Beyond Gelato: A guide to London ice cream
The Vittles Ice Cream Project, by Ruby Tandoh
Good morning, and welcome to Vittles Ice Cream Week, a four-part celebration of ice cream in London written by Ruby Tandoh.
This is the introduction to the series and a general overview of ice cream in London. To read the ranked list of the 16 best ice creams in London, please click here.
To read the whole project, and have access to the entire Vittles back catalogue, please subscribe for either £5/month or £45 for a whole year. All Vittles contributors are paid through user donations, so thank you for your support.
The Vittles Ice Cream Project
1. Beyond Gelato
2. The London Ice Cream Index
3. From 343 Scoops to One
4. The Vittles Ice Cream Awards, and maybe a little map (coming Friday)
1. Beyond gelato
A guide to London ice cream, by Ruby Tandoh
London is not, on the surface of things, an ice cream city. On a ramble through Soho, you will be confronted with the best examples of our worst ice cream tendencies: nominally Italian ice cream heaped in gusty peaks; bad gelato garnished with Raffaello; good ice creams, nefariously funded; a Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop; wilting, breathy swirls; lazy novelties; seatless parlours; eating a cone in a piss-stinking alleyway; Biscoff. Even when the ice cream is good, it has little to offer besides a few minutes of wet-lipped relief. What could an Amorino possibly have to say about London’s appetites? Amorino doesn’t even have anything to say about Amorino.
Not all cities suffer like this. In Los Angeles, ice cream is idiosyncratic and often brilliant in a way that reflects the discordant, soaring ambitions of the people who call it home – from Mashti Malone’s herbal snow to the sellers of gemstone nieves who, as Tejal Rao notes, seem to materialise at your moment of greatest need. In Florence there is a gelato monoculture within which ice cream should really have stagnated, but instead it has achieved a near-alchemic intensity: the winey musk of fig transmuted into milk and ice. In London, we lack a coherent animating force. There is plenty of good ice cream here, but it is harder to find good London Ice Cream – something that speaks of, and for, the city.
When it comes to its frozen desserts, London seems to have sunk into a kind of shit Italian cosplay – one which is rooted in histories of Italian street ice-vendors, but which has today grown wildly out of hand. We have gelaterias with sawn-in-half ornamental Vespas; places themed after The Italian Job; ‘GELATO HERE’ signs in cafes selling Korean bingsu; ‘gelato’ used indiscriminately as a signifier for quality, or provenance, or craft, or some gestural Italianness, when what is being sold is, in fact, as authentically Italian as the Super Mario Brothers. Perhaps the worst thing about these gelati is how homogenous they are – so in thrall to the idea of gelato that they forget that their ice cream can, and should, have an identity of its own. Entrenching this orthodoxy are lists that regurgitate the same few gelaterias summer after summer. I’d call it an ice cream hierarchy, but that’s too generous: it’s not just that gelato has been unquestioningly crowned king, it’s that many of us (especially food writers) have failed to realise there are ice creams besides gelato at all.
Still, there is a fragmented – and often incongruous – scene. On the shoulder of the North Circular is an Iranian juice bar that sells a saffron bastani so embellished with cream and pistachio that the scoop verges on being a sundae. In the middle of Park Royal – the largest industrial park in the city, and soon to become the largest regeneration scheme – is a cafe where you can get a long fang of baklava sandwiched with Syrian booza. We have lemon-and-basil soft serve, vertiginous peaks of sheeryakh, helados with the vibrational potency of Skittles. Some of these businesses are part-time, side-hustle, WFH, self-taught or opportunistic – at odds with the stale ambition of the Zone 1 bricks-and-mortar scene. Very few are celebrated in guides or reviews. But they call to mind London’s original ice cream vendors: nineteenth-century Italian migrants who sold milk ices itinerantly, on the streets and with entrepreneurial zeal. They’re a reminder that ice cream can, and even should, be a dissident art. I’ve had to concede that London might be an ice cream city after all.
Over the course of the last three months and 343 ice creams, I’ve had to question why any of this matters. It’s hard to imagine anything with less gravitas than food made to be eaten with a stuck-out tongue. But there is something important here. Chasing droplets helter-skelter round a clotted-cream soft serve, or making Greek mastic ice cream masquerading as gelato in the ex-industrial London docklands, or churning Afghan milk ices by hand because that is The Way It Is Done – these things are impractical, inessential, unserious. They emerge from the audacious territory of desire, telling us not what London needs, but what it dreams of. This is, in its way, the most important hunger we have.
A note on criteria: this guide isn’t a democratic project. You may not agree with the criteria I’ve used, which is fine but immaterial. Ice cream, for the purposes of this guide, is: likely made in London (this discounts the likes of Creams which, while a vital part of the ice-cream-eating scene, is not part of the ice-cream-making scene); probably (but not always) dairy-based; available to buy by itself and not as part of a restaurant menu (or from a cafe that only serves it from time to time.) Some ice cream-adjacent confections, such as halo-halo or falooda, are abundant in London but the ice cream component is not integral enough to warrant their inclusion on this particular list. Some, such as ees cendol or kakigori, are iced desserts but distinct from iced cream desserts. So why include sorbets, bingsu or fruit paletas? That’s my prerogative. These are ice creams because they feel like it, because I feel like it. Isn’t that what ice cream is about?
A disclosure: I have briefly worked at three London ice cream businesses – La Grotta Ices, Ruby Violet and Happy Endings – although experience tells me that I am more, rather than less, likely to criticise the ice creams I have seen up close.
Gelato in London follows something like the anti-Karenina principle: all bad gelati are alike; each good gelato is good in its own way. London gelato is very often over-sweetened, watery, gritty, pockmarked with crystals of ice, redolent of the spilt milk musk of a child’s school jumper. The more performatively Italian the shop, the worse things tend to be: take Eataly (Hamley’s for prosciutto) or Anita (‘La mamma del Gelato’). Things are better at Gelupo, Oddono’s, Romeo & Giulietta, Badiani, La Gelatiera, Snowflake, Gelateria 3Bis, Morelli’s, Gelatorino, Ice Cream Union, and Unico. That said, these places suffer for a pervasive and dispiriting sameness, and most – even when the flavours are good – are texturally poor. The only truly original gelateria is Foubert’s in Chiswick, which doubles as an old-fashioned B&B, although that’s more due to the idiosyncrasies of the decor and ownership than the quality of the ice creams. The Kingstonian alleges to be gelato but is actually something far better: an ice cream van (operating most afternoons from the Kingston Gate of Richmond Park) selling an ever-changing cast of homemade scoop ice creams.
Good gelato can take many forms. Some great flavours are metaphysically slippery, like an Amalfi lemon becoming more itself when made into something else. This is the case at Danieli, where there is a pistachio worth travelling to Richmond for – a salty, resinous grey-green orb that makes you realise, at a lick, that you have until now been living on the surface of your own life. Some gelato is about the chew and density that comes from a milky, low-cream custard being churned slowly for minimal added air: Duci makes well-paddled gelati that resemble, I think, what Gelupo used to be. Others prioritise textural lushness: GioLato and Nardulli have gelati which seem not to melt but to sublime, changing from matter to aroma the moment they touch the tongue. The extra-dark salted chocolate and the double pistachio gelati at Bilmonte are both excellent, although what really sets this place apart is that whipped cream is offered free and as standard, which is the only noble way to serve gelato but which – like beef-dripping chips – has suffered a long and inexplicable decline.
Great ice cream, like pro wrestling, is about meticulously choreographed excess. Nowhere is this done better than in Iranian bastani sonnati. At Saffron Juice and Ice Cream Bar, just off the North Circular Road in Finchley, there is a decoy cabinet of frilly gelato-style ice creams, but the real draw is a chewy saffron-gold bastani with the power of a closed fist. It would be Too Much if not for the delicacy of the add-ins: frozen clotted cream shards, pistachio slivers and the wistful note of rose at the end of a bite. This couldn’t be more different from Darlish in Liverpool Street, where the ice creams – despite being nominally Iranian – are texturally and vibelessly gelat-ish.
Bingsu isn’t a sundae so much as an architectural folly: a turret of shaved milk ice, strategically buttressed with additions that can include red beans, injeolmi and gold ingots of mango. There’s something to be said for the scale of these desserts, but the real magic lies in the balance: the sweetness of condensed milk tempered by red beans, coffee, fruit or matcha. You might expect that you’d need to go to New Malden to get good bingsu, where Cake & Bingsoo and 601pm are the stand-outs, but the kinako bingsu at Japanese cafe Shibuya on Shaftesbury Avenue is particularly artful, and you can also find an excellent (if chaotic) milk tea version at Café Macarong in Golders Green. Make sure you don’t miss the theatrics of the prep: a slurry of sweet dairy frozen instantly on a rapidly gyrating steel drum, shaved with a razor-edged blade and snowed into a waiting trough. All the same, one of the most skilful ices I’ve had was a fig bingu at tea shop be-oom which, unlike the others on this list, is made with crushed ice rather than frozen, shaved milk.
The fact that this is even a category is testament to the impact that just one maker can have if they open at the right time, in the right market and with deep enough foundations in the communities they’re from. London today is home to half a dozen Filipino-run ice cream businesses, including Sylvia’s in Romford, Katie’s Ice Cream, and Araw, whose collaboration with Kapihan yielded a coffee ice cream rippled with soy caramel and speckled with caramelised pinipig. It’s hard to imagine that this would have been possible without the influence of Mamasons and their ube, guyabano and Milo ice creams. Best is their queso, which has the funky fudginess of Norwegian brunost.
Grapenut ice cream
Some ice cream flavours are an instant tell, as knowingly legible as an LGSM T-shirt under an open shacket. When you see Grape-Nuts (or grapenut) ice cream – even if it’s cheek-by-jowl with bought-in bubblegum and Oreo ice creams, as it is at Creams & Waffles in Edmonton – you know straightaway that somebody here is a romantic, that they are Caribbean, that they are hungry and wistful enough to make this one particular ice cream from scratch. By itself, Grape-Nuts cereal is about as edible as gravel, but when churned with vanilla custard the meteorite fragments soften, infusing the ice cream with a toasted maltiness while retaining a micro-crunch at their core. It is everything old-fashioned brown-bread ice cream should be, but seldom is. Julius Cools makes his own at Cools Kitchen takeaway by Norwood Junction and – because he is a real head, a man with respect for his craft – will serve it to you in a sundae glass if you ask nicely.
Ice cream sandwiches
Happy Endings dominate this niche, with excellent if gratingly named creations like the late but dearly missed Monumintal – fresh mint stracciatella sandwiched between chocolate-dipped biscuits. It faces stiff competition, though, from the likes of Fink’s, which has recently started making very good salted-caramel-and-peanut ice cream sandwiches, and Bebek in Dalston, where the havuç baklava is filled with slabs of chewy, milk-white dondurma.
In London, kulfi finds an analogue in ice-cream-van 99s: ubiquitous, sold by legions of small pop-up and kerbside vendors, but actually produced by a handful of large wholesalers behind the scenes. (Kasuri Kulfi is one of the most prodigious.) It is very seldom bad, but then it’s rarely amazing either, which is a shame, because of all the varieties of ice cream, kulfi is the most elegant expression of the chemical properties of milk. Most ice creams are churned, stirred, kneaded or beaten as they freeze, but in the case of traditional stick kulfi, which is frozen solid in a mould, a different approach is required: makers work with, rather than against, the milk, boiling it with khoya (milk solids) until much of the water has evaporated and its proteins caramelised to a tan sweetness halfway between evaporated milk and dulce de leche. At Lahori Kulfi and Falooda in Tooting (distinct from the Ilford shop of the same name), the result is a delicate wand of malai kulfi. It has a little cardamom but where the flavour of the slowly cooked milk predominates. Carn’s Kulfi mainly sells to restaurants (everywhere from Puraan on Turnpike Lane, where I first had them, to Tayyabs) but you can buy their outstanding mango or pistachio kulfi to-go at Gupta’s on Drummond Street or Anand Pan Centre, among others.
For scooped kulfi, Afters, a chain of Creams-style dessert parlours, sells a baroque kulfa sundae in some branches – a sundae-falooda hybrid of malai, mango and pistachio ice creams with khoya, vermicelli noodles and rose syrup – while the mini-chain Scooperb serves a number of competent Indian-inspired scoops, although what I like best is the boldness of the flavour notes, which detail how their ice creams can help with arthritic joint pain (paan), wound-healing (tutti frutti) and dysentery (the blackberry-hibiscus notes of kala jamun).
Mastic ice creams
Even within London, there are regional ice cream specialities. Gelato is the ice cream of central and south London; east London is soft serve territory; Creams, now everywhere, has become ungovernable. The nexus of ice cream in the west is Syrian and Lebanese booza, while its cousin, Turkish dondurma, controls a slim but vital artery of the city to the north, stretching from Camden through Green Lanes and to the furthest reaches of Edmonton.
Unlike gelato, booza and dondurma aren’t made from an egg-thickened custard but stabilised using mastic gum (a pine-scented tree resin) and/or salep (a powder, made from an orchid root tuber, with considerable mucilaginous power). The result is an ice cream with body, bounce and an almost preternatural density. At Levant in Park Royal, you can order Syrian booza sliced (never scooped – fuck you, Amorino) into petals that are presented in the shape of a rose. Diwan Damas on Edgware Road makes serviceable booza too, though it’s Lebanese makers who are doing some of the more creative work right now: Mama Booza has tubs of apricot and k’nafeh, while at Festok in St. Christopher’s Place, the traditional achta and pistachio sit alongside date, halva and turmeric.
In the northern fiefdom there’s the goat’s milk maraş-style dondurma at Gaziantep Patisserie in Enfield, with the elusive combination of physical heft and seductive, slippery draw, while down in Camden, at the southern edge of dondurma’s domain, Soho Creamery has salep-thickened black mulberry, coffee and apple crumble flavours.
Less dominant are Greek and Greek Cypriot ice creams, where mastic is often used as a flavouring but the texture sits at the softer, more scoopable end of the spectrum. At Aroma Patisserie in Palmers Green there is a good mastiha ice cream, which excels as a milky foil to their rose sorbet, a Barbie-pink, sweet and densely floral ice that would frankly be too much on its own. At Gelato a Casa in the Docklands is a promisingly chewy, pine-scented kaïmaki. Here you can also clearly see two of the most toxic facets of ice cream culture in London play out in real time: ice cream that is very clearly not Italian having to masquerade as gelato in order to be marketable, and ‘dog gelato’ – the sign of a society on its knees.
Paletas, helados and geladinhos
Along the Old Kent Road, there is an unlikely ice cream ecosystem: with a keen enough nose for sugar, here you’ll find helados of inky blackberry layered with coconut, and the acid voltage of a lulo ice – little lollies of green mango on wooden sticks that hit like a punch to the jaw. In Lewisham, there are caramelised coconut geladinhos, and in Brixton, mango-lime paletas of an almost catastrophic heft. You can find more names in the Top 16, but one of my favourites is by Las Delicias de Martha, sold from a corner shop in New Cross: a multi-layered helado of mango, blackberry, lulo and coconut with the DNA of a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastille lolly.
Scoop ice cream
To the best of my knowledge, London has fewer than five old-fashioned scoop shops (which make ice cream in-house, as opposed to gelaterias or dessert shops). One is Ruby Violet, whose ice creams I can’t impartially judge because they fired me at the start of the pandemic (just in time to not have to pay me furlough), but the most egregious is The Parlour at Fortnum and Mason, where I expected a knickerbocker glory with the profound, hallucinatory, ineffably British weirdness of Noel’s House Party, but I got £15 of flavourless ice cream in a room full of divorced dads and their part-time kids. There’s something of the giant panda about this dying breed of dessert, neither hungry nor horny enough to save itself. Much more exciting is Rio Ice Cream & Cake. I will not pretend that the ice cream is good, but this Lewisham parlour – which appears to be an offshoot of the Sri Lankan chain of the same name – has the most flamboyant menu I have ever seen in London ice cream: choc ices, fruit salad with ice cream, sundaes with kithul and nuts and – the noblest of confections – jelly and ice cream.
Some great work is being done in London’s Japanese cafes: Toconoco has vanilla, black sesame, red bean and matcha ice creams with a dewy glow that can only come from butterfat rising, like a prayer, to the surface of the scoop. Kissa Wa in Highbury serves a less interesting vegan matcha ice cream but makes it into a sundae with extravagant care, layering it with granola, mochi, anko and roundels of red and white grape.
Excitingly, Matter at Hand have recently started selling tubs online from their Bloomsbury workshop: their cucumber ice cream in particular is outstanding. Theo Makes Ice Cream has a brilliant lemon meringue tub topped with perfectly torched Italian meringue. At Big Kid, there is a McDonald’s fries ice cream which, despite having the lightness of baby’s breath, tastes unmistakably (and compellingly) of salty chips. Udderlicious specialises in maximalist Ben & Jerry’s-style concoctions, though one of their strongest ices is a custardy peach and Greek yoghurt. At the Palestinian bakery Joury Sweets, blueberry and strawberry ices are made the old-fashioned way, with double cream whipped to firm clouds with sugar and fruit, then dressed with game-changing homemade fruit syrups.
Spoon-for-spoon, Afghan sheeryakh is the best ice cream being made in London. You’ll hear it before you taste it: the percussive crunch, grind, slosh, crunch, scrape, crunch, bang, rattle of it being churned by hand, to order, in a deep metal drum. Behind the counter is a man with the kind of delts that could only come from making delicate little sundaes on sunny afternoons – from heaving ice and salt into a well in the counter, from pouring bucket after bucket of cardamom-scented milk, from shaking and scraping and churning and turning that milk mixture as it freezes against the walls of the metal drum, from paddling the sheeryakh to teetering pinnacles in a shallow bowl.
Because sheeryakh is churned to order, it achieves something akin to what Chin Chin Labs is doing with liquid nitrogen, but better, and with more elan. This is how things are done in Hendon’s Kabul Sheeryakh and amid the postmodern brilliance of the Harrow branch of Sundaes, where the sheeryakh business seems to have grafted to the main hustle – the waffles-and-milkshakes business – like wisteria up an old brick wall. The specifics of the milk base and the serving style can vary – Shahr e Naw’s sheeryakh is drizzled with an evaporated milk mixture (rather than the usual cream) that speaks to the influence of Indian and Pakistani falooda; at Afghan Sheeryakh in Hanwell there is a slightly sweeter ice cream and the option of topping it with jalla (vermicelli noodles) – but, in every case, what’s served is an ice cream at the height of its powers.
The soft serves of London are the city’s own Pokémon GO. One day, at Bake Street near Rectory Road, the apparition of the lesser-seen ‘James Hoffmann’: a double helix of coffee swirled with blackcurrant, named after the former World Barista Champion whose mellow fruity notes inspired it. Later, the collectors spot on Instagram that Soft & Swirly is back at it and descend upon Netil Market for a slender spiral of lemon, cardamom and honey. Onto The Ealing Grocer next, where there is a watermelon sorbet with the rococo blush of a pink rinse. Part of the soft serve’s appeal is ephemerality, but there’s more at play: the machines are expensive and most can dispense only one flavour at a time, so makers are forced to ruthlessly curate their offerings, leaning into the micro-seasonality of strawberries in first flush or Supermalt when the mercury begins to climb. It’s a responsive art, which means it is thoughtful, which means it is very often good. At the other end of the spectrum (and this saddens me, because I like their absurdity): Soft Serve Society, and Milk Train, which sells cotton-candy-crowned cones out of a shop styled after the Orient Express.
There are specialists, too. Rosslyn serves a Happy Endings cold-brew-coffee soft serve, which is second only to a McDonald’s DIY affogato (McFlurry – toppings + espresso shot) in the pressing summer heat. Lai Cha on Deptford High Street has, to the best of my knowledge, the only pandan soft serve in London. But the best of the soft serve specialists are Japanese: at Katsute100 (only the Brick Lane shop) there is a rare soft serve really celebrating, rather than shrouding, the depth of good matcha; at the other end of the spectrum, Tombo Cafe has a matcha and sakura soft serve sundae with the kind of coy ugliness of ballet pumps worn over sports socks, a cascade of green and pink: shiratama, matcha brownie, wafer, red bean, granola and kuromitsu syrup. TSUJIRI makes a matcha flavour too, though what I respect most is its occasional kinako special, and what I respect least is the inclusion of vanilla soft serve on their Camden branch menu as a concession to French teens.
Vegan ice creams
For a long time in London, it has been the fate of vegans to eat nothing, or – worse – a sorbet, while the dairy-eaters around them enjoy the luxe density of a salted caramel scoop or cascading swirls of soft serve. Luckily, things are looking up. Marcelo’s, which occasionally pops up at markets but is primarily orderable online, makes a vegan toasted pumpkin-seed ice cream to rival any Bronte pistachio gelato. DÁPPA has a nut-based vanilla soft serve: it’s a technical triumph that it holds such firm, crisp ripples, and when made into a sundae with the sauces and toppings on offer, it’s good. There’re also the choc ices from Vagabond: the salty paloma is a grapefruit ice cream enrobed in very thin, crisp dark chocolate that glistens with crystals of salt. From the non-specialists, I’d recommend the dark chocolate sorbet from Incognito Ices, the extra-dark salted chocolate from Bilmonte, and the matcha sundae (which I believe is vegan) from Kissa Wa.
Snog, Pinkberry, Yogland… frozen yoghurt isn’t even pretending to be serious. Come on.
The Vittles Ice Cream Project is written by Ruby Tandoh, illustrated by Heedayah Lockman, edited by Adam Coghlan and Jonathan Nunn, and copy edited by Liz Tray and Sophie Whitehead.
All photos in the project are by Michaël Protin with the exception of Beyond Gelato, which are by Ruby Tandoh.
In addition to those mentioned above, Ruby visited the following ice cream vendors during the writing of this guide. They’re mentioned here because we anticipate some readers messaging to tell us that if Ruby had been to Caliendo’s, for example, she would surely have loved it. Well, she did go, and she didn’t like it. Some of the following are good, some are terrible, most are very ordinary:
Royal Parks soft serve kiosks, Shake Shack, Wendy’s, Golden Pastanesi, Blowing Dandelion, Brass Monkey, Greedy Goat, Hook and Son, Reenie’s, Angie’s, Jollibee, Hackney Gelato, Grom, Caliendo’s, Forest Hills Gelato, Anima E Cuore, Sundae, Candiero, Taiyakiya, Creams, Kaspas, Honey and Spice, T’s Fried Scoop, Gussy’s Ice Cream Parlour, Hafiz Juice Corner, BAKE, Nitro Treatz, Dark Sugars, Crosstown, Milksha, Chin Chin Dessert Club, Fentons, Morelli’s, Bertotti, Fabulous Ice Fires, Aydee’s, Mammamade, Nonna’s, Jai’s, Madeleine’s, Candy Cafe, Harune, Cafe Mori, Gaziantep Pastanesi, Golden Patisserie, Antepliler Baklava, Jefferson’s, Bears.