"Is the line backed up around the corner yet?" the clerk asked, peering out apprehensively from behind a case filled with ice cream.
The question was largely rhetorical, because the lines have been stretching around the southwest corner of Broadway and 76th Street almost from the moment that Grom — a new shop specializing in gelato, the supremely smooth Italian-style ice cream — opened last month.
Grom has benefited from a tremendous amount of hype, much of it centering on that elusive quality that New Yorkers value most: authenticity. The company was founded by Italians (one of whom, Federico Grom, is the source of the shop's not-very-ice-creamy name), and its shops in Turin, Milan, and Florence have already become something of a sensation in Italy, a country known for its gelati. The Grom system stresses the highestquality seasonal ingredients and, supposedly, an artisan's mindset rivaling that of a European vintner. Given Grom's pedigree, not to mention its prices — $4.75 for a small cone — this ought to be the best ice cream in New York.
But is it?
Not quite, at least according to an admittedly unscientific round of recent samplings. Ice cream tastings are tricky, because the product is best when it's fresh from the shop, which makes it impossible to compare multiple retailers' products unless they're all on the same block. Still, based on multiple rounds of tasting, involving a truly staggering amount of ice cream (and countless plastic spoons), the best ice cream in New York stacks up like this:
1. Otto (1 Fifth Ave at 8th Street, 212-995-9559). In a city filled with excellent shops devoted exclusively to ice cream, it may seem odd that the best ice cream of all comes from a pizzeria. But of course Otto, which Mario Batali opened in 2003, is no ordinary pizza joint. Dessert chef Meredith Kurtzman's velvety gelati are the smoothest of smooth, but what really sets them apart is her deft use of flavors. You've probably had caramel ice cream before, but not like this. A better name for the flavor would be "burnt sugar," because it tastes exactly like the torched crust atop a crème brûlée — a sublime combination of sweet and bitter. Her olive oil flavor starts with a magnificent vanilla custard with just a hint of savory Italian olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt — magnificent. And many of her other flavors, such as roasted cinnamon and butterscotch pecan, burst with so much complexity that you can't help but wonder why nobody else makes ice cream like this. Skip the pizza and the wine and just sit at the bar with a threeflavor sampler of New York's finest frozen dessert — a bargain at $7.
2. Il Laboratoriodel Gelato (95 Orchard St., between Broome and Delancey streets, 212-343-9922). The brainchild of Jon Snyder, who founded the Ciao Bella chain (and whose grandfather was a Carvel franchisee), Il Laboratorio has been turning out world-class gelati on the Lower East Side since 2002. The tiny storefront shop turns out some stunningly good flavors — the roasted almond, for example, is easily the best nut-based ice cream in town, the espresso gelato is so bracingly strong and bitter that you can just about get a caffeine buzz from it, and the green tea flavor transports you straight to Chinatown. Oddly, the chocolate and vanilla are both a bit gummy, but you're probably not going to order those anyway. No seating, so be prepared to eat on the go.
3. Grom (2165 Broadway at 76th Street, 646-290-7233). When Grom gets it gets right, they get it really right, as with the zabaione, made with marsala that melds perfectly with the custardy base, and the spectacularly clean, crisp vanilla. And last month's special raspberry flavor was as fruity as fresh sorbet. But the lineup is inconsistent: The leaden chocolate is all heft and no complexity, and several of the nut-based flavors are subtle to a fault. Still, the shop is only a month old and it's had to cope with huge crowds. If the ice cream is this good now, imagine how great it'll be when the staff hits its stride.
4. Shake Shack (southeast corner of Madison Square Park, near Madison Avenue and 23rd Street, 212-889-6600, shakeshacknyc.com). The best ice cream in America is the frozen custard found in Milwaukee, a dense, eggy, magnificently luscious confection that assaults your senses like a velvet bludgeon. The custard at the Shake Shack is designed to mimic that experience, and while it can't quite match the supremely dairy-driven freshness of Wisconsin's finest, it comes close. In classic Midwestern style, only three flavors are offered: chocolate, vanilla, and a rotating flavor of the day.
5. Cones (272 Bleecker St. at Morton Street, 212-414-1795) Argentineans take their dairy products seriously (it's the land of dulce de leche, after all), so it's no surprise that one of the city's best gelaterias comes our way via that South American country. The best flavors here are fruit-based, especially the rich, nicely balanced banana, which is like a smoothie in a cone. Not far behind: the wonderfully nutty pistachio.
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St., between Mott and Elizabeth streets, 212-608-4170): The city's best source for Asian flavors such as black sesame, lychee, durian, and taro (the last of which, as the menu explains, is "potatolike"). They also have standard fare like chocolate, vanilla, and rocky road, endearingly listed in the "Exotic Flavors" category.
Eddie's Sweet Shop (105-29 Metropolitan Ave., Forest Hills, Queens, 718-520-8514): A nostalgist's delight, Eddie's is a timewarped ice cream parlor that's pretty much the same as it was 50 years ago, complete with a tin ceiling, marble counter, and woodtopped stools. It's all so charming.
Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (1 Old Fulton St., DUMBO, Brooklyn, 718-246-3963): Another venue where the setting trumps the ice cream, this shop situated near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge offers an unbeatable view of the Manhattan skyline. If you're looking for a romantic spot to share a cone, this is the place.