Always Trying to Surprise You: Gus Rancatore of Toscanini's Ice Cream

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Interview by L. Valena; Photography by Canyon Twin

Gus Rancatore is the owner of Toscanini’s Ice Cream, an award-winning mainstay of Cambridge MA since it opened in 1981.

How did this all get started?

I came to Boston in 1973 to finish my undergraduate education at Boston University. I was an English major, hoping to get an undergraduate degree in English. My financial aid got scrambled, and the part-time job I had gotten at Steve's Ice Cream in Somerville turned into a full-time job out of necessity. Steve's had opened in September of 1973, and I lived with several people, one of  whom was a special ed teacher in Somerville Massachusetts. One night she said, "Let’s visit this new place that makes its own ice cream!”

I remember my cynical response was that it's impossible to make ice cream in a store front- you really need to have a large factory. But she took me over to Steve's Ice Cream which I immediately loved  and we started going there regularly. I like ice cream quite a bit- I like it even more now than I did then. I think Steve deserves a lot more credit than he customarily gets. He's a key part to the recovery of that artisanal, entrepreneurial energy that seems so common in the food sector. I think all the beer companies, bakers, cheese makers and artisanal butchers all follow from Steve and a few other people. A relatively small number of people gave birth to all of these pickle companies, and bagel companies, and bread companies- and this and that.

I worked with Steve's Ice Cream on and off in different capacities for several years. Steve sold the business and moved to Western Massachusetts. He told us he was going to raise goats, but actually what he did was tune pianos. And after some time, he opened a new ice cream company called Herrell's ice cream in Northampton.

Gus Rancatore

I had stayed on with the new owners, and finally I decided that if I was going to continue to make ice cream, I would rather do it in my own fashion and in my own way. Amy Miller (of Amy's ice cream in Texas) and I were the only two people who left Steve's ice cream to stay in the ice cream business. Amy worked at Steve’s while studying at Tufts. Toscanini’s opened in 1981. She opened Amy’s a few years later. I knew I wanted to be near a university, because they carry you through the winter. College students in Boston eat ice cream year-round. And some of this is due to the kind of peculiar nature of universities in Boston, most of which are pretty good and somewhat demanding. Boston is not like one of those Southeastern Conference football towns, where people are partying and drinking five nights a week.

The typical, and maybe disappointing behavior of Boston college students is that they come and have ice cream as a break, and then they go back and study some more. I've had friends who have gone out with people on these brief ice cream interludes and were kind of appalled. They expect that they're going to go out drinking and dancing, and instead, you're supposed to go back and do another problem set. I think that's one reason why people in Boston eat so much ice cream.

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When I opened Toscanini's, there were many more ice cream stores than there are now. I think a lot of what went on in those ice cream stores can now be found in coffeeshops and microbreweries. All of these places are casual locations for either being alone or socializing. You can do either- you can come here and read a book, or write a poem or a letter to your high school friend. Or you can come here with everybody who just saw the Star Wars movie and talk about it. Or you can come here after you've heard a band at the Middle East.

The thing that I was interested in doing, and have grown more interested in doing, is making ice cream from other countries and other cultures.

Toscanini's makes Carribbean ice cream flavors, we make some Italian flavors that you typically see as gelato or gelati. Over the years we've accumulated, thanks to customers, all sorts of other things. Indian ice cream flavors, Southeast Asian ice cream flavors, Japanese ice cream flavors. It's fun. My girlfriend is a food anthropologist, and she and I are both interested in the same thing. But at the end of the day, I want to sell people something, and she just cares about understanding what they do and what they eat.

We've been in business, and we've stayed in business, which is a success when you know about the fatality of small businesses. A year or so ago, we opened this location, and we're going to reopen our original location soon. There will be two Toscanini's- one in Central Square and one in Kendall Square. I think to my surprise, and almost the disbelief of other people, I probably enjoy what I'm doing now more than I ever have. I'm always finding out new things about making ice cream and inventing new flavors. I enjoy the customer contact.

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What's the most interesting flavor you've been experimenting with recently?

We were approached by a man from Korea trying to establish a national caviar industry, which he viewed as a patriotic undertaking. He showed up with a whole lot of caviar and asked us to make ice cream with it. We have previously made quirky, savory flavors; it was actually a pretty easy assignment. We made the ice cream, and it was good- if you like caviar. A lot of people don't like caviar at all. We made the caviar ice cream, and gave him a couple pints, and he came back and said, "is there any caviar left? Where is it?" and I said "I'm not sure, I think it's somewhere around here someplace." He said, "well, that was ten thousand dollars worth of caviar!" and I said, "Okay, I'll find it!" I had no idea how valuable it was. He was basically in Boston looking for startup assistance. That was probably the most interesting flavor I've made recently.

That's really interesting. What color was it?

It was white. If you looked carefully at it, it had these pale caviar eggs throughout it. I knew we could do it, and I knew it wouldn't become broadly popular. We've made a few other flavors like that- the kind of flavor that most intrigues me is the flavor that has what some would call crossover appeal. I'm not just interested in making a flavor for 75 graduate students who are here from Beirut or Japan. What I want to do is find a flavor from Japan that has  a broad appeal. 

There is so much interesting food. Right now, you see Americans eating across national borders with a lot of enthusiasm. There are much better examples outside of ice cream. For example Roy Choi, in Los Angeles, is a Korean American who makes Korean tacos. Roy Choi's parents think this is a terrible idea. They think it’s really stupid, and degrades the national patrimony of Korean food. The parents of the line cooks, who are disproportionately Salvadorian and Mexican, also think this is a stupid idea. The people who like it are young Americans who are willing to eat less traditional food. And even mainstream Americans, whoever they may be, eat food that their parents didn't eat when they were younger. Avocados were almost unheard of- now it's a popular breakfast food. When I was a child growing up in New York, the only people who ate pizza were Italian Americans, and only Jewish people ate bagels. There is constant change. It may be one of the rare, heartening signs of a country growing more comfortable with increasing diversity.

 I think the idea of taking these flavors and combining them in different ways is an exciting trend in American culture- it's almost part of re-write culture.

Yes. Like mashups. Artists have done this for a very long time- remove elements from one thing to another, enlarge their size, replicate them. At one point I was studying art at a small college in Minnesota, and I found that to be lifelong touchstone for  dealing with problems. Even the introductory art course that all students take, which had a title like 'Elements of Design', had a lot of suggestions that I think are helpful in many ways. We learned about repetition, variation, all sorts of things.

The other day we were working on a flavor for the Cambridge Arts Council that involved Knotweed. We were trying to figure out what to do with this Knotweed- which is a plant with a terrible name that looks a little like bamboo and tastes a bit like rhubarb. Rhubarb is not a flavor that Americans have embraced with a passion, so we were having this conversation. It's a conversation that's close to what Corky White does at her Anthropology course. It’s what chefs do at humble taquerias and sophisticated restaurants alike. What element can you bring from another culture, that may even be discordant, but still improves the overall eating experience for the American palette? It's fun.

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I don't think we're guilty of over-intellectualizing ice cream. Most of the time, people come here and get chocolate chip. But for the people who make ice cream here, some of these aspects make their job much more interesting.

And I'm sure there are a lot of people who come in and just want to know what you've been working on.

That's true too! Sometimes I think they expect comical answers. In the summer we get a lot of adult suburbanites, who come in say, "Oh look honey, they make avocado ice cream!" But avocado is a real, established ice cream flavor in Mexico and Indonesia, and other places where avocados are abundant!

We don't have a transgressive spirit. There are ice cream stores that are trying to annoy you, your parents, or your homeroom teacher, but we are not that ice cream store. We're trying to surprise you. We're trying to give you something you hadn't thought you'd like and are surprised by. We're very open to suggestions, from customers and vendors, and even from mistakes. One of our most popular flavors, Burnt Caramel, was a mistake. And now we're kind of famous for it.

Tell me about that.

I was working one night, late night, with two ice cream makers who were very good, including Adam Simha, who now makes knives. We were having a discussion about something: great rock and roll bass players, or who was the second best left fielder the Red Sox ever had? We were also caramelizing sugar, which you should pay close attention to, as if you're making risotto. And suddenly we realized that we had burned it.

We were kind of commiserating about how stupid we were for taking our eye off the ball, when Bruce Frankel, a famous chef who worked down the street at 798 Main Street, a restaurant he owned, came by to borrow some heavy cream. Bruce came in, and looked at the mistake, and said "just call it burnt caramel". We looked at him in disbelief, and he said that it was a very popular Spanish flavor- people would probably pay extra for it. And he was right. And it was similar to some advice that Julia Child gave Corky White when she burned some cabbage.

Yes! I think it was Russian cabbage soup!

Right. She said something like, "just call it 'roasted cabbage soup' and put some sour cream on it." We didn't really believe Bruce, but we finished making the batch of Burnt Caramel, and we froze it. It was almost immediately popular. That kind of opened us up to intentionally looking for flavors, and to being open to mistakes and suggestions from unlikely sources. It made us much more conscientious.

When we first opened there was a new supermarket across the street. I used to walk up and down the aisles of this very banal Star Market, looking for things that we could put into ice cream. In the ice cream industry things that you put into ice cream are called 'inclusions', and some things work very well, and some things don't work at all.  Some things absorb so much milk they become soggy, so you can't use corn flakes. You can do things to corn flakes that help  you to use them. I tried three or four things a week, for months. And one day I came back with a box of Grape-Nuts. It's a cereal I never ate. We made the Grape-Nut ice cream. The Grape-Nuts maintained their integrity- they were still crunchy. They were kind of interesting.

And suddenly, we had a lot of Caribbean cab drivers who were double parking, coming in and asking for Grape-Nut ice cream. After a week or two, I finally asked someone why they were so excited about the Grape-Nut flavor, and they told me that the most popular ice cream store in Jamaica sells Grape-Nut, and we were the only place in Boston who made it! And then later, some older New Englanders came in, and ordered it because it reminded them of Grape-Nut pudding. So you have this flavor that most people think is stupid and never try, but is often the fourth most popular flavor we have, because it's popular with these two very divergent groups. People from Northern New England and Eastern Canada, and from the Caribbean. I wrote a letter once to the people who make Grape-nuts, and told them they should start making ice cream- they never responded.

Grape-Nuts Ice Cream

Grape-Nuts Ice Cream

Post never responded to you? Jerks.

They're the ones with the declining brand! It's close to what's called a legacy brand- things that persist long after the market has moved away. On a recent visit to a supermarket I noticed some signs of life in that part of the cereal aisle.  They’re now making Banana Grape-Nuts.  And maybe we will do something similar or evocative or imitative. 

This year, with help from people who travel and people from other countries, we've made Milo, which is an Ovaltine-like product from Australia. It's popular almost everywhere in the world except the United States. It comes in a green can, and features a local athlete- it's kind of like a Wheaties box. People from Australia, Singapore, and Indonesia come in and say "oh, you have Milo!", and they're very happy. I had a small battle with the people who serve the ice cream, because they didn't know what it was, and they didn't get it. "Why are we bothering with this flavor? Why do I have to explain to people what Milo is?" But in a place like Cambridge, a college town, you only have to explain it to about ten percent of the public, and then those people tell their friends- they become almost like brand ambassadors.

Toscanini’s Ice Cream is located at 159 1st St, Cambridge MA.

Lucy Valena