Ice Box Memories

Photo by Patricia InsheiwatMy vividest memories of growing up in Orange County include Thrifty's drugstore, Lucci's Deli and my hunt—still ongoing—for the best frozen dessert. Raised in the crime-plagued Huntington Continentals (at Brookhurst and Adams), I climbed the cinder-block fence behind Grant's (now Mervyn's) and went to Thrifty's for the 15-cent triple-scoop ice-cream tower. A single scoop was 5 cents, but who stopped at a nickel when Mom's purse always contained quarters? (So good to have a mom who waitressed at the Newporter Inn and the Stuft Shirt, where Newport's elite belched on credit but tipped in pocket change.)

Ice cream shaped my youth. And my body. And thus my thinking. In 1984, on my first real trip out of OC, I found myself in Italy thinking, “Why waste time at museums when I could be eating gelato all day?” Art was no match for a five-scoop bowl of gelato so soft it could be eaten with a spoon as flimsy as a whisper.

If ice cream is my fifth food group, Gelato: Italian Ice Creams, Sorbeti N Granite by Pamela Sheldon Johns (Ten Speed Press) is my holy tome. The book is beautiful. The recipes are simple. The results are spectacular.

The Times panned the book in July, charging that Sheldon Johns was “missing a sense of passion” for the subject. But this is ice cream; the passion is in your spoon, not in your penmanship. Consider my first experiment from the book: cantaloupe sorbet. One melon. Half a cup of sugar. One cup of water. Blend on high and pour into ice-cream maker. (My Rival-brand Ice Cream Parlor was $23 at Sav-On; the $60 Cuisinart ice-cream maker doesn't need salt and ice.) My watermelon sorbet and a follow-up batch of honeydew melon were a hit at the Seal Beach Trailer Park Fourth of July party.

Ultimately, my ice-cream obsession still means a trip to Lucci's. Located at Adams and Magnolia in Huntington Beach, Lucci's (“since 1946”) is home to a humble-but-powerful little floor freezer full of spumoni and ices. (How better to top off their must-eat torpedo sandwich?) For years, the Lucci's freezer has offered the closest thing to real Italian ice cream I can find. Such good spumoni (chocolate, pistachio and cherry) is steep, around $5 for a package no bigger than your fist. But the amazing quality of the Brothers International brand provides ecstasy with every spoonful. (Brothers itself is an OC original, located in Santa Ana.)

On my recent research trip to cherished Lucci's, I found really-tastes-Italian gelato, moderately priced and made in Garden Grove by some joint called the Gelato Factory.

Why even care about any of this, you ask?

Sheldon Johns' book suggests an answer, provided by a gelato maker whose family has been turning out the stuff for 90 years. He says his summertime customers simply prefer less fat and more taste.

So do I. I don't get light-as-melon cantaloupe sorbet at Baskin Robbins. But I can make—or now even buy off the shelf at Lucci's—sorbet, a pure frozen dessert made with simple ingredients. Sorbet, you see, is made with water; we're talking light. And if you buy your fruit the way most humans on this planet do (that is, direct from a farmer), you will have actual fruit flavor in your gelato or sorbet. (Call your city hall and ask for the closest farmers' market.)

Gelato is slightly heavier, made with milk, not cream. (Whole milk works best, but I've played the field, from cream to 2 percent low fat.) Ice cream, ostensibly made with cream, is heavier than both, which makes it the less desirable summertime dessert.

If you really don't want the bother of making your own sorbets and gelattos, try Lucci's. If far from Lucci's, then the perfect burning-hot summer date is a tour-and-taste at the Gelato Factory, makers of the vanilla-almond delight I found at Lucci's. While there, ask if they're hiring.

Lucci's Deli N Bakery, 8911 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-4466; The Gelato Factory, 13331 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (877) 4-Gelato; Brothers International Desserts, 1201 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 973-1552.

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