Boston has dozens of shops making and selling their own homemade, small batch ice cream. Outside of the city, there are farmsteads large and small with their own excellent flavors. Inside Cambridge and Boston proper, a handful of ice cream makers have been trading the title of Boston's Best for years. They're all good, but what makes them unique?
We compared flavors from five of Boston's best ice cream makers, rating the scoops using three separate metrics: creaminess, apparent airiness, and intensity of flavor. All three metrics are related to the manufacturing process used by each establishment: butterfat content will affect the apparent creamy taste of each variety; but too much fat will begin to deaden the ice cream's flavor. That's not a problem if you're mixing candy bars or chocolate chips into the ice cream, but it is undesirable if you're aiming for an intense chocolate. High overrun ice cream has more air whipped into it; the ideal small batch ice cream should be much denser than a supermarket brand, but airy enough to scoop into a cone without a lot of effort.
To try and make things objective, we tested the standard-issue chocolate and vanilla flavors from all five places. Side-by-side comparisons weren't possible since we wanted to eat right from the source, as you would on a hot summer's night. And we also allowed ourselves a third wild-card flavor, if you will, asking for a particular specialty of the house to try.
While you can't go wrong at any of these places, you might find that your mood will dictate which one you might try: the bright flavors of Christina's versus the playful, even anarchic mix-ins at Emack and Bolio's, for example. All we ask is that you use this information well. We gained several pounds for you, dear reader.
Closest to Homemade: Toscanini's
The front window of Toscanini's proudly displays their New York Times accolade "The best ice cream in the world." A big claim to back up. However, the lines out of the Central Square store in Cambridge indicates there is something to that claim. Thick, rich, and creamy, the ice cream at Toscanini's is about as close to homemade that you can get out of a commercial kitchen. Their small-batch process produces ice cream that is chewy in the way that good ice cream should be.
Neither boozy nor artificial tasting, the vanilla has a clean, bright flavor. The Belgian chocolate is smooth and balanced. With such solid base flavors, it's no surprise that the more complex varieties like the B3, comprised of brown sugar, brown butter, and brownie manages to achieve the perfect salty, sweet harmony.
899 Main Street, Cambridge, MA (map); 617-491-5877; tosci.com
Best Chocolate: Picco
There's no denying that PICCO (Pizza and Ice Cream Company) makes a good pie, but their ice cream should not be overlooked. To cut to the chase, they make some of the best chocolate ice cream we've ever tasted. Smoky and with a hint of warm spice, it's the Sharffen Berger chocolate that is responsible for the superior flavor. Even the texture is reminiscent of the way chocolate melts when eaten.
But the Peanut Butter Chip ain't half bad either. The chips have a Magic Shell meltability—meaning that the chips melt at the same rate as the ice cream. The chocolate bites are bittersweet punctuation to the salty peanut butter. The vanilla borders on too sweet, but is really more of a cake batter flavor than a classic vanilla.
513 Tremont Street, Boston, MA (map); 617-927-0066; piccorestaurant.com
Crowd Pleaser: JP Licks
JP Licks takes its name from Boston's Jamaica Plain (J.P.) neighborhood. Their ice cream cafés sell both hard and soft serve frozen yogurt, kosher flavors, their own roasted coffee beans, and of course, homemade ice cream, making them the ice cream store with something for everyone. Their chocolate is rich and creamy with a deep, cocoa liqueur character to it. Their vanilla falls between cake-y and boozy, leaving us wanting more real vanilla flavor. However, with their Coffee Oreo, JP Licks punches up the coffee flavor and mixes in big chunks of Oreos that provide a salty balance to the bitter coffee and sweet cream.
659 Centre Street, Boston, MA (map; multiple locations); 617-524-2020; jplicks.com
Best Mix-Ins: Emack & Bolio's
Emack & Bolio's has been rocking the Boston ice cream scene since the 70s. With 12 stores in Massachusetts and 8 of those in the greater Boston area, of the local ice cream chains, they maintain the largest presence. Their focus is on outrageous ice cream flavors and lots of mix-ins. Marinated vanilla beans contribute to the clean, straightforward vanilla flavor of their most basic flavor. Their chocolate is listed as "Chocolate Moose" and is reminiscent of a chocolate brownie. Without any nuts, cookies, or chunks, the light and milky characteristic of their ice cream is most evident.
But the full Emack's experience means getting something like the Killer Hash; it's chocolate ice cream packed with marsh"mellow", praline nuts, and cookies, with no one flavor dominating the rest. They certainly have the mellow blend down.
1663 Beacon Street, Brookline, MA (map; multiple locations); 617-731-6256; emackandbolios.com
Most Interesting Flavors: Christina's
Located in Cambridge's Inman Square, Christina's operates a specialty spice shop in the adjoining storefront to their ice cream parlor. This impressive stock of exotic spices serves as the obvious inspiration behind some of the eclectic flavors that serve to set Christina's apart from the rest of the ice cream competition.
Their most widely acclaimed flavors include burnt sugar, Gina's mocha explosion, and carrot cake. We opted for the characteristic tangy, sweet combo of the carrot cake. The tart base flavor is a good interpretation of cream cheese frosting. A mix of nuts, shredded carrot, and plump cinnamon-y raisins make it actually taste like a really good carrot cake. Why don't more places make this flavor? Their vanilla falls into the boozy category; probably due to incorporating some high-end imported beans. As for the chocolate, they make a diplomatic one—neither too mild nor too strong.
1255 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA (map); 617-492-7021; christinasicecream.com