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Mamma Mia! My intentions were pure….identify the best ice cream and Gelato in Ann Arbor. What could be difficult about that? 

My neurosis started in March by way of an e-mail exchange with Mary Lemmer, one of the fine proprietors at Iorio’s. Her note came at an opportune moment; I was growing frustrated with the lack of dessert options at Mani. I quickly made a routine out of finishing meals at Mani with a short walk to Iorio’s.

Secret Insight: Some of you may already know this, but Grandpa GastroBoy was an Ice Cream man. In the 1920s he and his partners opened a small ice cream shop in Detroit. They competed with another small shop across the way. Perhaps you’re familiar with his competition, Sanders. While Grandpa’s shop no longer stands, my personal passion for all Ice Cream Shop proprietors is eternal. 

Immediately after my first trip to Iorio’s I drafted an idea to compare Gelato and Ice Cream shops within Ann Arbor.  The timing was perfect. Summer came early and frequent trips to get ice cream were easily justified. Then Don Draper reminded me about Sherbet. Shamrock Shake season challenged my consideration of malts and shakes. When the new Culver’s opened I was compelled to Custard. Finally, and in no way trivial, my spawn persisted throughout with incessant demands for Dairy Queen.  How could a fine lad like myself appropriately discuss ice cream without giving proper consideration to all of ice cream’s bastard cousins?

Welcome to my nightmare.

For the last two months I’ve been documenting and consuming every conceivable permutation of ice and milk fat. Hard work, right?


In the US we have this nifty little document referred to as the United States Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Standards of identity are legal definitions of food products. Interestingly, this construct allows for the term “whole grain” to be defined as any grain product whose grains contain only 51% whole grains. Quite a standard, right?

It’s important to note that these regulations were developed as consumer protection laws, not culinary standards. This is a delicate distinction with massive implications. Defending these regulations is left to DC – and despite the hype, when commerce is involved DC is rarely by the people and for people.

Now that we’ve officially defused the implied integrity of said “standards,” let me talk like a human. In layman’s terms, separating the different frozen desserts come down to two structural differences.

Dairy Content      Does it have it? What kind? How much? It’s important to understand the difference between Milk Fat and Milk Solids.  Milk is essentially an emulsion of water and fat with a few other goodies mixed in. The “other goodies” represent Milk Solids…Protein, Sugars, Minerals and Acids. The more fat you remove, the less “cream” you have. To be Ice Cream, according to CFR, there must be over 10% milk fat; plain and simple. What about Gelato? Good question. In the US there is no federally regulated standard of identity. That said, most folks agree to a norm of less than 5%.


  • Quick NOTE: Dairy coats your tognue. The higher the fat content the stronger the result. That explains why sorbet, having no dairy, is used to cleanse paletes as opposed to gelato. FYI.


Overrun      “Overrun refers to the amount of air that is whipped into the ice cream mixture. For example, an overrun of 100 percent would mean for every gallon of ice cream mix, you get two gallons of finished ice cream. Without this air, the frozen ice cream mix would resemble an ice cube, the same as if you were to freeze milk or any other liquid. This would make the ice cream pretty difficult to scoop and very icy to eat, which would also make for a pretty frustrating dessert experience”

To help navigate the category I’ve developed the A2GastroBoy infographic for frozen dessert.


ICE CREAM     According to the CFR, Ice Cream must be at least 4.5 pounds per gallon, contain more than 10% milk fat, have a combined milk fat and milk solids of over 16%, contain 12-16% Sugar and be limited to a maximum of 100% overrun.

FROZEN CUSTARD      This too has a CFR standard. Basically, it’s any ice cream with over 1.4% egg yolk.

ICE MILK AKA "SOFT SERVE"      This does not have a CRF standard. Some research indicates that there was once a standard dictating 5% milk fat and 50-60% over run. It appears that some weasel had the definition stricken. No doubt in an effort to exploit the term “ice cream.”

GELATO      Alas, the barons of American Industry have yet to agree upon a standard for Gelato. In the absence of a commercial standard we find ourselves dependent upon European norms. That means Gelato is like Ice Milk (5% milk fat) with twice the sugar and less than half the over run of ice cream.

FROZEN YOGURT    This is curious. By switching to yogurt base versus raw cream we almost entirely eliminate the fat. Fro Yo has 0.5-6% Fat. Total milk solids are relatively comparable to ice cream at 8-14%.

SORBET    Think of this as Italian Ice made in an ice cream or gelato machine. Sorbets have a tendency to be more granular in texture. The smoothness of a sorbet is dependent on the secondary ingredients because of how they can change the structure of the frozen recipe.

GRANITA, GRANITÉ OR GRANITÉE      Granita, meaning granular in Italian (granité/granitée is the French word, meaning granite-like), is a frozen dessert made without an ice cream machine. Instead, a sugar-syrup base, flavored with fruit purée, coffee, herbs and/or wine, is frozen in a pan. As the crystals on the top of the pan freeze, they are scraped into a grainy, coarse sorbet. Commercial granitas are frozen in a gelato machine, which produces finer ice crystals.

SHERBERT / SHERBET      Think of it as spiked sorbet. The difference between sorbet and sherbet is that sherbets contain milk or another fat, making it similar to ice cream, though much lighter. The CRF for Sherbert is 6 LBs per gallon, 1-2% milk fat and lessthan 5% total milk solids. Generally thought of as being fruit based, sorbets can be made with any ingredient.

  • Sometimes misrepresented, the Sherbet / Sorbet confusion is likely the evolutionary result of Turks adding cream to Sorbet.
  • AKA Glace (pronounced glahs), the Frenchy word for ice and ice cream.



Healthy Gelato: The jig is up      OK – now let’s explore a recent marketing phenomenon. I’ve seen repeated references to Gelato as a “healthier” alternative to ice cream as it has a lower fat content. Really? Define Healthy. Yes, gelato does have as much as half the milk fat as ice cream. That said, most research will validate Gelato to have as much as twice the sugar content. So what’s better, fat or sugar?

I subscribe to a “know fat” diet as opposed to “no fat.” Fat is good. Fat allows your body to absorb nutrients. At the same time, I’ve been taught to appreciate caloric balance. In a dramatic over-simplification I’ll tell you that our bodies ability to process calories into energy as apposed to storing them as fat is more a function of activity, or burning those calories, than the composition of these calories. Again, I admit I’m oversimplifying very complex science.

So again I ask, what’s better, fat or sugar? To further investigate the differences I found nutritional panels for three competing foods, Ice Cream, Gelato and Frozen Yogurt.

Granted, these are only three samples. The data are far too small to warrant a conclusive verdict. Still, the science might suggest is that Ice Cream and Gelato are interchangeable. If there were a “healthier” choice, it would definitely be “fro Yo.” Fear not. Even sugary pop tarts could be part of a nutritious meal. The key is moderation. I like Gelato because of its dense and rich texture. I also like Ice Cream. I’m an equal opportunity dessert participant. GastroBoy suggest you forget the health debate as it relates to dessert and simply add more cardio to your week.

The Ice Cream Social: THE ANN ARBOR ROSTER     Before I lay down my list of the best ice cream/gelato/sorbet in Ann Arbor I need to pay homage to the ice cream social. I’ve made ice cream. It’s a pain in the ass. And it’s unfathomable to do so alone. Not only is cranking that damn machine exhausting, the result yields more cream than any one human can reasonable consume. There in lies the beauty. By nature, Ice cream should be shared.

In the last two weeks I’ve been to two separate “Ice Cream Socials;” one at my spawn’s elementary school and one in town for a civic action event.  While the audience and purposes could not have been more divergent, the contagious euphoria was identical.  Knowing that this piece was in draft form only made the similarities more striking. Yes, Ice Cream is a culinary treasure, but it’s also a social elixir. Right on to that. Ready for a cup or cone? Here’s where to go.

KILWINS      For those who don’t know, Kilwin's is a franchise. There are 82 stores and growing. That said, it all started with one little shop in Petoskey, Michigan. Most of the company’s the chocolate and ice cream is made at their kitchen in Petoskey. I’ve grown-up on pilgrimages to Northern Michigan Kilwin’s. When I spent two years in Annapolis I was over the moon to find a Kilwin’s one block from the harbor. The local Kilwin’s Chocolate Shoppe of Ann Arbor opened in 1983 and is owned by Karen Piehutkoski. In 1996 Karen expanded next door to include an ice cream parlor. They are both charming shops. The recently opened Cherry Republic at Liberty and Main makes that stretch of sidewalk exceptionally wonderful.

STUCCHI      To be candid, the Stucchi legacy is brighter than recent reality. Again, we’re dealing with a franchise. Stucchi was started by local brothers in 1986. It was an instant classic. They grew the company into a franchise. Unfortunately, they cashed out and the business has been sold…twice. First to some Charlatans from Texas and then in 2008, Stucchi's Ice Cream was sold to Michigan-based Papa Romano's Enterprises, which also owns Mr. Pita. Neither PRE brand has done remarkably well. I don’t expect tremendous growth from Stucchi either.  That said, the State Street store recently changed hands and the new owners show promise. I’m also a fan of the Dexter store, home of the sprinkle bar. Service at the South U store, conversely, is tragic.

WASHTENAW DAIRY      Since 1934 this joint has been an institution. It’s one of the few remaining places in Ann Arbor that doesn’t feel like a theme park. Locals line the street on warm summer nights. As a of descendent Detroit Ice Cream I take pride in knowing Washtenaw Dairy serves Stroh’s ice cream. Now here’s the real secret…while Dairy is the namesake, donuts are where its at. A warm donut and trucker-coffee from Washtenaw dairy will make you wax poetic – though the regular morning crowd of old timers would instantly bust your chops if you audibly spoke poetry. FYI - if you ever need dry ice this is the place to get it.

IORIO’S GELATERIA      My vote for most glamorous ice cream / gelato shop in Ann Arbor is Iorio’s. The white boot of Italy installation sidled by the white-washed staircase is a post-modern masterpiece. It makes the decadent indulgence of desert that much richer. And while Iorio’s does not make their gelato, they have a heavy hand in the process. Iorio’s also get’s my vote for most enticing flavors. I’m mad for the Bacon-Chocolate and amused by Oberon and Orange. Chocolate Fig in another highlight. Bravo Iorio’s.

ZINGERMAN’S CREAMERY / ZINGERMAN’S NEXT DOOR      Like all things Zing, this gelato is the bomb. That said, neither location is entirely convenient when gelato is your sole mission. Also be advised that the flavor’s, while individually flawless, do not veer far from traditional.  From my vantage point this is the number one option for residential consumption. Stop by Plums and bring a pint home a few pints. 

DQ      Yes, I’m including DQ in the list. In the spirit of cold summer treats you can’t over look the intrinsic beauty of a  DQ cone or an Oreo Blizzard. Is it ice cream? Not by my definition. Is it brilliant? Do I look forward to the day they open each season? Hell to the yea. We’re blessed to have three wonderful Dairy Queen stands within greater Ann Arbor each with a distinct charm – four if you count the year-round “Brazier” Ypsilanti location.

FYI compliments of Wikipedia: The name "Brazier" originated in 1957, when one of the company's franchisees worked to develop a food system that would work for all Dairy Queen restaurants. A brazier is a cooking device consisting of a charcoal or electric heating source over which food is grilled. The term "Brazier" was the result of a brainstorming session with the franchisee's advertising agency.

  • BULLSHIT WARNING: While I love DQ, I do not consider it ice cream; a minor still important distinction. I’d explain, but why bother when they do it so incriminatingly well.  This is taken directly from the DQ web site.

Is your ice cream really ice milk? Is it fat-free?

Our soft serve used to be categorized as “ice milk” because it has five percent butterfat content. To be categorized as ice cream, the minimum butterfat content must be ten percent. By eliminating the term “ice milk” the FDA allowed ice cream products to take advantage of creating new and innovative products such as “reduced-fat”, “light”, and “low-fat” ice cream. 
Dairy Queen® soft serve now fits into the “reduced-fat” ice cream category and our shake mix qualifies as “low-fat” ice cream. So, while our recipe has not changed, our delicious ice cream has been placed into these new categories.
DQ soft serve contains 5% butterfat, which is not the same as 95% fat-free.

Reader Comments (1)

Awesome list, really enjoyed reading it. Iorio's has been a recent favorite (er...some might say, obsession?) of mine, but you've also gotta love Washtenaw Dairy on a warm summer evening.

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