ands down, Mike’s Ice Cream Parlor serves the best ice cream
flavor—red velvet cake—in all of Music City. Maybe the whole state.
Mike’s is a cozy throwback, nestled among the honky-tonks downtown, lifted by the sounds and scents of a classic parlor. Sweet, with coffee and laughter overtones. And sometimes a line that stretches to the nearest Elvis statue. And…wait. Mike’s Red Velvet Cake is almost the best. Even Mike’s stalwart fans have to admit defeat, however, when they get a scoop of the roasted strawberry buttermilk from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a relative newcomer with shops in 12 South and East Nashville. Jeni’s takes the cake. Or the cream. Whatever. Everyone agrees: Jeni’s seasonal strawberry offering is superlative. Unrivaled.
Except, of course, for the Pied Piper, East Nashville’s kid-friendly, adventurous ice cream mecca that synergistically combines good taste and bad in its legendary Trailer Trash flavor. The ice cream case is closed: If the Pied Piper plays, the Pied Piper wins. Trailer Trash, every time.
As long as no one brings up Legato Gelato in Edgehill Village. True, even though the words are synonymous, gelato and “ice cream” aren’t the same. Gelato is ice cream’s denser, lower-fat, warmer cousin. And when gelato competes—especially goat cheese and honey gelato—then Legato Gelato conquers all. Almost all. Except, say, the classic vanilla soft serve at Bobby’s Dairy Dip on Charlotte Pike, which has no equal. But then, to be fair, everyone knows the only ice cream better than Bobby’s vanilla is…Mike’s red velvet cake, downtown, back where we started. Obviously.
In truth, a true ice cream aficionado has only recourse for settling the matter: Spend time researching each stop on Nashville’s Ice Cream Trail. (Note: the above list is not thorough.) Many parlors and shops have started peddling desserts in the last few years, responding to—and fueling—customers’ desires to get their frozen fix from a neighborhood establishment where the scooper behind the counter is likely to be the owner.
But the reach of these parlors far exceeds the grasp of sticky fingers on a waffle cone. To perfect their flavors, the proprietors of Nashville’s finest ice cream houses get picky at the markets around this time of year and trek to nearby farms to get the best of what’s growing right now. They do it partly because their customers want to know where the food comes from, but mostly because they can find the best-tasting ingredients for their ice cream.
“We buy all of our produce from farmers’ markets,” says Jenny Piper, owner of the Pied Piper Creamery in East Nashville. She says she follows the same strategy every year: Head to the downtown Nashville farmers’ market, strike up a relationship with a farmer at the beginning of each season and work with the same producer. Piper estimates she’s sold more than 40,000 gallons of ice cream since she opened her doors in early 2007. On any given day, a Pied Piper customer faces 24 flavors. Among the most popular is Trailer Trash, a mash-up of chocolate candies and cookies smooshed into vanilla ice cream. (Also available in chocolate or with cheese curls. Yup. Cheese curls.)
Piper’s dedication to local farmers is a common theme that comes up when you talk to Nashville’s ice cream dealers.
“Farmers are a huge part of what we do,” says Jacob Winger, the operations manager for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. The business launched in Columbus, Ohio, and spread to Nashville in 2011. Winger says Jeni’s Nashville branch, like their other stores, is committed to keeping it local. “We work with local farmers and seasonal ingredients.” For example: “Strawberry ice cream is always popular, but we only produce it when strawberries are in season.” To get the reddest, ripest strawberries, he looks to the farms that lie between Nashville and Columbus, including The Orchard—a popular strawberry farm run by Don and Katie Henry in Cross Plains, Tennessee.
Jeni’s has also earned fans in Music City by rolling out flavors resonant with local culture. Yazoo Sue with Rosemary Bar Nuts, for example, combines the smoky flavors of local brewery Yazoo’s A Beer Named Sue with “fistfuls” of nuts and brown sugar. Another mixes real chunks of Loveless-inspired biscuits with peach jam, rolled into a rich buttermilk ice cream.
At Legato Gelato, owner Terri-Ann Nicholls also shops for flavors locally, including goat cheese from Noble Springs Dairy in Franklin and honey from TruBee Honey, also in Franklin. The gelato that resulted from that mash-up, says Nicholls, was a smash among foodies—though, she says, most customers stick to the classics. Nicholls doesn’t stop with the flavors, though. She sources as many ingredients as she can locally, and her gelato is made with Tennessee Real Milk, from the G&G Dairy in Orlinda, Tennessee.
“It was really important for us to find high-quality milk,” she says. At her shop, Nicholls says the classics are the best sellers, and her goal is to make those as high quality as possible.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Michael Duguay of Mike’s Ice Cream. He says in recent years, he’s seen customers become more interested in knowing that they’re eating foods made locally—using ingredients grown nearby. For one of his most popular flavors, butter pecan, he shops right around the corner at The Peanut Shop in the Arcade, downtown.
Any time is the right time for ice cream—Piper calls it “one of those small indulgences you can afford any time”—but in Nashville, the high-traffic season picks up in June, right around the time of the annual Crankin’ Festival. This event, which will be held June 8 this year on the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church on Franklin Pike, brings together amateur makers and tasters to benefit the Martha O’Bryan Center in East Nashville. Many myths surround the origins of ice cream: By different accounts, Marco Polo, Catherine d’Medici, or Charles I may have played a critical hand in its development. But who cares where it came from? Ice cream’s not going anywhere.
You might even think of finding the best ice cream in Music City as part of your civic duty. As a teenager, President Barack Obama scooped ice cream in Honolulu. He’s still frequently photographed with a cone in hand. George Washington allegedly had a sweet spot for the frozen stuff. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan declared July Ice Cream Month. So finding the best scoop in town isn’t only a delicious endeavor. It’s patriotic.