Founded in 1981, Toscanini's has made just about every "best ice cream in America" list compiled since. The Cambridge scoop shop turns out hundreds of flavors throughout the year — some for special occasions (hamantashen ice cream at Purim), some making use of ingredients only available for a short time. (Co-owner Gus Rancatore says farmers predict a good season ahead for berries and stone fruit, which we can expect to see reflected on the flavor list.) There are 32 kinds on offer on any given day — 29 ice creams and three sorbets.
But which flavors are the best? We tasted all 29 ice creams available one recent afternoon, then ranked them, from most to least favorite. (So, although many of the top flavors are included here, it's possible your No. 1 has been scandalously omitted.) Ice cream preference is highly subjective: Kara likes chocolate, peanut butter, and other such rich lusciousness in hers. Devra prefers herbs, spices, bitterness, and a bit more austerity. Despite our differing tastes, we found ourselves in surprising agreement.
Here are the rankings:
Kara Baskin: A rich and velvety snack mix, like creamy Cracker Jack — a dreamy, sugar-spun tango of salty and sweet. I want more, more, more.
Devra First: Salt! Caramel! Exactly what it claims to be, in the best possible way. On the sweet-salty seesaw, this ice cream balances perfectly level.
KB: Never thought I’d admit this after a lifetime of seeking out chocolate-peanut buttery ice creams, but this is delicious. This version reminds me of granola soaked in sweet milk. Pleasantly crunchy, tantalizingly creamy. I’m sold. Consider me a Grapenut convert.
DF: I love Grape-Nuts the cereal, but they often get mushy in ice cream. Not so here. The nuggets are crunchy and intact, texturally pleasant against the smooth background. Not for those who don’t like to chew their ice cream.
3. Roxbury Puddingstone
KB: Now this is my kind of ice cream: chocolate-y and chunky, with plenty of textural intrigue thanks to nuts and chocolate chips. An excavation in every bite. Adore it.
DF: Rocky Road for grown-ups. (It’s named for the official state rock.) Chocolate-y, nutty, but not goopy or overly sweet. Props for geology-nerd coolness.
KB: Earthy, flavorful, and almost juicy. Soothing, too, like a trip to the sweetest spa imaginable.
DF: An exceptional version of green tea ice cream. Grassy and earthy, with real matcha flavor. It’s a beautiful color, too.
KB: Moan. So rich, chewy, dense, and thick — like eating brownie batter. I want to roll around in this. I love it more than my weighted anxiety blanket. I feel at peace. More, please.
DF: The scoop is lovely, dark and deep. This is chocolate ice cream for chocolate lovers — no distraction, a paragon of the form, with a delightfully chewy texture.
KB: This actually tastes like Earl Grey! Maybe not what I'd seek out in an ice cream flavor — if I want tea, I'll order tea — but admirably citrus-driven and authentic. A rainy day in a cup.
DF: Delicate, subtle, lovely. The bergamot comes through. I want to serve this to my stuffed animals in wee china cups.
KB: Love the brownie batter, but don't you feel it's overpowered by the brown sugar and brown butter? There are a lot of competing flavors here, all scrumptious, but they seem to tussle for center stage.
DF: Brown sugar, brown butter, brownies: basically an inverted brownie sundae from heaven. I'm not usually a dough-in-ice cream person, but the brownie chunks here hold their own. The brown butter and brown sugar bring a nice, rich roundness to the mix. (I don't find them overpowering at all.)
KB: Pungent. Bitter. Like suckling a sweetly smoldering match. I could go for a bite or two, but it's too overpowering for a whole cup.
DF: I like bitter, burned stuff. I adore this ice cream. It might be my personal favorite of them all, particularly when eaten with another flavor for balance. It verges on acrid without quite getting there, and it is wonderful.
KB: A classic. The little black dress of white ice creams. Refreshing, pure, pristine.
DF: Happiness for those who always order vanilla. Clean, classic, appealing. It's the J. Crew of flavors.
KB: I'm not a khulfee fan, but the cardamom nuttiness here is on point. I can see people going crazy for it, but it reminds me of those little potpourri packets people put in their drawers to make their socks smell better.
DF: Cardamom is one of my favorite spices, so it's no surprise how much I enjoy this riff on the Indian frozen dessert. Peppered with nuts, so there's never any palate fatigue.
KB: I feel like I just snuck a shot of rum. Is there alcohol in this?
DF: Aces. Sweet but not too sweet. Nocciola gelato's airier American cousin.
KB: Appreciably large chunks of dough. I approve.
DF: If you want chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, this is a really good rendition.
KB: Like eating an Oreo dunked in milk. Again, an admirable ratio of cookies to cream here.
DF: Oreo-esque but not overwhelming. A good order for the kids.
KB: Love the strong coffee taste, but these chips are huge — like big teeth!
DF: In general, I find Toscanini's chocolate chips to be too big and too plentiful. I want my scoop to be more cream than candy. That said, coffee ice cream plus chocolate chips is always going to be good. And the chocolate offsets what I don't love about the coffee ice cream (see below).
KB: This tastes like an Andes mint on steroids, or like mouthwash. Bracing! And, again, very large chips.
DF: It's a pleasant version, but I want mint to slap me in the face; this just caresses my cheek. Andes-esque, as Kara says, when I want Altoids.
KB: Blech! Like licking a bar of soap. But I know some people love fruity flavors, and I respect your desires.
DF: Sophisticated, with a marmalade-y bitterness. The honey and orange somewhat overwhelm the delicate saffron. It would be fun to pair it with baked goods or cheese plate-type accoutrements. I can tell from the look on Kara's face that I like it more than she does.
KB: A pleasant palate cleanser.
DF: A solid entry for the ginger devotee, which I am. This tastes like real root with real heat. I'd love it with some chopped candied ginger sprinkled on top.
KB: I don't like Vienna Fingers on dry land, let alone in ice cream, which renders them mealy and crumbly. They remind me of my Nana's pantry.
DF: Meh. Too sweet, too cookie-ish, with a mealy texture. Keebler elves, get your tiny fingers out of my ice cream.
KB: Perfectly passable but not memorable. I want to be smacked in the mouth with maple but am left wanting.
DF: The walnut flavor comes through clear and pure. With the maple, it has an enjoyable praline quality to it.
KB: The cherries are nicely tart, but why are these chocolate chips so gigantic?
DF: The cherries are plump and intense. I want them in a cocktail. But between them and the chips, the chunk-to-cream ratio is way out of whack. It's practically a candy bar.
KB: Ho-hum. Pales in comparison to its bolder brethren up top.
DF: Maybe if I hadn't tasted Chocolate #3 I could get behind it. But there's no reason to order this when you could order that. It pales in comparison and chocolate flavor.
KB: Bitter. Strong. Too strong. I need a new spoon.
DF: It tastes like real coffee, only I think I might not love the coffee it's made with. Points for the dialed-back sugar. I might order it in combination with another flavor.
KB: An unlikely and unappetizing combo. The red pepper pieces reminded me of wet, wizened skin.
DF: I admire this salute to French pastry chef Pierre Herme, who combines the flavors in a tart. They shouldn't work together. They sort of work together. Maybe if I liked red pepper more? The perfect order for norm-defying MIT students, and intriguing enough to at least sample. Also: so pretty. I want to paint my toenails with it.
KB: I'm expecting layered, malty richness, but I'm not getting any notion of maltiness here at all.
DF: It's malty, not malted. More malt, please! Worth noting that it's the favorite flavor of co-owner Mimi Rancatore (sister of Gus).
KB: Eh. Could be butterier. Could be almondier. Moving on.
DF: Pleasant. Middle of the road. The one to order if fiber intake is important to you.
KB: Fruity and tart. Fine if that's your thing, but I want more chocolate and peanut butter, please.
DF: Sprightly. But is it blackberry? Is it blueberry? It's neither here nor there.
KB: This is like eating white noise. Next.
DF: Somebody forgot to put the flavoring in the ice cream base. Wake me up when it's time for the next one.
KB: Edible sunscreen or something consumed underage at a spring break resort. Fine as a frozen beverage; maybe not meant for ice cream.
DF: I fully cop to disliking banana ice cream. This is better than some, in that it tastes like real bananas. Also worse than some, for the same reason.
KB: Speaking of underage drinking, I'm detecting no rum here whatsoever. This is gluey and bland, oddly flavorless. Hazelnut up top tasted rummier. Now where's that Chocolate #3?
DF: Whoa, what happened here? I love actual cajeta, the goat's milk version of dulce de leche. This doesn't taste like cajeta, though. It's too much goat, too little sugar — the thinner, barnyard version of No. 1 pick Salty Caramel, which we recommend you order instead.
159 First St.,
Cambridge, 617-491-5877, www.tosci.com