“The Best Ice Cream In the World,” blazes the print across Toscanini’s window, from a past New York Times review. We all make grandiose claims, but this one is pretty strong. All right. Skepticism shelved.
Gus Rancatore opened Toscanini’s down the street from Harvard and MIT in 1981, and there have been lines out the door ever since. So beloved is Tosci’s that when the shop was seized earlier this year by the Massachusetts Revenue Department, due to hundreds of thousands in uncollected taxes, its devout patrons raised over $30,000 to pay off Rancatore’s own debt. Now that’s loyalty.
Tosci’s has fans in all corners, from many credible publications. Even their vanilla has won acclaim, voted "Best in America" by People Magazine. (Not our usual arbiter of the delicious, but that’s gotta mean something.) Judging an ice cream shop’s vanilla is like judging a baker’s bread—the basics are often the most telling. Going back to the fundamentals lets you see a chef’s technique in a way that a triple-fudge Oreo sundae just won’t.
But with flavors ranging from burnt sugar to chicory root, Tosci’s is shamelessly experimental—and half the fun is in the flavor. The taste test, after the jump.
The Taste Test
Tosci’s is justifiably famous for its burnt caramel, and it didn’t disappoint. Silky but not too sweet, it tastes exactly like the sugar left on the stove for just a second too long, or like the darkest parts of a crème brulee. It’s the tail end of caramel, just shy of bitter, and while after an initial dark, smoky lick you expect the acrid taste of scorched sugar to kick in—it doesn’t. It stops just short. It’s genius. And it’s set in an ice cream that’s creamy but not custard-y, light enough to enjoy, intense enough to savor. I could talk about it all day, but I’d rather just eat it.
They do just as well capturing the intensity of rose and khulfee, cardamom and peppermint. The scoop shop classics, however, didn’t quite compare. Heath bar and cookie dough were tasty bits of, well, heath bar and cookie dough suspended in a superb vanilla ice cream. But the vanilla stole the show—like the chorus overpowering the lead soprano when all you want to hear is her solo. It tasted great, but it didn’t quite work.
The one that really had me in a quandary?
Banoffee pie. It’s based on an English dessert, one of my favorites: crumbly crust, bananas, cream, dulce de leche. But this ice cream tasted exactly like a Banoffee pie. It was a Banoffee pie: bisected with inch-long chunks of crust, real bananas, and a bit of sweet cream. It was delicious, but was it ice cream? I just wasn’t sure.
All that aside, I loved every bite of every scoop. There’s no question that Tosci’s knows its ice cream, or that its burnt caramel ranks up there with the greats. Best in the World? I can’t sign off on that. But I can sign off on a wholehearted recommendation, with two very happy thumbs up.
899 Main Street, Cambridge MA 02139 (map)