It might seem counterintuitive to pour hot espresso over cold ice cream, but Italian cuisine is quirky that way. Affogato, the dish of ice cream covered with espresso, satisfies two cravings at once. Equally at home in cafes or gelato shops, affogato is as ubiquitous as it is beloved in Italy.
In Boston, where we have the right mix of outstanding ice cream, an emerging coffee culture, and strong Italian identity, this summer treat is available all over town and is poised to develop a following.
As for the origins of the dish, there seems to be no definitive first instance of somebody accidentally spilling coffee into ice cream, or a mad confectioner or barista creating it. Affogato exists in a pretty diverse array of locations here (including a vegan version at dairy-free ice cream spot FoMu and a collaborative version from adjacent mobile vendors The Cookie Monstah and The Coffee Trike), but given its Italian roots, an affogato journey in Boston can logically begin in the North End.
Caffe Paradiso has been in the same family for 50 years, and they've been making their own gelato the whole time. Owner Adriana DeStefano explains that people who order affogato are a mix of transplanted Europeans and those who were seduced by the elixir while studying or traveling in Italy. Vanilla is the most popular gelato to pair with espresso, but it's possible to make affogato with a number of different flavors. DeStefano also notes that in Italy, affogato is often served with a bit of alcohol; she recommends the combo of nocciola (hazelnut) gelato with the hazelnut-flavored liqueur Frangelico. A special Paradiso espresso blend made by Italian roasters Guglielmo rounds out the offering.
Commonly translated as "drowned," the true meaning of "affogato" is up for some debate. DeStefano, a native of Avellino, Italy, says the word can also refer to choking, or fighting for breath. More euphemistically, she says, you say affogato "when you're talking about something so incredibly tasty that it takes your breath away."
At Toscanini's Ice Cream in Cambridge, ice cream wizard Gus Rancatore has had affogato on the menu for about 10 years. He credits "espresso batman" Mark Mooradian, who was in the coffee business before going on to start MEM Tea Imports, with first suggesting it. At Toscanini's, the espresso comes from Arlington roaster Barismo. And those who think coffee people wouldn't deign to compromise their precious brew by pouring it over ice cream should think again. "If you're an ice cream shop, and you're proud of your coffee, then why not?" asks Barismo owner Jaime van Schyndel. A fan of affogato, van Schyndel thinks of the offering less as diluting strong espresso with sweet ice cream, and more as a pairing — and an opportunity to explore how the flavor of espresso can change in different contexts.
The Thinking Cup, with locations near Chinatown and a new one in the North End, has a foot in both worlds. Affogato made with local Giovanna gelato and coffee from superstar Portland, Ore., roaster Stumptown is offered at both locations. "I remember when I came here and I tried it out, I thought that it tasted like [what] people intend coffee ice cream to actually taste like," says bar manager Cabell Tice, adding, "It's like real coffee ice cream."
The Coffee Trike's Alessandro "San" Bellino echoes this sentiment. "If you're going to have coffee ice cream, you may as well have fresh espresso poured over ice cream."
171 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 339-368-7300
255 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 617-742-1768
617 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-553-2299, and 481 Cambridge St., Allston, 617-903-3276
THE THINKING CUP
165 Tremont St., Boston, 617-482-5555, and 236 Hanover St., North End, Boston, 857-233-5277
TOSCANINI'S ICE CREAM
899 Main St., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-491-5877