice cream. Here, the streets are thick with heladerías, each an invitation to taste your way through the vibrant neighborhoods of South America’s most European city.

About $1.50 buys a cone piled high with a choice of flavors you’re not likely to see anywhere else: gooey dulce de leche with brownie chunks, chocolate with figs and walnuts, a bright lemon chocolate chip or maybe a rich mascarpone with berries.

The lasting gift of Italian immigrants to Buenos Aires, gelato-style ice cream here has less air than its American cousin. This higher density means its flavor is more intense. As a bonus, Argentine ice cream is likely to contain more milk and less cream than its American counterpart, meaning you might actually save a few calories — assuming you don’t make up for it in volume.

Year-round but especially during the steamy summer, the most popular ice cream shops bustle well into the early-morning hours. And you don’t even need to leave your home to enjoy ice cream: Just about any shop worth its salt employs a fleet of mopeds for delivery.

During the height of summer, I enlisted three friends to map out a variation on the pub crawl — with ice cream parlors instead of bars. You don’t have to worry about ice cream spoiling your appetite for dinner when ice cream is your dinner.

In a city full of great ice cream, picking favorites is tough. Yes, there is mediocre, cut-rate ice cream. And money is no guarantee of getting the best. But chances are excellent that you won’t regret a single calorie or centavo at any of the top-flight shops.

The most visible chains worth a visit are Freddo and Munchi’s, with locations throughout the city. At Freddo, the passion fruit was excellent, but one friend remarked that the pineapple edged ever so slightly toward tasting like something out of a can.

At Munchi’s, we sweet-talked the counterman into three flavors: crème de cassis, Merlot and dark chocolate, all of which were very good but not worth crossing the city for.

But these chains are just the beginning. For prime hunting, head to the restaurant-dense Las Cañitas area and the Belgrano neighborhood around it. There, you can hit the two biggest chains, plus stop in at four smaller worthwhile ones.

Saverio claims to have sold ice cream to tango legend Carlos Gardel back in the day. In a city filled with unusual flavors, Saverio’s offerings stood out: pears in Burgundy and kumquats in whiskey. The latter, as exotic as it might sound, is not hard to find at ice cream shops here, but this version was masterful, with large pieces of tart-sweet kumquat and a wonderfully creamy consistency.

At the sleek and modern Un’Altra Volta, the Black Forest chocolate was a little too sweet. But a deep, rich chocolate with rum-soaked raisins and a scrumptious strawberry were more than enough to make me forgive the shortcoming.

When we sat down at La Veneciana, even our ice cream-weary palettes were blown away by the spectacular banana with dulce de leche. Many shops sell sundaes, shakes and ice cream cakes. La Veneciana offers all these things, plus a “spaghetti” plate made entirely of ice cream, with vanilla ice cream “noodles” and raspberry topping as a red sauce.

If one small chain stands out among its peers, it’s Persicco. There, we chose two flavors: tiramisu and dulce de leche with chocolate chips. I listened quietly while my Argentine friends engaged in a long conversation about the virtues and varieties of various kinds of dulce de leche. It came down to this: Persicco’s approaches perfection.

Those lively sidewalks of Las Cañitas and the embassy-lined streets of Belgrano are well-heeled, often-visited territory. But taking even a few steps off the beaten path can mean discovering smaller, more modest shops, where the ice cream is often made on the premises.

At the El Piave, in the working-class neighborhood of Barracas, I fell in love with fig ice cream with walnuts and sambayón with cherries. Sambayón, known as zabaglione in Italian, is a dessert or sauce made with fortified wine, and it packs a bit of an alcoholic kick. The fig ice cream was rich, with bits of the fruit and walnut mixed in.

On the opposite end of the city, in the upper-class neighborhood of Villa Devoto, stands Monte Olivia, with its legions of fans and its wide selection of flavors. The ice cream was not astonishing, but it was good, and the setting was satisfying.

At dusk and on weekends, the large plaza across from the shop is filled with families and couples taking a stroll, many with ice cream in hand. I ordered pineapple and passion fruit and amused myself by eavesdropping on other people’s orders.

One shop goes beyond selling ice cream to offer a look into the past. For a cone with tradition, it’s hard to beat Scannapieco. It stands across the street from the Palermo neighborhood but has nothing in common with its blocks of trendy boutiques, restaurants and bars.

Here, the chocolate with candied orange peel is served beneath a sign that reads “quality since 1938,” usually by elderly, white-jacketed men. Fluorescent lights glare, and on hot nights, fans help keep customers cool.

Scannapieco has definite atmosphere. Il Bombón definitely does not. It’s next to an auto repair shop in a mostly residential section of the Villa Urquiza neighborhood. I came here on a hot tip: I learned it sold rice pudding ice cream. The flavor had left an impression on me years ago in Spain, but I had never seen it in Buenos Aires.

Jorge Labatte owns Il Bombón with his brother, Ítalo. Jorge told me the shop was born 18 years ago after he left a job at a big ice cream parlor.

As Jorge and I talked, a man in a dress shirt and slacks walked in and ordered 8 ounces of ice cream. “I’ve been told the ice cream here is very, very good,” he said. When he finished, he ordered a waffle bowl of ice cream, slightly smaller than the first.

When he finished this second bowl, he got up to leave, and Jorge said to me, “That happens just about every day. Someone hears about us from a friend, comes and tries it and can’t believe how good it is.”

I had ordered a cone with two flavors, my beloved rice pudding and banana, a combination that sounded like the perfect marriage. I ate as I sat in the shade on a bench just outside the shop and wondered why anyone even bothered making other flavors when rice pudding with flecks of lemon zest, a swirl of cinnamon and little grains of rice was so clearly perfect. Then I hit the banana part of the cone and wondered the same thing about it.

Jorge’s ice cream was excellent. But does Il Bombón make the best ice cream in Buenos Aires? I’m not sure. I want to say yes. I also want to keep searching. This is a place where the hunt for great ice cream needn’t take you beyond the next corner, but the quest for your perfect cone may well have you happily crisscrossing the city.

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