But for locals and tourists alike, there's a sweet-tasting tour through the Big Apple that shouldn't be missed, especially during the dog days of summer.
Sugartooth Tours is dishing up a sundae of sightseeing with ice cream on top. Specially designed by licensed city guide and ice cream enthusiast Allyson Tolbert , stops along the way include some of the city's most popular ice cream destinations, such as Smush and The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory --plus some history of the neighborhoods the tour crosses: Union Square, Nolita, Little Italy and Chinatown.
In celebration of National Ice Cream Month, we recently went along for a taste during the heat wave that scorched the eastern seaboard.
To say Tolbert loves sweets would be an understatement. She lives for them – literally -- thanks to the tour company she started and runs with her best friend, Sarah Rolleston. Last summer, Rolleston wanted to surprise Tolbert with a special birthday present. She decided to take Tolbert on a self-made ice cream tour of Manhattan.
“We just decided we wanted to take control of our day jobs,” said Tolbert, dressed in Sugartooth’s token orange t-shirt, cargo shorts and a pair of sneakers.
Both actresses, the two friends met while on an 18-month, national Broadway tour of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” During their down time, they decided to take food tours in every city they visited. Tolbert said a highlight was a pizza tour in Chicago.
When they got back to New York, they wanted to experience the city the same way they had toured the other cities they visited across the nation, with their taste buds leading the way. Unfortunately, Tolbert said, there just wasn’t the type of cuisine-specific tours they were looking for. So the two friends launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised enough money to open their business. Sugartooth Tours, the guided dessert-tasting walking tour, will celebrate its one year anniversary in October.
Every tour guide, including Tolbert and Rolleston, is licensed by the city of New York. That means they are full of all kinds of fun facts about the whole city, as well as the frozen treat.
One of the stops was the pop-up ice cream sandwich shop currently shares a space with Pizza Bash in Union Square.
During the tour, Tolbert explained that the ice cream sandwich was invented just a few block from where the tour was passing.
Another stop was The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory that creates unique flavors like green tea and lychee.
During the tour, Tolbert was full of factoids: The country’s first sugar refinery was built in New York City. The Oreo was invented in Manhattan. George Washington spent today’s equivalent of $5,000 in one huge ice cream bender.
“That may explain the wooden teeth,” she joked.
Even with their own company, the two women still manage to make time for acting. Tolbert was recently on the Broadway national tour of “Catch Me If You Can,” and Rolleston is now in a production of “Legally Blonde” in St. Louis. When they’re not performing on stage, they are performing for their tour groups. Both women serve as Sugartooth tour guides when they are in New York, and they have two other guides on staff for when they are traveling.
Aside from the Ice Cream Tour, which will be running every Sunday through Aug. 18, Sugartooth Tours also offers a cupcake crawl and a culinary tour of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
Tolbert said she is passionate about sharing New York’s hidden foodie gems because they can offer a sense of belonging to people who feel out of place in a huge city.
“It’s fun to bring people to a place that has a good atmosphere and a good product,” she said. “In New York, you always want a place that feels like home. Our goal is for people to say ‘this place was wonderful’ and recommend it to their friends.”
Well, mission accomplished. Tickets cost $50 and include six tastings. Tours last approximately 2.5 hours.
1. First Stop: Smush
Smush is one of the most innovated ice cream shops you’re likely to find. At Smush, they take the idea of an ice cream sandwich literally. The shop, hidden inside Pizza Bash in Union Square, is a deli-style dessert bar.
New York is famous for its delis, co-owner Dan Fischer explained while making Smush’s signature “Chocolate Covered Streuben,” so they decided to design ice cream sandwiches with an authentic deli sandwich feel.
The result: ice cream that looks identical to a real deli sandwich. The “bread” is made from six varieties of cookies, including red velvet and French toast, and baked into molds that give the cookies the look of bread loaves.
The “Streuben” looks exactly like a reuben, with thin slices of fudge used as “meat.” Even while savoring the amazing combination of flavors, it was hard not to do a double take.
2. Second Stop: Yogorino
The next stop was Yogorino, an Italian frozen yogurt chain invented by a biochemist. The chain has been operating in Italy for close to two decades, but it only recently came to the States. This one has only been in New York since April.
The New York shop is owned by Yana Kors, a woman who has a passion for food, especially the yogurt she sells. Tolbert calls her Mama Yana, and the name is a perfect fit. Kors is the quintessential mother. She forces visitors to try everything the shop offers, gelato, yogurt, espresso and any combination of the three. If patrons can’t finish what she serves them, Kors makes sure they promise to return.
Highlights included a vegan chocolate gelato that would turn even a meat-loving fanatic into a veggie. It’s so creamy, it’s hard to believe there is zero dairy in it.
As for the yogurt, it’s clear the flavor was designed by a biochemist. The taste hits every region of your palate, starting with tart then sweet then leaving with a final umami.
Tolbert summed it up well.
“Dessert is an emotional experience,” she said, digging into Yogorino gelato. “And that’s why we want to bring you to the best.”
3. Third Stop: Rice to Riches
In every tour, Tolbert likes to throw in what she calls a “curve ball.” Rice to Riches is just that. It’s cold rice pudding. The childhood fears of gooey rice pudding disappear at Rice to Riches. The interior design of the shop is as futuristic as an alien space ship and the flavors are just as innovative. The shop offers a total of 20 flavors with options like Hazelnut Chocolate Bear Hug, Fluent in French Toast and It Takes Two to Peach Mango, as well as classics like Chocolate Pudding.
A word of advice: try everything, and with this tour that will be easy. The best way to order is with a buddy system. Pick someone to share with and make sure you both enjoy the flavors.
Another perk to sharing, splitting the calories. Not that you should be thinking about calories on an ice cream tour, but the pudding may put you over the top – and there’s still many more shops to visit.
4. Fourth Stop: M'o Il Gelato
The next stop is in Little Italy for – what else? – gelato. M'o Il Gelato seriously stands out among the scattered gelaterias throughout Little Italy.
The shop’s owner, Massimo Galeano, is from Bologna and noticed something when he tried American gelato. It tastes nothing like the gelato he had back home. The difference? Gelato here is made in large batches and saved for a later date. Galeano decided to open a gelateria that focused on perfecting the flavor, even if that meant making less gelato.
At Mo’ Il Gelato the gelato comes in small batches and when it runs out, it’s gone. There’s no back up storage. What you see in the case was made fresh and that is all the shop has. For this reason, the store opens at 1 p.m. every day, to give the staff time to whip up all the gelato they will need for the day.
The stand out flavor: mango. It tasted exactly like eating a fresh mango. The salted caramel peanut gelato was also impressive, with swirls of peanuts and caramel mixed into salty gelato.
5. Fifth Stop: The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been family owned and operated for more than 28 years. If that doesn’t inspire confidence in an ice cream tester, we’re not sure what will.
“What's the secret to our delectable frozen products?” reads the shop’s website. “The answer is simple: ice cream making is in our genes.”
And it’s true. The flavors represent a wonderful fusion of classic American ice cream and traditional Chinese flavors. Customers fill the store, asking for flavors like black sesame, ginger and avocado.
To sign up for a tour:
Website: Sugartooth Tours’ Ice Cream Summer Sundays
Dates: Tours run Sundays through Aug. 18
Cost: $50, includes five to six stops