If there’s a word that sums up Hallie Meyer’s ice cream at Caffè Panna, it is extra. Extra sweet, extra salty, extra rich, extra fresh, extra crunchy, but somehow just a millimeter shy of too much. In a realm of established formulas, Meyer has created a place and a menu that feel new and exciting. The shop offers only ten flavors of ice cream each day. It’s enough. There’s plenty going on here. Of the ten flavors, half change daily and the element of surprise extends to three daily-special composed sundaes including an affogato sundae that are here today, gone tomorrow (and memorialized on Instagram).
Texture is a trademark: Meyer is a mix-ins maven whose approach descends spiritually from Steve Herrell, the 70s-era visionary who first folded crunchy candy into smooth ice cream. Where Meyer departs from the script is in her chef-y tendencies, inspired in part by Brooks Headley’s composed ice-cream desserts at Superiority Burger. “It’s the best ice cream in New York,” says Meyer, a Headley superfan. “I aspire to that level of balance in every flavor.”
For consistency, and to free herself from the rigors and anxieties of pasteurizing on-site, Meyer outsources her ice-cream bases to High Road Craft in Atlanta. “I want to add value by making really delicious flavors, making mix-ins, making the perfect salted caramel and all that,” she says. Instead of the M&M’s or Heath bars of yore, she makes her own chocolate ganache and graham brittle and cannoli crunch, and what she doesn’t make (Sicilian-pistachio paste, sweet-potato buns, coconut cookies, fruit jams from West Coast chef and family friend Joyce Goldstein) she sources impeccably. The shop’s namesake panna, for instance, is whipped from the cream of Piemontese cows.
Regular Underground Gourmet visits suggest that the world contains very few things Meyer can’t or won’t crunchify into brittle, thin into drizzles, or transform into fudge or taffy. She texturizes her pumpkin-maple ice cream with roasted pecans and pecan brittle (great). She pumps up her raspberry swirl with marshmallows and cuts the sweetness with lime (greater). And she folds chocolate ganache and crumbled Martin’s pretzels from Union Square Greenmarket into her chocolate-mint-fudge-pretzel (greatest). On occasion, she flouts the unofficial house rule against using commercial candy as mix-ins. The other day, she churned a batch of what she called raspberry Twizzler (raspberry ice cream mingled with the twisty concession-stand stalwart that had been chopped up and cooked down with cream and sugar into a stupendous Twizzler fudge). The U.G. did not hold it against her.
This Wonka-esque approach to flavor-scheming at times bewilders. Various menus (one for affogatos, another for sundaes and ice cream, one more for “crunches”) are scattered throughout the shop but not collected in one central location, and can become outdated as the kitchen runs out of ingredients and improvises with fanciful new flavors and mix-ins. Sundae descriptions, meanwhile, read like a series of shopping lists written by Ben and Jerry on an all-night weed bender. Consider this special from a few weeks ago: “Olive Oil Golden Raisin Stracciatella Ice Cream, Chocolate Sorbet, Golden Raisin Drizzle, Graham Brittle, Panna, Olive Oil, Salt.” If you were raised on a simple diet of Peanut Buster Parfaits and scoops of Baskin-Robbins’ Pralines ‘N Cream, this might give you pause. But, by golly, it works. Flavors meld, textures unite, olive oil golden raisin stracciatella and chocolate sorbet get along like a pair of sailors on shore leave. In short, this sundae sings.
The shop takes a similar too-much-is-never-enough approach to the affogato, usually seen around town in its traditional guise of a scoop of vanilla ice cream “drowned” by a shot of espresso. A recent affogato-sundae special, however, consisted of a scoop of ice cream inspired by seven-layer (a.k.a., magic bar) cookies, sprinkled with graham-crust crumble, drizzled with coconut and chocolate sauces, larded with coconut-flavored panna, and poured with espresso. Again, all high fives and wolf whistles.
Meyer says her goal is to create flavors that are surprising but not challenging. She has a particular passion for fruit-flavored ice cream. “Wherever I can make something fruity, I will, because I feel like people don’t appreciate fruity ice creams enough,” she says. “But it’s all about pairing fruit with richness.” The swirls, the crunches, the drizzles, the brittles….there is a method to Meyer’s madness. “For me, the world is just like a big peanut-butter-and-jelly world,” she says. “The challenge is, how many ways can we make peanut butter and jelly into ice cream?”