the outfit looked like a girlied-up UPS driver — brown with pink and orange piping — but it didn't matter. It was still the best summer job ever. Baskin-Robbins, unlimited samples of 31 flavors, air-conditioning and a never-ending line of smiling, anticipatory faces. I had one sacrosanct rule. When a child ordered a cone (it was an era of rainbow sherbet), took it in his fist and promptly licked the ball right off its perch — free replacement ball, no questions asked. A summer visit to the neighborhood ice cream parlor is a kid's inalienable right (well, unless he's lactose intolerant). There's the time you learned that biting off the tip of the sugar cone results in serious leakage. The time you convinced your parents you could eat a whole three-scoop sundae and then on the car ride home everyone regretted you'd tried. And the coming-of-age moment you put away childish things like Smurf flavor and discovered mocha almond fudge. The Tampa Bay area has undergone something of a fro-yo invasion in the past two years, Pinkberry clones and top-your-own emporiums dotting strip malls on both sides of the bay. And gelato seems to have carved itself a foothold, from Paciugo in St. Petersburg to the equally delicious Gelateria del Duomo at International Plaza. But this story is an homage to the old-fashioned independent ice cream stand, preferably with a walk-up window, a splintery picnic table and swirled soft-serve dipped in warm chocolate to make an instant shell that still seems like magic. Here are 10 of our favorites.
Fifty-plus years into its tenure, Bo's still may be the drip-down-your-arm, eat-it-on-the-sidewalk soft-serve king. All of Tampa, when it gets its ice cream jones, can be found lining up in front of Bo's. The guys behind the counter aren't speedy, so you may find yourself striking up a conversation while enduring the dense fog of mosquitoes and no-see-'ems. There are diehard fans of the upside-down banana split (served in three sizes, from doable to truly unsettling to think about) — sliced banana, ice cream, hot fudge, pineapple topping, whipped cream, nuts, cherries and so forth, all rammed deep in a foam cup.
7101 N Florida Ave., Tampa, (813) 234-3870
A fire wrecked it in 2002, but it grew back just as sweet and old-timey as when Boyd Campbell started it in 1985. These days his kids and kids-in-law James and Leesa Lee and Jay and Jill Paules run the place, with their own kids pitching in part time. If you're a Brandon Little Leaguer, you know this place. In triumph or defeat, you've come here for your peanut butter cup sundae, turtle sundae or banana split. The hum of the machine churning up shakes and malts in the background, the smell of the deep-fryer going great guns, it's been the go-to place for families in Brandon for ages. Starting with just ice cream and chili dogs, it now boasts 60 different menu items and 40 ice cream dishes. For space reasons they only stock eight hard ice creams at a time, but the flavors rotate. Dips include chocolate, butterscotch and cherry, and there is sugar-free soft-serve as well.
200 S Parsons Ave., Brandon, (813) 685-1189
Jason and Rebecca Jerald own this walkup soft-serve oldtimer these days, but it was Rebecca's grandparents who opened it back in 1960. The menu has stayed very much the same through all those years, with vanilla, chocolate and twist soft-serve at the core. In recent years they've added 10 flavors of hard ice cream (always with a sugar-free flavor in the mix), with sno-cones for the kids and a quarter-pound beef hotdog ($2.50, including chips). The banana split is a big seller, with several variations, and waffle bowl sundaes are nearly as popular. Of the hard ice creams, mint chocolate chip and cookie dough are tasty, but it's the vanilla soft-serve dipped in rainbow sprinkles that gets the nostalgic juices flowing. Stand and race against the summer sun, licking the cone's perimeter, and enjoy the building's old-fashioned facade, the front window nearly obliterated by hand-lettered signs.
3813 S Manhattan Ave., Tampa, (813) 839-5485
The sign is capped by a chocolate-vanilla swirl soft-serve cone, and the walls of the freestanding structure are painted a cheery, candy-striped red and white. You step beneath a shady overhang and order at the window, a phalanx of sprinkles and dipped cones giving you license for creativity. This is a classic soft-serve palace where not much has changed in decades, including the sticky picnic tables and the owner who tends toward silent disapprobation. Soft-serve can be dipped, sprinkled or sauced (the peanut butter sauce rules), or blended with candy as a shake. All good options.
1555 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater, (727) 446-1549
Larry's Olde Fashioned Ice Cream and Gelato
At one time there were more than 125 Larry's ice cream shops. Now that number hovers at two. Dore Herman has owned this one, the very first franchise, for the past 23 years, with 80 flavors of regular ice cream made for them in Boynton Beach and 25 flavors of all-natural gelato made by a chef in Michigan. She may have escaped the fate of other Larry's locations by adding to the lineup over the years. There are sugar-free ice creams made from Splenda, plus hotdogs and hamburgers, and every medium scoop gets its own house-baked waffle cone (no extra charge). No. 1 flavor? Butter pecan. Eight years ago Herman bought the nearby Twistee Treat in St. Pete Beach because it reminded her "of the beachy places in Brooklyn, where people would mingle and stay outside in the warm weather."
6595 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, (727) 360-4259
La Unica Michoacana
Specializing in Mexican paletas (popsicles) and helado (ice cream), this little shop was opened 3 ½ years ago by Arturo and Dailys Bravo Martinez. They offer 20 to 25 flavors of milk-based ice cream, from pistachio to cookies and cream, but the water-based sorbets are every bit as exciting, with vibrant fruit flavors topping the list. The paletas ($1.75 each), individually wrapped in a freezer on one side of the room, come in cream-based and non-fat versions with rustic fruit chunks throughout. Cantaloupe and other tropical fruit pops are the very definition of quenching on a hot Tampa day. And if that doesn't quite wet your whistle, there is an array of agua frescas each day, in flavors ranging from a traditional horchata (cinnamony rice-based) to watermelon. The Martinezes have added savory food more recently, making their own tortillas for tacos, with sopes, tostadas, empanadas and even homemade tamales on the weekends.
2800 N MacDill Ave., Tampa, (813) 870-3513
Old Farmer's Creamery
This cash-only ice cream parlor looks just like the Fisher-Price red barn with white trim. The blue door is framed by Holstein-inspired paint, and the wood-paneled interior packs some serious ye-olde-timey charm. It's not cheap, but they make their own ice cream in a huge range of flavors (plenty of chocolate permutations), with tons of brightly colored kiddie flavors. The young counter staff contends with crowds ably despite what must be some harrowing scooper's arm (yes, that's a thing — think carpel tunnel but a little colder). For my money, two scoops on a sugar cone is the way to go here (go quick to catch the seasonal blueberry cheesecake).
2531 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 896-2827
This part of Gulf Boulevard is a smorgasbord of cold confections. Beach Snoballs, Candy Kitchen and the list goes on. For the archetypal sand-between-your-toes summer milk shake, though, it's the Shake Shop. Scoot your way up a little flight of stairs and place your order. Prices are modest, and the shakes aren't the super-thick kind that causes tinnitus when straw-sucked. On a hot day lines can be long, but a straight-up chocolate malted is worth waiting for. Here since 1997, the owners are also wizards of fruit parfaits and butterscotch sundaes.
11920 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island, no phone
Strachan's Homemade Ice Cream
Susan and Bill Strachan opened their first shop in 1999 in Palm Harbor, then a second location in Dunedin in 2008. Susan had fallen in love with an ice cream store in Moline, Ill., and hoped to open a second branch in Florida. It didn't work out, so she decided to do her own thing, attending ice cream school and doing a whole lot of practicing in the garage. Practice makes perfect, and now they offer courses on how to make ice cream, as well as scooping up all the classics in their two ice cream parlors. This is the place for a brownie sundae or a "Muddy Creek," which is a spin on a banana split with three scoops of chocolate ice cream topped with hot fudge, chocolate sauce and something they call Yummy Yummy sauce (a milk chocolate caramel sauce). Top-selling items include a carrot cake and a coconut cake, as well as traditional ice cream flavors like mint chocolate chip, maple walnut, black raspberry and cherry wow-za (cherry vanilla with big chunks of semisweet chocolate and walnuts). The Dunedin store has a bigger dipping cabinet for custard-like soft-serve, as well as old-fashioned murals on the wall and outdoor seating with a permanent awning.
105 Alt. U.S. 19, Palm Harbor, (727) 781-0997; also 310 Main St., Dunedin, (727) 733-3603
You know the building. It's shaped like a giant vanilla twisty soft-serve. It's so visually arresting it stars briefly in the upcoming James Franco vehicle Spring Breakers. Owned by the same people as nearby Larry's, it's got a different agenda entirely. They go light on the hard ice cream (eight flavors) and have a soft-serve machine to which they can add 66 different flavors. About eight months ago they bought a YoCream machine, so now those 66 different flavors can be applied to frozen yogurt, too (the nonfat versions ringing in around 100 calories a serving). Twistee is also dip-crazy, with a traditional chocolate dip, caramel and even cherry. Not in the mood for a dairy treat? Sno-cones, hotdogs and pizza round out the bill of fare.
6900 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, (727) 367-7690
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.