Ice, Ice Creamy

Northeast Ohio has a flavorful ice cream tradition that's being carried on by Woo City Ice Cream and Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream.

I was a woman on a mission. My job was to eat and rate ice cream. Leaning over the sink — there are fewer calories when you stand — I gamely dipped my spoon into six cartons of cold stuff, sampling a mix of locally made products and big-name national brands. Tasting is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Without a doubt (or a kickback), the “creams” of the crop were two from Northeast Ohio: Woo City Ice Cream and Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream.

What makes each one so special? Peek at the labels and you’ll get your first clue. Both are made from basic, high-quality ingredients, things you might actually keep in your kitchen. No unpronounceable, unrecognizable chemicals.

Woo City, which sounds Asian but is really a play on the name Wooster, is intense. Take a lick of raspberry cream and the flavor jumps from the tip of your tongue to another set of buds at the back, creating a sort of double-whammy of taste. It’s a physically moving experience. Seriously.

“You’ll fall right down on the ground because our ice cream tastes so good,” says Woo co-owner David Steele. He sounded a bit fundamentalist at first, but I’m a believer now.

Woo City uses organic milk and cream that comes from grass-fed cows raised in Ohio. They vat-pasteurize it at low temperatures, an entirely different process from most commercial milk. This preserves the omega-3 fatty acids trounced by most methods of pasteurization. If omega-3s sound familiar, it’s because the American Heart Association recommends the fatty acids.

The result is a richer-tasting and healthier product. Steele envisions a world where moms insist their children eat ice cream. “Instead of saying, ‘It will spoil your dinner,’ ” he laughs, “moms will say, ‘Have a couple spoonfuls because it’s high in omega-3s.’ ”

Steele and partner Lauren Michael Tyler bought Woo City in April 2004. They consider their product “pure, clean and honest.” “Every single thing used in any of our flavors is the finest product you can buy,” he says. That’s important to Tyler and Steele, both former professional chefs.

With Mitchell’s, the first sensation is all about texture. It’s silky and velvety, smooth and creamy. The way you expect ice cream to be, only more so. My second carton was chocolate peanut butter cup. (Hey, a girl’s gotta try several to really be sure.) I’d have to say it cuddles the tongue. And that’s because the ice cream contains something that most other brands don’t.

Slip a scoop of raspberry chip into your mouth. Press the ice cream to the roof of your mouth. It’s almost custardy. Then thank the chicken.

“All of our ice creams have egg yolks,” says Mike Mitchell, who co-owns the company with his brother Pete. “Eggs give ice cream a richer flavor and they give you a little more substantial mouth feel, a little more ‘chew,’ if you’re talking technically.”

Good ice cream is more than the gift of the cows and the hens. It requires a generous, but judicious hand with fat, sweetener and flavorings. And both companies do it right.

“There’s a lot of vanilla in our vanilla, and chocolate in our chocolate,” says Mitchell. “In our raspberry cheesecake, we use real cream cheese and sour cream.”

Their chocolate chunks are homemade.

Mitchell’s typically carries more than 30 flavors, along with egg-free frozen yogurt and sorbet, at its three, soon-to-be-four, ice cream shops. Perennials are vanilla and chocolate peanut butter cup. Peach is a summer-only special. Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream is also available at a handful of retailers, including Heinen’s, Zagara’s and Lake Road Market in Rocky River, and 20 area restaurants, among them Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Co., which serves a customized creation called Edmund Fitzgerald Porter Chocolate Chunk.

Woo City, which also makes sorbet and nondairy WooFu, stretches from extreme vanilla and butter pecan to chocolate kumquat, lemongrass ginger and more. It sells sambuca, Grand Marnier and Bourbon caramel to restaurant clients. Woo City is available at Mustard Seed Markets, Reider’s in Concord Township, Dave’s Supermarkets, Nature’s Bin and more than 100 local restaurants. They’re opening a retail spot at Akron University and are the exclusive ice cream vendor for the Tower City Amphitheater.

Putting in plenty of flavor and selecting top-shelf ingredients costs more. For example, four gallons of Woo City’s Champagne cassis — found only at restaurants — requires five bottles of bubbly. And, that helps put the two companies’ products in the ultra-premium category. The price tag for a pint of Woo City is $4.99. Mitchell’s hovers around the $4 mark.

I could tell you that because the ice creams are so hearty you don’t have to eat the entire pint to be happy. A few spoons and you’re done. Theoretically price and pleasure balance. But in reality, we both know better. |!|

The Scoop on Cones

Many claim the title “Inventor of the Ice Cream Cone,” but nobody can argue with the fact that Northeast Ohio deserves the credit for popularizing them. Historians agree that the ice cream cone concept made its big American debut at the St. Louis Fair of 1904. According to one version of the story, brothers Frank and Charles Menches had an ice cream concession there. When they saw a customer wrap her ice cream in a waffle purchased from another vendor, a great idea was born. After the fair, the two started The Premium Ice Cream Cone and Candy Company in Akron. An alternative tale has Ernest A. Hamwi, a Syrian waffle vendor, helping out a neighboring ice cream stand that ran out of paper dishes by rolling up his wares as a substitute. Clevelander Carl R. Taylor had one and ice cream eating changed forever. By 1924, the enterprising Taylor had secured a patent for the first mechanical ice cream cone-rolling machine.

Gelato: Ice Cream the Italian Way

Gelato, with less than half the butterfat of regular ice cream, has an equally smooth and luxurious feel. There’s less air in it too, so the finished product is denser and more intensely flavored. But to get the real thing, special equipment is required. Valerio Iorio brought his over from his native Florence, Italy, and opened La Gelateria on Cedar Road in Cleveland Heights just three years ago. On a balmy Saturday night, the lines are still out the door at 11 p.m. A second location is now open at Legacy Village.

A Cleveland Tradition

Pierre’s has been making its “French” ice cream here for 73 years. The company’s history begins with an ice cream parlor on East 82nd Street and Euclid Avenue, where it made everything in the back room. It’s a bigger operation now but all Pierre’s products are still manufactured in Cleveland, and Pierre’s often celebrates its hometown with regionally themed flavors. During football season, there’s Brownie Touchdown Sundae (a combination of vanilla ice cream with brownies, fudge sauce and pecans) and Guitar Mania (French vanilla with “strings” of caramel swirl, chocolate chunks and toasted almonds) honors the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Nuts about Buckeyes is a new one featuring the famous chocolate-covered peanut butter buckeye candies. |!|

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