Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

2014-05-16 13.51.33

With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

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Coffee Break

I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones in your life, be they reasonable accomplishments, or the more understated achievements that most people probably find kind of lame. For example, recently I’ve felt very proud of myself for what some might call a pretty underwhelming development — I’ve finally started taking my coffee black. It’s useful because I’m trying to cut down on sugar where I can (and let’s be honest, I’m just not gonna start eating fewer Oreos). And it allows me to play at being sophisticated (see previous sentence about Oreos), since there’s something oh-so-chic about declining milk and sugar with a “no thanks, I take mine black.” But the reason I think I’ve fixated on this new habit is that it’s a piece of the developing puzzle of what my taste as an adult is. My relationship with coffee mirrors my general relationship with food, and shockingly, I feel as though I’m learning to embrace new discoveries beyond the walls of all-dessert-all-the-time.

I can clearly remember when Starbucks came to my hometown in the early 2000s. I had always avoided my father’s brewed coffee (smells great, tastes awful), but when it was explained to me that a mocha involved chocolate, well I just had to try. It was serviceable, but these Starbucks folks clearly had no idea that for a chocoholic tween, the emphasis should be less on the espresso and way more on the chocolate syrup and whipped cream. A few years later, another Starbucks opened up literally next to my high school. Sophomore year,  I challenged the upper limits of my pancreas by opting for a Venti Hot Chocolate during every early morning free period I had. (Note: this was an early but striking lesson in nutrition, when I discovered that consuming full-fat cocoa drinks with whipped cream several days a week in fact leads to weight gain. Shocking.)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started voluntarily consuming coffee-based drinks, and even then the term “coffee-based” is a bit of stretch. My college roommate Megan was a Pennsylvania native, and so decided in our first scant hours together that I needed to be educated about the wonder that is Wawa. For those not in the know, Wawa is pretty much 7/11, only WAY BETTER. Not only do they offer a multiplicity of brewed coffee flavors (french vanilla, hazelnut, etc), but they have one of those gross powdered-latte machines. And that miraculous machine was precisely where my true coffee journey began.

Cue a montage of my freshman year experiments with the Wawa latte machine. Just as Megan had promised, the machine was meant for dreamy artist-types, with its magical capacity for flavor combos, like Irish coffee/peppermint, or french vanilla/toffee. And note the easy learning curve afforded by the push-and-hold-to-fill buttons. You could start with a 90% hot chocolate, 10% almond latte, then slowly adjust the proportions as you became addicted to the sugar and caffeine high of these artificially flavored masterpieces. By the end of that year of trial-and-error I probably would have picked the caramel-mocha as my go-to drink, which just seems disappointingly mundane given all the possibilities.

Much like the venti hot chocolates of my high school days, I eventually realized that I was basically drilling cavities into my teeth with these drinks, and I tried to make the switch to regular coffee. Plus, Megan had moved on, and I’ve realized in chronicling this she really was the tastemaker for me when it comes to coffee. She was always one step ahead on the journey to coffee simplicity, and chose black coffee for years before I got into the game. So I grimaced and set aside the latte machine for the flavored coffee carafes right next to them, adding in a couple of packets of artificial sweetener and maybe even a flavored coffee creamer to keep up the excitement of untried flavor combos. Baby steps, to be sure.

Luckily, a semester abroad in Scotland forced my hand. I was distressed to discover that brewed coffee is relatively rare in Scottish cafes (or at least it was in 2008), and the exchange rate does not favor an American in a Scottish Starbucks. Reluctant to empty my bank account on expensive mochas (and/or add to the generally unhealthy diet of delicious Indian food and cafeteria meat pies I was surviving on), I turned to the only thing that seemed familiar — Americanos. Of course, I threw a solid amount of milk and sweetener into those, since the straight espresso flavor was a big leap for me. I grumbled about missing real coffee for 4 months, but it was heaps better than the gritty cups Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee I grimaced through each morning in my dorm.

Back in America, I had my ups and downs, at one point giving up coffee all together, then slowly falling back into the habit with decaf, and eventually returning to full-fledged addiction when I started in the working world. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve cut out my customary packet of Sweet-n-Low, and only in the past month that I’ve left the half-and-half in the fridge.

And you know what? I actually kind of like the bitter taste of black coffee. Maybe it’s the same effect as when you start drinking a liquor like Scotch straight-up — once the dominant flavor of  the mix-ins is removed, you start to notice the subtlety of the base itself. While I would be loathe call myself a discerning coffee drinker (I like Dunkin Donuts a lot — there, I said it), I can now really tell the difference between the brews of coffee I like and those I don’t. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and gosh darn it, I’m actually proud of myself for taking the opportunity to try something different.

During the tumultuous period of my 20s, it’s kind of refreshing to discover new things about myself on the micro-scale. There’s a lot of change going on in every part of my life, but finding out I like eggplant or poached eggs or pinot noir are the kind of developments that somehow offer me a bit of stability. Silly as it may seem, accepting that my tastes are shifting lets me know that change is inevitable and can actually be rewarding. Like my fencing coach said in high school — if you focus on taking small steps, you’ll be balanced when opportunity comes to lunge. I don’t fence these days, but occasionally life throws you a tough bout, and you can damn well bet when that happens that I’ll be on the strip well-caffeinated and armed with my full cuppa joe. I’ll take it black, please.

Fencing epee in high school