Back in the early days of the Angelo Brocato gelato parlor, it was common for customers to queue up on hot summer mornings toting their own pitchers.
“They’d come and get them filled with lemon granita to bring home,” said Arthur Brocato, third-generation proprietor of the business his grandfather first opened in the French Quarter in 1905. “They’d dip their Italian bread in it and that was breakfast.”
That was before the advent of air conditioning. But as summer trudges on, maybe some modern-day New Orleanians can relate to the impulse.
With the mercury rising, hands reach instinctively for something cold, we yearn for chilling refreshments and the prospect of brain freeze starts to sound downright appealing.
The sno-ball stand may be the instinctual oasis in New Orleans, but like the granita – or Italian ice, a simple fresh blend of ice, fruit and sugar – different cultures offer different icy answers to the swelter and these days we have access to more to them. Here are some local examples from traditions around the globe when you need a freeze
Say hello to halo halo
Halo halo translates from Filipino as “mix mix,” which describes the format but can’t hope to capture the exuberance of this dessert, as served up at the Mid-City restaurant Milkfish.
“Back home (in the Philippines) they’re everywhere at these little stands, and people just love them,” said chef Cristina Quackenbush. “Here we call it a Filipino sno-ball so people can picture it.”
The halo halo started with crushed ice imbued with both coconut milk and condensed milk. Adds a slab of avocado ice cream, a scoop of purple yam ice cream and a fringe of toasted coconut and still the halo halo is just getting started. Dig in and there’s a seam of tiny, sweet adzuki red beans and tart agar jellies made from strawberry and durian. On top, slices of velvety flan are somehow along for the ride under more toasty, crunchy, sweet garnishes. It’s a blizzard of flavor – curious, cooling and a lot of fun.
Milkfish, 125 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 267-4199
Kulfi is sometimes called “Indian ice cream” though this dense, slow-melting dessert has its own distinctively rich flavor, like lightly caramelized milk. Some local Indian restaurants serve a simple dish of the stuff, perhaps garnished with pistachio. But at Desi NOLA Kitchen, a homespun café for Indian and Pakistani food in Kenner, kulfi is worked into a festive dessert drink called falooda. The color of bubble gum and fragrant with the subtle-sweetness of rose water, it’s blended with an icy mishmash of different colored gelatin chunks and grain-sized basil seeds that give a pop like tapioca pearls. It can help tame the potently spicy dishes on the NOLA Desi Kitchen menu, and when served in a plastic cup (complete with dome lid) it’s a handy take-out dessert to help you keep your cool in traffic too.
NOLA Desi Kitchen, 3814 Williams Blvd., Kenner, (504) 352-6400
While staples like pho and banh mi are now everyday cravings across New Orleans, Vietnamese desserts remain a little more obscure. At restaurants they’re often displayed in cooler cases by the cash register, sitting in single-serve plastic cups and looking like chunky, gelatinous, sometimes garishly-colored mysteries.
But when I ordered the che ba mau, or three-layer dessert, at Gretna’s venerable Tan Dinh, it arrived at the table after a serious makeover in the kitchen. Layers of minty green gelatin cubes, yellow mung bean paste and lightly sweet mashed red beans striated a parfait glass, over which went a shot of coconut milk as thick as frosting and finally the essential cap of crushed ice. Mixing it all together with a long spoon, it was rich, creamy, icy and refreshing.
This and similar ice-and-bean-based desserts are found at many Vietnamese restaurants, including Rice Paper, the latest in a succession of noodle shops to open in the lobby leading to the Asian foods superstore Hong Kong Market. Rice Paper has also put a more contemporary spin on the form with a crushed ice flan. It sits in a moat of espresso and under a cap of finely-crushed ice – just the right size for a post-shopping snack or an easy dessert.
Tan Dinh, 1705 Lafayette St., Gretna, (504) 361-8008
Rice Paper, 925 Behrman Hwy., Gretna, (504) 393-8883
Icy and spicy
La Morenita Meat Market is a Latin American grocery with a long butcher case full of marinated meats, rafts of chicharron the size of sombreros and its own in-house cafeteria, which functions like a food court of Mexican street snacks. It even has a little nevería, or ice cream parlor, where alongside a cone of tamarind and mamey ice cream you can also get the mangonada. It’s an icy mango dessert with the texture of sorbet, and with a marked resemblance to mango freeze of Jazz Fest fame. But the key addition is a dose of chamoy, a thick, rusty-red, jammy-sweet sauce further spiked with lime and chile for a salty, mildly spicy, mouthwatering savory edge.
La Morenita Meat Market, 2703 Belle Chasse Hwy., Terrytown, (504) 393-5003
Taken for granita
Compared with some of the international exotica above, old-fashioned Italian ice might seem a little plain. But it’s precisely the light, fresh flavor and cooling goodness of a classic Sicilian granita that has endeared it to generations in New Orleans.
“Granita was one of the first things my grandfather made when he opened in the French Quarter,” said Arthur Brocato, whose family business long ago relocated to Mid-City. “He’d go down the street to the French Market and pick out what was in season.”
Brocato’s recipe today is little changed, blending ice, fruit and sugar, and the parlor sticks to a seasonal schedule for special flavors. Peach and cantaloupe are now going strong, pear is on deck and lime granita has made a rare appearance, tasting light as air, tart with citrus and, most important, cold as a glacier.
Angelo Brocato, 214 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 486-1465
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.