Denizens of the Internet will have recently become familiar with, if not tired of, the phrase “nature is healing,” often applied archly to our slow return to pre-pandemic habits. I admit that the words crossed my mind the other day as a stranger approached me in Union Square. A friend and I were strolling through the Greenmarket carrying paper ice-cream cups, which a keen observer—as this stranger was—might have noticed were the exact bright-blue shade of a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Indeed, the cold confection within was the unmistakable hue of powdered orange Cheddar.
We’d got our complimentary mac-and-cheese-flavored scoops from a truck parked on Seventeenth Street, a promo for an unlikely collaboration between the boutique New York ice-cream brand Van Leeuwen and the Kraft Heinz Company. “How is it?” the stranger asked. “Listen, you’re going to save me the trouble of waiting in line,” she went on. She removed a miniature Swiss Army knife from her purse, extracted the blade, and swiped a melty glob. What could we do but laugh?
My instant pal—an attractively coiffed woman of a certain age who self-identified as “New York’s No. 1 ice-cream fanatic”—seemed to share my assessment of the gimmick: a supposedly fun flavor I’ll never try again. Though I found it eerily accurate, in the spirit of Willy Wonka’s three-course-dinner chewing gum, I’d sooner have a bowl of actual mac and cheese followed by Van Leeuwen’s perfect Sicilian Pistachio (scoops from $5.50; pints $12). I’ll pass, as well, on the Everything Bagel flavor released to great fanfare by Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (scoops from $5.25; pints $12), out of Ohio, earlier this year, and I felt vaguely affronted by the pint of Bacon, Egg, and Cheese (a “mildly cheesy” base with a runny-yolk swirl, candied bacon, and poppy seeds) that I found in the freezer at Danny Meyer’s café Daily Provisions. Ice cream is joyful, but it’s no joke!
The B.E.C. was a special left over from Father’s Day and made by Caffè Panna, a Roman-inspired coffee bar and ice-cream shop—opened, in late 2019, by Meyer’s daughter Hallie—where the flavors tend toward playful but rarely stoop to stunt (scoops $5.50; pints $13). As befits the family name, Hallie’s is a serious, and seriously good, enterprise. The panna—“cream,” in Italian—is imported from Piemonte and is not only mixed into many of the ice-cream bases, which are churned on-site weekly, with a rotating array of local and Italian ingredients as mix-ins, but also whipped and dolloped atop any order upon request, free of charge. One recent afternoon, perched on a stool at an outdoor counter, I entered a state just shy of rapture, surrounded by cloud-capped cups of Sea Salt Saba (Trapani sea-salt base with a swirl of intensely concentrated grape-must syrup), Red Flag (sweet cream with strawberry jam and graham crunch), and a wonderfully velvety, unexpectedly pink White Peach Sorbet.
There are pints to take home, too; availing myself of an insulated bag outfitted with ice packs ($7), I toted several on the subway, including Panna Stracciatella, flecked with dark-chocolate shards, and Somebody Scoop Phil, the brainchild of the sitcom producer turned food personality Phil Rosenthal, featuring a lightly salted malted milk-chocolate base, dense with chunks of Twix and candied peanuts, plus swirls of fudge and panna caramel that oozed obscenely when I peeled off the lid.
I added these to my freezer stash from Bad Habit, a small operation run by Jesse and Javier Zuniga, a Bushwick-based couple who have worked at restaurants including Lilia, Contra, and Llama Inn. Their seasonal pints ($15) have been available for pickup and delivery since March, and are carried by specialty shops in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Roasted Banana with Coffee Caramel is as good as it sounds, surging with dark reduced sugars, but the flavor that made my eyes widen was the Coconut & Lime, somehow even more tropical than the sum of its parts, at once gloriously rich and refreshing.