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Getting Your Licks In

Michael Davis Photo

Ice cream may not exactly be the fountain of youth, but don’t tell Vic Johnson, the affable co-owner of Skanellus Drive-In in Skaneateles. Johnson is often seen behind the grill during the spring and summer months, slinging burgers. But when the evening rush is over, he often treats himself to another one of the house staples: a classic hot fudge sundae.

“We still eat a surprising amount of ice cream,” says son and co-owner Mike, laughing as his father proudly pats his hardly detectable ice cream paunch. The Johnson family built Skanellus more than 40 years ago and Mike now handles most of the day-to-day administrative duties.

Enjoying a frozen dessert is one of the best ways to beat the Central New York heat and humidity in the summer. And local ice cream shops run the gamut in terms of the choices available. Whether you crave the American classics found at Skanellus, the handcrafted gourmet confections at Gannon’s Isle in Syracuse or the many lower-fat options at Sno Top in Manlius, there’s bound to be something to make every member of the family feel like a kid again.

Like many local shops, Skanellus has changed with the times and now offers frozen yogurt, three flavors of sherbet, and other lower-fat options. But old habits die hard, and for the Johnsons, it’s the soft serve and traditional sundaes that keep the crowds lined up at the serving windows from April through September.

“More than anything else, we’re known for the soft ice cream,” Mike, father of two sons, says, adding that one customer—an avid runner— stops by and orders two large twists every day.

The Johnsons offer 12 flavors of soft serve, including two non-fat frozen yogurts. Sundaes? They’ve got about 20 different varieties.

Beyond the Basics

Like Skanellus, Sno Top in Manlius serves oodles of softserve, but the menu also reflects a commitment to offering healthier choices.

“When the family goes out for a treat, you don’t want someone to feel left out,” says Vince Giordano, who, with his wife, Kathy, has owned and managed Sno Top for 36 years. These days the shop offers its soft vanilla ice cream (made from local dairy products) along with a seemingly endless variety of low fat and lower sugar options. “If you can’t take care of everyone in the car, they won’t come back as often.”

The Giordanos, parents of three grown children, added frozen yogurt to Sno Top’s menu in the late 1970s. After two years and little interest, they stopped offering it, figuring it was a “California fad” that just didn’t appeal to Central New York’s ice cream lovers. But by the late 1980s, yogurt found its place on the East Coast. Since then, it has been a steady seller for Sno Top.

Today, Giordano says, customers can get most everything on the menu—even decadent gourmet sundaes, made with low fat, and sugar-free options. Even no-sugar added fudge.

Sno Top also boasts a rotating choice of Dole Whip, a frozen, water-based treat flavored with reconstituted fruit juice. Fans of the six flavors know to look for Kathy’s schedule to see when she will be making their favorite. The local Weight Watchers chapter keeps the schedule handy. The treat is also a good choice for those who suffer from nut or milk allergies.

With its proximity to baseball fields, a martial arts studio and a pond, Sno Top has a devoted local following. The Giordanos say one of the secrets to their success is that they listen when customers have suggestions—especially when times are more difficult, and families have less cash to spend on treats.

“We realize that ice cream is not a necessity,” Giordano says. “Everyone is affected by the economic condition. When products go up, you try not to pass those expenses on to the customer, but sometimes you have to. Being a high volume store helps.”

The Giordanos, both natives of Manlius, have nutrition cards for all of the products they offer, and the regulars know that healthy options are available—if they choose.

Isles of Handcrafted Delights

In the nearly three decades since the Gannon family opened its Valley Drive shop in Syracuse, frozen desserts have evolved. But even the most health-conscious sweets lover would be hard pressed to resist John Gannon’s homemade hard ice creams. The main store offers about 30 flavors at a time, many using locally grown fruits and dairy products.

“We have about 15 or 18 flavors that are pretty much always available; others are seasonal,” says Eileen Gannon, who co-owns Gannon’s Isle Valley Drive and McDonald Road locations with her brother John. “John only does the strawberries and cream in the early summer, and we have pumpkin and apple ones in the fall.”

Gannon has always been a big fan of her family business, and she often enjoys a small serving after working an evening shift at the McDonald Road store. “Dark chocolate walnut is it for me,” she says with a smile. “I always leave with a little bit of something; it’s my payoff at the end of a busy night. But I couldn’t do that if I didn’t get my morning walk in.”

While Gannon’s Isle’s homemade ice creams are decidedly indulgent, customers can select no-sugar added sherbets and yogurts, fruit smoothies and black cherry sorbet as alternatives. Gannon says customers these days seem more concerned with sugar intake than the fat content.

“In my opinion, everyone deserves a treat once in a while,” she says. “But I also think it’s good that people are paying more attention to what they are eating.”

Gannon says she recently started offering cereals as mix-ins for sundaes and flurries, due to popular demand from the pre-teen crowd. Parents seem to consider cereal a healthier option than candy mix-ins. Gannon says she tries to balance keeping up with popular demands and keeping the focus on quality.

“You start to wonder if there is too much to choose from,” says Gannon, a native of Syracuse. “When I was a kid, we would go to Marble Farms for ice cream. Chocolate chip or cookies and cream was about as crazy as we would get.”

A Lot o’ Gelato

Biscotti Café & Gelateria in Syracuse is probably not for those looking for a low-calorie frozen treat. Since 2004, owners Geoffrey and Deborah Camire have been delighting Little Italy patrons with gelato, an Italian-style frozen dessert. While it does contain less butterfat (and air) than American ice creams, its dense texture and bold flavors should, perhaps, be enjoyed in moderation. Fruit-flavored gelatos use water as a base, and therefore are less caloric than their ice cream counterparts.

Using natural ingredients, the Camires prepare their gelato on site. They use a traditional European process of “cooking” the mix at 180 degrees for 10 minutes, followed by a 10-minute freeze. Geoffrey Camire explains that gelato also requires different storage facilities than ice cream, as it has a higher melting point and has a shelf life of only about a week.

“That’s usually not an issue for us, since we go through it pretty quickly,” Camire says. “Especially on a warm weekend.”
During the spring and summer, the Camires offer up to 18 flavors of gelato—including Italian favorites like stracciatella, a rich, vanilla-flavored base with abundant dark chocolate shavings. Even in the winter, customers can choose from about nine flavors.

“One year I stopped serving gelato during the winter, and I got yelled at,” Camire says with a laugh.

The couple’s two children, Molly, 9, and Joshua, 7, visit the café often, and eagerly serve as resident taste testers. To the uninitiated, gelato’s appearance and textures may seem odd. Camire says he still gets questions about flavors like pistachio—which does not feature the enhanced, bright green hue of pistachio ice cream.

“Our pistachio is real pistachio,” Camire says. “For a while, I did add a bit of green color, because people just couldn’t get past the fact that it wasn’t green. And the eyes play a big role in eating.”

Camire admits he doesn’t get a lot of health-motivated questions from his customers, although he does steer them toward the fruit-flavored varieties if asked. He is currently working on a sugar-free gelato, but he has yet to come up with a batch he’s completely happy with.

Take a Dip Trip

Heading north, one of the busiest places in Central New York on a Friday night is Big Dip on Route 11. Big Dip is a tiny landmark that has built a huge following. Its star attraction? Chocolate-peanut butter twist.

The shop has actually been a favorite of North Syracuse residents for about 50 years. Donna and Joe Stenzel bought the store in 1992 and have remained true to its original appeal. “People like a good soft serve—chocolate and twists are always popular. But the options keep changing,” says Donna Stenzel. “We add things gradually.”

One of the first changes the Stenzels made was to offer more hard ice cream. They now have about 17 flavors, including a sugar-free/fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt and a fat-free butter pecan.

Stenzel, mother of four grown children, says the shop’s selection of frozen drinks, and flurries, slushies, shakes and smoothies, have become more popular in recent years. When it comes to sundaes, decadence still reigns. The minty Grasshopper Pie sundae, and caramel-drizzled Turtle Sundae remain favorites—calorie counts notwithstanding.

Discriminating Eaters

Regardless of how many options there are, all of these shops emphasize high standards for quality and cleanliness. As they are all family-owned businesses, there is an element of pride attached to every aspect of the process.

“I think the way we take care of the product makes a big difference,” says Sno Top’s Giordano, current president of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association. “We use two local dairies, and our machines are always very clean. There are always things stores do—or choose not to do—that affect the quality of their ice cream.”

The owners of Biscotti’s Café and Gannons Isle have found that their attention to detail inspires customers to even stock freezers at home with their favorites. “I have one lady who buys five pints at a time,” Camire says.

Once Skanellus closes for the season—around Oct. 1—Vic Johnson heads to Florida. He was surprised to find that Floridians are far less discriminating about their frozen desserts than Central New Yorkers. “New York State has the best ice cream, I’m sure of it,” he says.

“We know our customers will be very vocal if something isn’t right,” adds Mike Johnson. “And they should be.”             

Frozen Love

Looking for a way to beat the heat this summer? Do those extra laps in the pool, then head out for a frozen treat.

Big Dip. 216 N. Main St., North Syracuse. 452-5877. Donna and Joe Stenzel, co-owners. Owners’ pick: vanilla soft serve cone. Writer’s pick: peanut butter soft serve.

Biscotti’s Café & Gelateria.
741 N. Salina St., Syracuse. 478-6152. Geoffrey and Deborah Camire, co-owners. Owners’ pick: stracciatella gelato (but daughter Molly prefers limone). Writer’s pick: espresso chip gelato.

Gannon’s Isle. 1525 Valley Drive (469-8647) and 4800 McDonald Road, Syracuse (475-1250). Eileen and John Gannon, co-owners. Owners’ pick: dark chocolate almond ice cream. Writer’s picks: espresso chip or chocolate raspberry truffle ice cream.

Skanellus Drive In. East Genesee Street, Skaneateles. 685-8280. Mike and Vic Johnson, co-owners. Owners’ picks: Mike, soft vanilla cone; Vic, hot fudge sundae. Writer’s pick: soft chocolate cone.

Sno Top.
315 Fayette St., Manlius. 682-8582. Vince and Kathy Giordano,
co-owners. Owners’ pick: soft chocolate cone. Writer’s pick: black raspberry soft serve cone.

More, more, more!

Abbott Farms. 3275 Cold Springs Road, Route 370, Baldwinsville. 638-7783.

Abbott’s Frozen Custard. 4282 Fay Road, Syracuse. 487-9047.

Geddes Bakery. 421 S. Main St., North Syracuse. 437-8084.

Kimberly’s Ice Cream. Cazenovia Road at Manlius Commons, Manlius. 682-0308.

Lou Lou’s Family Restaurant and Ice Cream. 8201 Route 57, Liverpool. 622-1392.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York