When I was a child, summer treats meant one thing. Baskin-Robbins, or Batman and Robin's, as my superhero-obsessed kid brother misheard. Sure, there were 31 flavors, but usually the choice was between a couple of stalwarts, a perfect sphere balanced atop a sugar cone (reliable heartbreak: licking the ball off its perch and onto the hot pavement under my flip-flops).
It wasn't until years later that I focused on all the other sweet glories that keep one cool during the dog days. Slurpees and their brain freezes, Bomb Pops offered up indifferently by the Good Humor man, even the DIY glories of frozen Dixie cups of Kool-Aid (some folks called them flips).
Tampa Bay has more than its share of swoon-worthy ice creameries, places for malts and sundaes and dips (big-ups, in alpha order, to Bo's, Campbell's Dairyland, Dairy Joy, Dairy Kurl, Larry's, Old Farmer's Creamery, Revolution, Shake Shop, Strachan's and Urban Creamery). But let us, for a bit, praise all the other, less traditional frozen confections that make the many months of summer tolerable in these parts.
THAI ROLLED ICE CREAM
Eve Edelheit | Times
Technically this is a dairy category, but it's something new on the scene and not cone-oriented, equal parts showmanship and dessert. Jonathan Andujar of Snobachi Handcrafted Ice Cream (2206 E 7th Ave, Tampa; (813) 284-6071) was probably the first in this area to get the idea. It was an ice cream phenomenon he'd seen in New York and California. But it took him a bit of time to find the right place and he debuted it this past New Year's Eve. The party trick here is Dragon's Breath, a liquid nitrogen-infused dessert, something that originated in the Philippines. Basically, bite-sized doughnuts, brownies and marshmallows are dipped and frozen in liquid nitrogen so you look like you're smoking as you eat them. Fun and all, but focus. You're here for the hand-rolled ice cream.
Customers choose a regular ice cream base, low fat or sugar free, then add in desired toppings. The person behind the counter chops, massages and swirls the liquid on a frozen griddle until it is a thin solid layer. That layer is then scraped into long furled tubes with what looks like an ice scraper. Then these are nestled into a cup and topped with a sauce, fruit or candy toppings. A base roll starts at $4.50.
Icesmile (1512 E Fowler Ave, Tampa; (813) 513-2809) beat them by about a month, clearly killing it amongst University of South Florida students (oy, the lines). The basic is $5.50, with smart flavor combinations like the Tropic Storm (pineapple, peach, mango) or Bangkok Summer (Thai tea and lychee), to which you can add all manner of craziness like gummy bears, Pocky and toasted marshmallows.
IceBurg (449 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 800-9816 ) opened in March with a similar concept. They offer acai bowls (another fetish food of the moment), smoothies and Thai rolled ice cream courtesy of a machine that took months to arrive from Hong Kong. The staff of IceBurg rolls, a foot treadle creating enough heat on the griddle to aid in removing the ice cream. The guys have learned a lot since the debut, the finished cups five pretty and tight rolls that look like delicate rosettes. I'm going to say the Oreos and Fruity Pebbles are fine, but simpler flavors like taro powder mixed with coconut flakes yields a sophisticated finished dessert. To which you can goof it up with exploding fruit bobas and sprinkles. It's $7.49, but you're paying for a big show.
Mr. Ice Cream (14995 Gulf Blvd. Suite B2, Madeira Beach; (727) 800-5886) has been around since November with basically the same set-up (but they call it "Thai fried ice cream," as in stir-fried, which confuses some customers). Their Monkey Business, banana and Nutella, seems to be a hot seller, the finished cups exceedingly Instagram ready, each $6.50, with unlimited toppings.
SNOBALLS, SNO CONES AND SHAVE ICE
Snoballs are a New Orleans delicacy. They are not sno cones. They are not Hawaiian shave ice. They are not even Baltimore-style snoballs, their closest relative. James Boswell's mom ran three New Orleans snoball stands, and at 14, James started working the SnoWizard. He and his wife Kimberly opened Beach Snoballs (7350 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 379-2653) in 2009, and in 2011 sold it to September Howat, recipes, SnoWizard and all. Invented during the Great Depression by George Ortolano as an inexpensive treat to generate extra cash for his grocery, it's a stainless steel box into which a block of ice is loaded and shaved into fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth snow. That snow gets flavored with fruit syrups, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, even soft-serve ice cream and — get this — booze. Without the booze, the financial commitment is scant: $3 for a mini, $3.25 small, $5.25 medium, $7.25 large. Geographically appropriate flavor: Shark's blood with strawberry, watermelon and coconut (this combo in other environs is called tiger's blood).
Bahama Buck's (8527 Gunn Highway, Odessa; (813) 616-8801), on the other hand, is shave ice (that's the Hawaiian name for ice that is shaved and then drizzled liberally with luridly colored flavorings; not sure what Hawaiians have against the letter D). Arizona transplants Bart and Jana Catmull opened it in October 2015 when they realized there wasn't a franchise in these parts. They offer more than 90 flavors of shave ice (key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake, blueberry muffin, etc.), to which ice cream and a nondairy frozen confection can be added, the add-ons sinking down and adding lushness to the sweet, powdery snow. A small is $3.49.
Sno Beach (310 Main St., Safety Harbor; (727) 223-3638) is another charming purveyor of fluffy Hawaiian-style shave ice, with more than 40 flavors (coconut, dill pickle, pink bubble gum), seven sugar-free, and a paper parasol jutting jauntily from each Styrofoam cup. This place also offers shave ice stuffed with vanilla soft serve and sweet cream (a phenomenon that happens in both New Orleans and Baltimore). Pick your size (small $3.50, medium $4, large $4.50) pick one to three flavors, then a topping or stuffing. Then exercise your artistic chops at the blackboard while you wait for your treat.
POPSICLES AND ICE POPS
I've seen Whatever Pops push-carts all over the place at food truck rallies and festivals for about the past five years. Also, a 1968 Chevy Grumman step van all tricked out. But then, at the end of 2016, they opened a bright green brick-and-mortar location (5127 N. Florida Ave., Seminole Heights; (813) 559-7677) and expanded their repertoire with acai bowls, housemade gelato and waffles-on-a-stick. Still, the coin of the realm is their mostly fruit-oriented frozen pops in a lush and vivid array of flavors. Think Earl Grey lavender lemonade or coconut lime. They cater and make custom pops (even winey ones), and if you're a gild-the-lily type, you can have your pop drizzled in chocolate and rolled in cookie crumbs and such.
The Hyde Park Village location of the Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops (627 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (727) 498-6536; 1600 E 8th Ave., Suite E100, Tampa, (813) 644-4289; 702 S Village Cir., Tampa, (813) 442-4387) is a few doors down from the hair salon I patronize, so Chaz, my colorist, has gotten good at doing his thing without upending my honeydew-basil or kale-apple-cucumber pop. Stephen DiMare started Hyppo in St. Augustine in 2010 and it has taken off since then, with seven shops around the state selling drop-dead stunning gourmet ice pops. Some are creamy and some are pureed fruit popsicles, but they come in a seasonally rotating array of swoony flavors like mamey sapota and pistachio rosewater. This is almost exclusively fresh fruit, no preservatives or colors, non-GMO and dairy that is rBST-free. So, like, health food on a stick; $3.75
GELATI, ITALIAN ICE, SHERBET
Here is a universal truth. Custard and Italian ice go great together, especially when it's super dense and creamy custard on the bottom, then the fluffy-grainy flavored ice, then a rosette of custard again at the top. Rita's Italian Ice ( 2510 N McMullen Booth Rd, Clearwater, (727) 796-7482; 1010 Court St., Clearwater, (727) 446-3023; 13147 86th Ave N, Seminole, (727) 393-6740) was started by former firefighter Bob Tumolo in Philly in 1984, and the concept has blossomed to 600 franchises nationwide. I'm going to say go mango or cherry ice (the latter if you are amused by a persistent bright red tongue) paired with the vanilla custard. The misto shakes are solid, but it's the juxtaposition of textures and flavors that makes Rita's ravishing. They offer a free one on your birthday and on the first day of spring, otherwise you're talking $3.75 for a regular size or $4.50 for a large.
Mr. Penguin (1920 W Platt St, Tampa, (813) 251-5750) is a similar setup with an outdoor order counter and big, shaded, dog-friendly patio with welcoming tables that are that plastic-coated wire mesh that will give you waffle butt if you're wearing shorts. But, so be it. Strategize for a moment. Think chocolate soft serve layered with salted caramel ice, or wait, scratch that caramel, make it peanut butter. No, hazelnut. They offer free samples and don't seem peevish if you try several. The gelati (the layered ice and dairy soft serve) come in three sizes, $3.25, $3.95 and $4.65, the largest of which is silly-big and will cause you to share it with your dog. Okay, so nix the chocolate.
For decades when you drove the highways of Florida, billboards touted a couple of things: baby gators and citrus. Sometimes those gators were live and feedable, other times they had endured taxidermatological treatments of different skill levels. Welcome to the Sunshine State. The single best thing at these roadside attractions, however, seldom made it onto the billboards. Once you'd bought your string bag of ruby reds to take back home, your attentions turned to the soft-serve machine in the corner. The machine that dispensed an orange sherbet and vanilla swirl heaven that easily trounced the allures of Popsicle's Creamsicle. If you want to kick it old school in this precise way, head to Sun Groves (3393 State Road 580, Safety Harbor; (727) 726-8484) or the Citrus Place (Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, 7200 US-19, Terra Ceia; (941) 722-6745). At the former they may distract you with taffy, key lime-flavored doodads and a lineup of scooped ice creams. At the latter, Ben Tillett and crew get to talking about the relative merits of the navels or honeybells. Do not be distracted from the orange/vanilla swirl, which must be consumed racing against the summer sun, each drip captured in its descent.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.