Skip to content

Here's a scoop: Gorgonzola and garlic ice cream have arrived


The menu board at Max & Mina's Homemade Ice Cream and Ices shop in Queens, N.Y. Among the daily flavors are beer, garlic, cola and sour cream. (Photo by Jodi Broadwater/CNS)


Bruce Becker, co-owner of Max & Mina's Homemade Ice Cream and Ices in Queens, N.Y., scoops out a sample of garlic ice cream. Garlic is but one of many unusual flavors the shop serves up, including beer, horseradish and Nova lox. (Photo by Jodi Broadwater/CNS)

For a tiny ice cream parlor in Queens, N.Y., where flavors run rampant but seats are scant, Max & Mina’s Homemade Ice Cream and Ices shop packs a powerful punch. Sure, its menu board boasts the usual flavor staples—chocolate, strawberry, coffee. But as one goes down the list, the flavors become more, well, out of the ordinary: garlic, beer, grass, sour cream—and that’s but a sampling of the day’s offbeat offerings.

On deck awaits everything from corn on the cob to horseradish, ketchup or Nova lox. But as surprising as these quirky, untraditional flavors might be, the idea for such experimentation is becoming more common, as ice cream shops across the nation are beginning to think outside the cone. Now, they fold ingredients like wasabi, Gorgonzola, black truffle—even lobster—into the mix of their traditional ice cream repertoires.

“We’re trying to get people away from what something looks like and toward what it tastes like,” explains Bruce Becker, co-owner of Max & Mina’s. After inheriting his grandfather Max’s recipe book, which was filled with the organic chemist’s own unusual ice cream creations, Bruce opened up shop with his brother Mark in 1997. Together, they have since embarked on a flavor crusade, pushing patrons “out of their comfort zones and helping to expand their palates.”

Their crusade has gathered quite a few converts. On a recent Sunday afternoon, a line of a dozen patrons wound out the door, with clusters of daring souls standing at the counter and tasting flavors like cola, rose petal and chive blossom.

“Huh … interesting,” said Maureen Lovett, a 23-year-old artist, after succumbing to her friends’ nudgings to try pilsner beer. “I actually really like that.” Her risk-taking side satisfied with samples of sour cream, munn (poppy seed) and grass, she settled for a scoop of red velvet cake.

These days, the market is ripe for adventurous eating, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. “People are seeking unique experiences that reach beyond the norm,” he says, and they look to everything from flavors of toothpaste to jelly beans or soda—and now ice cream—to do so.

Rising to meet those demands, small ice cream shops across the country have been busily creating flavors—and stretching their limits--in recent years. At Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in Bar Harbor, Maine, adventurous eaters can take a lick of lobster ice cream, which has a butter base with actual lobster meat folded throughout. Udder Delight Ice Cream House in Rehoboth Beach, Del., scoops up Memphis barbecue, vanilla ice cream with ribbons of spicy barbecue sauce. Flamingo’s in Berwyn, Ill., offers flavors like Parmesan, jalapeno and sweet potato.

“All types of food developers are toying with unique combinations of flavors, mixing sweet with salt or sweet with sour,” says Donna Berry, product development editor for Dairy Foods magazine, and ice cream is a perfect carrier for such combinations. “When you’re eating ice cream, it’s small. It’s a lick or spoonful—it’s not too overwhelming.”

But just because untraditional flavors are widely available doesn’t mean they are wildly popular among ice cream patrons. Capogiro Gelato Artisans in Philadelphia makes Italian ice creams and sorbets daily, including flavors like sea salt, purple yam, avocado and paprika. “But you can’t fill the case with weird stuff,” says Stephanie Reitano, the shop’s co-owner and chef. “It turns people off.”

Out of the shop’s 27 daily offerings, only four spots in the gelato case are reserved for the “really unusual fun ones,” she adds. “But by doing strange things, you do garner attention.”

Such innovation in flavors, even if viewed as distasteful by some, is smart business strategy because it grabs the consumer’s attention, says Berry. “If it delivers—and delivery doesn’t mean it tastes great, but that it tastes different, and that it satisfies your desire to explore—then you’ll come back for more, or maybe try a different flavor.”

At Max & Mina’s, interspersed between flavor listings like halava (sesame), spicy chummos (yes, hummus) and breakfast bash (a mix of pancakes, waffles and French toast) are little sayings meant to help bring out that adventurous side in patrons: “Boychick Give a Try” and “Don’t be a Kvetch,” the Yiddish word for a chronic, nagging complainer.

But should the encouragements fall flat, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are always there for the less risk-taking bunch. “You want to help lead people down a different road, but you don’t want to leave them stranded,” says Bruce Becker.

Gabrielle Carbone, co-owner of The Bent Spoon in Princeton, N.J., blames industrialization for those ice cream purists among us. “Whole generations of people lost their flavor,” she says, when mass production started churning out only the flavor triumvirate. “Back in Thomas Jefferson’s day, oyster ice cream was not unheard of,” she says, partly defending her own taste creations like avocado, asparagus and carrot ice creams and sorbets.

“Familiarity breeds fondness,” she adds, “and if you’re not exposed to oyster, it’s clearly not going to be your favorite.”

The Beckers know that theory well. When they first opened Max & Mina’s 12 years ago, there was no precedent for the innovative ice creams for which the shop is now known. “It’s been a slow process, but people eventually got attuned to our creations, and then their barriers fell down,” says Bruce Becker. “We built a reputation for awesome mainstream flavors, and that helps people be willing to venture toward the quirky side.”

But have their aspirations for quirkiness ever completely bombed? “Pickle sucks,” says Becker. “I love pickles and I love the idea of it, but it just sucks.” Joining pickle in the flavor graveyard: hamburger and tobacco.

As for Reitano’s philosophy for innovation at Capogiro, “If it’s edible, I’m going to try and make something out of it. And if it’s horrifying, you just don’t do it again.”

But she does hold one caveat: “I don’t ever want to make a bacon gelato,” she says. “That’s just not kosher”--in both senses of the word.