On hot summer days, the lineup at Dee Dee’s Ice Cream in the North End stretches out the door and down Cornwallis Street. With its large historic windows, colourful décor and cozy booths, the place has an old-fashioned ice cream-parlour vibe.
“I can’t keep up with the demand in the summertime,” says Ditta Kasdan, Dee Dee’s owner and namesake, as she steps outside for a break from making rhubarb-ginger sorbet in her tiny on-site kitchen. “When an ice cream shop runs out of vanilla and chocolate, it’s pathetic [laughs]. We make ice cream seven days a week in the summertime. Last summer, we probably made about 70 to 90 litres per day.”
Kasdan says ice cream culture is building in Halifax, stemming from the interest in local cuisine. “We’re a fairly small city but there’s a huge awareness of local food,” she says. “So people are beginning to buy my ice cream instead of Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s.”
Dee Dee’s began in 2004 when Kasdan retired from teaching junior high and opened up a seasonal ice cream shop at Peggy’s Cove. In 2010, she expanded the menu to include coffee and burritos, and opened the year-round café on Cornwallis Street. “Winters are a difficult time for any food establishment in Halifax, so we needed something besides ice cream,” she laughs. “People still do come in with snow in their beards during blizzards for our ice cream.”
Kasdan uses seasonal local fruits in many of her flavours—rhubarb, blueberries, Haskap berries, and even locally grown arctic kiwi. “I’m trying to figure out what to do with those,” she says. “I want to make something delicious but kiwi sorbet is kind of bland. I might pair it with mint or another flavour.”
The classics are the most popular with her regulars. “A lot of people are hardcore chocolate and vanilla people,” says Kasdan. “They aren’t always as adventurous as you might think.”
But she loves experimenting with new combinations to craft unusual tastes, without using artificial flavours. Her Mexican chocolate (dark European cocoa with hits of cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne pepper) and banana cardamom are hot sellers—and delicious together (“my daughter’s favourite pairing,” adds Kasdan). Another popular summer mix is lemon pesto swirl, featuring mint pesto. And in the fall, she makes more seasonal flavours, including a curry cashew ice cream. “It’s weirdly delicious,” she says.
Nemat Sobhani is also passionate about creating offbeat flavours. The Iranian-born entrepreneur is the force behind Halifax’s two Humani T cafés—on Young Street and on South Park Street, which both make small-batch gelato on-site. They normally have about 18 flavours in the summertime, including six milk-free sorbettos.
“The Persians and the Romans go back a long way,” Sobhani laughs, as he paddles out a batch of strawberry banana milkshake gelato into a pan. “I originally trained as an engineer. But I didn’t want to make weapons of war—ice cream is much better.”
He and his staff make the gelato by hand in five-litre batches, using an Italian machine. “It’s sold and then we make another pan—it’s fresher that way,” he says, noting that his gelato has about 60 per cent less fat than store-bought ice cream. “We don’t use stabilizers or preservatives. A lot of chemicals go into factory-made ice cream that make it seem like it was made today…There is also no air in our gelato, so you’re getting a solid smoothie.”
During four years in business, Sobhani estimates he’s created about 300 flavours. His Persian rose gelato is a standout that goes back to his roots and features rose water and Persian saffron. “It’s the most aromatic kind of saffron,” he says, adding that his favourite is a vanilla olive oil gelato he made last summer. “It was like the creamiest vanilla frosting,” he recalls.
For the berry and fruit flavours, he uses one kilogram of fruit per batch. For chocolate, it’s organic dark Dutch chocolate for the base. And for pistachio, he uses raw pistachios for an authentic, additive-free taste. “We roast them here, turn them into butter and that goes into the gelato,” Sobhani says, noting its pale colour. “If you ever see a pistachio gelato that’s bright green, it’s not real pistachio; it’s from a mix of sugar, dye and pistachio.”
Sobhani encourages staff and customers to suggest new flavours—even oddballs like pimento olive gelato. “It came out as white gelato with green and red specs,” he says. “People were grossed out at the thought, but then they tried it and loved it.” For Canada Day, he’s fond of bacon-maple. For Natal Day last year, he made a donair gelato, featuring vanilla gelato with donair meat from King Of Donair. “It had a garlicy, oniony taste,” he says. “People ate it so they could tell their grandkids they did.”
On the waterfront, handmade gelato has been a staple of the decadent Italian desserts served up by Chef Maurizio Bertossi at Ristorante a Mano and the Bicycle Thief, two of his company’s four Halifax restaurants.
“We’ve been making homemade gelato for 30 years,” says co-owner Stephanie Bertossi. “We make traditional gelato using an Italian machine. Maurizio decides on a whim what he’ll make that day. It could be coconut, blood orange or white peach. He doesn’t like to do the same thing every day.”
He customizes the menu at each restaurant, offering daily handmade gelato and sorbetto flavours, and also makes his own gelato-inspired creations based on Old World classics.
A popular option on the menu at the Bicycle Thief is Spumoni—a rich concoction of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice creams hand-swirled with pistachios and cobbled chocolate shavings. “It’s brought to the table and lit with Sambuca,” says Stephanie. “Everything is better lit with Sambuca [laughs].”
At Ristorante a Mano, the Bertossis offer an Italian Nafta sundae made with vanilla gelato and Amarena cherries, plus an Italian strawberry shortcake called Fragole al pane dolce, made with fresh strawberries, pistachio gelato, almond shortcake and whipped cream. “It’s red, white and green like the Italian flag,” Stephanie says.
Regardless of where you go for your next fix, Halifax has moved well beyond the freezer-burned tubs from the grocery store. “When I came to Halifax when I was 15 years old, I couldn’t get any good ice cream,” says Kasdan. “The only ice cream shop then was Dairy Queen. It was always in the back of my mind to open up my own shop…There is nothing better than fresh ice cream.”