Cold Fusion

I n the 1970s, America was in the dark ages of ice cream. Gourmet brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs had yet to churn their way onto the national stage and brightly colored ice pops with floods of food coloring were the treat of choice. As Brian Anderson puts it, “premium ice cream was not a thing.”

But it was about to be. Along with founder Joe Ametrano, Anderson is the co-owner of Ashley’s Ice Cream, a small chain of local ice creameries. At its founding, which the website says occurred in 1979, Ashley’s had a single small shop on College Street. Now, in addition to the current flagship on York Street, it has locations in Branford, Guilford, Hamden and Madison, and its reputation has grown in kind. For one thing, it won its category in the now-defunct New Haven Advocate readers’ poll for 29 consecutive years.

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When Anderson says that Ashley’s makes premium ice cream, it’s not lip service. “Premium,” it so happens, can be quantified. The majority of ice cream makers use 12% butterfat in their mix. Compare that to the 16% butterfat at Ashley’s and you begin to understand why a scoop of the Strawberry, for example, is so deliriously creamy. Much of the product you can buy at a grocery store “isn’t even ice cream anymore,” Anderson says. “It says on it ‘dairy dessert,’ because it doesn’t qualify.”

In addition to butterfat percentage, there’s the question of “overrun,” which refers to the amount of air in the finished product. Less air means a denser cream, which presents its own problems, and the extra fat in the mix dilutes the flavor of the headlining ingredients, so Ashley’s adds extra. “We’re not just throwing in a couple of strawberries to make strawberry ice cream,” Anderson says. “There’re a lot of strawberries in there.”

Those strawberries, along with the blueberries and peaches that make up three of Ashley’s most popular summer flavors, come from local farms. Anderson says that Ashley’s uses whole ingredients whenever possible, though more adventurous flavors may call for exceptions. Consider its popular Peep ice cream, a special Easter-time concoction that blends chunks of the pastel marshmallow chicks and rabbits into a marshmallow ice cream for what Anderson says is a shockingly sweet product. Palates preferring subtlety might do best to look out for Anderson’s flavor of choice, Chocolate Banana, which is available sporadically throughout the year.

Some of the shop’s rotating varieties, written on an overhead menu in brightly colored chalk, are inspired by the people who eat them. The popular Coconut Raspberry pays homage to one customer’s coconut raspberry cheesecake recipe. Two other standbys—Red, White & Blueberry and Nutella Chip—were dreamt up by local children for a create-your-own flavor contest. The results were scrumptious enough to join the standard lineup.

As a final farewell to summer, I ordered a Strawberry sundae—a creamy, pink delight studded with fresh strawberries, smothered in smooth hot fudge and topped with rainbow sprinkles. But Ashley’s does a booming business in colder months, too. Fall fanatics will appreciate the appearance of Pumpkin ice cream along with orange leaves and brisk winds, to be followed by Eggnog and Peppermint for holiday shoppers and snow day adventurers.

Of course, any organization bold enough to grind up marshmallow peeps and see what happens is bound to have the odd flavor that doesn’t make it. “We’ve had a couple misses,” Anderson says with a wry smile, including two valiant attempts at meat-based varieties. The first, a patriotic swing at Hot Dogs & Bean in honor of the Fourth of July, was a spectacular failure. The second, a peanut butter ice cream with marshmallow swirl and bananas in memory of Elvis’s birthday, wasn’t so bad until they threw in that most essential component of the King’s diet: bacon. “Bacon just doesn’t mix with ice cream very well,” Anderson says with the wistful air of an inventor who hasn’t quite given up on an idea.

For all its history, Ashley’s continues to invent. Anderson says he and Ametrano are always concocting new recipes, inspired by changing seasons, customer suggestions and their own mad-scientist impulses.

Any willing test subjects?

Ashley’s Ice Cream
280 York St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 11am-11pm, Sun noon-11pm
(203) 776-7744

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photo 1 by Sorrel Westbrook. Photos 2-4 by Dan Mims.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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