Once upon a time in Berkeley, a self-destructive princess with horrible spiky hair worked in an ice-cream shop. One night, as she served scoops and sundaes to the pretentious and the drugged, in walked a waif whose clothes swung frayed and faded from curtain-rod limbs. He asked only for a cup of water.
"Fizzy?" the princess asked politely, guessing that he could not afford ice cream. "Or plain?"
"Fizzy," he replied, as the world shifted slightly on its axis and the stars and planets sang. He was Prince Charming, disguised as a ragamuffin, and they lived happily ever after.
True story. See, frozen-dessert shops are like that. Because, like little else on Earth, frozen desserts exist for pure pleasure. They ask for nothing except to soothe and delight, and do not even demand our attention, which is why after that first lick the mind often slaloms off to exactly where it needs to be. And that's why little shops selling it are about the closest we can come in real life to fairy tales.
So it's ironic that a town that takes itself far too seriously, a town that frowns on frivolity, has so many frozen-dessert shops, including many new ones. No less than five pepper downtown Berkeley, with more on the way. How to choose? Each has its niche.
Dispensing self-serve tart frozen yogurt sold by weight at the southernmost end of downtown Berkeley's Br-r-r Belt, independently owned Creations banks on two frozen-dessert fads made wildly popular by the Pinkberry and Yogurtland chains. (A new Yogurtland is set to open in downtown Berkeley any day now, which is sure to take a bite out of the locally owned independents.) Tart "fro-yo," as fans call it, is the new bubble tea. "Plain tart," although a contradiction in terms, is the new vanilla. Fluffy in a way that the brain struggles to align with its sharp, tongue-taunting tang, Creations' tart taro, mango, and lychee taste refreshingly true to the actual fruits, although its tart strawberry simply tastes sour. (Only with a gun to my head would I try cake-batter fro-yo, another standard here.) The empty cups into which patrons pick-and-mix from among eight yogurts and a dozen-plus toppings that include mochi, grass jelly, honey, and Froot Loops are so huge that the ounces can pile up fairy-tale fast at 36 cents each, startling hapless self-servers at the register.
Ice cream's answer to the dollar store is family-owned John's $1 Ice Cream, thriving in the space vacated last summer by slow, exorbitant, labor-intensive Cold Stone Creamery, its diametric opposite. Service here is swift, with several clerks hummingbirding over sixteen rich, indulgent flavors — mocha almond fudge and green tea are best-sellers — made on-site by John Gill, who says his family's twenty years in the frozen-dessert business have taught him enough about creating recipes, sourcing ingredients, and running shops to keep quality up and costs down. (He owns another John's, also selling dollar scoops, in Brentwood.) With its creaminess and old-fashioned American exuberance — spoonfuls of fudge, caramel gilding the butter-pecan, bulky nut-nuggets — it should cost more. That it doesn't, and won't, is this place's magic. Its lack of indoor seating is a downside: Hooting, gritty downtown Berkeley can be curiously hostile to those wishing to stroll with cones.
Yogurt Harmony is a refuge. At its many tables, flanked by local artists' original works, patrons nurse tart fro-yo while playing Yahtzee or Sorry from a stack of board games stockpiled for their pleasure on a shelf. It's a cafe. As the art rotates every few months, it's a gallery. And it's a rumpus room. UC Berkeley grad Joann Kim was a lawyer before opening this place in 2007. Back then, tart fro-yo was still largely a Southern California phenomenon and hadn't quite yet exploded onto the Bay Area scene. A daily four-flavor rotation means you can't plan what you'll get before you go; while plain tart and vanilla custard are the most popular, taro draws legions of the loyal. That a starchy, manganese-rich root — whose heaviness lingers in the mouth, evoking potatoes and buttered popcorn — has become a frozen-dessert cult favorite says much for modern open-mindedness. Based on the Korean version of a treat now flourishing Asiawide and throughout the Asian diaspora, Yogurt Harmony's "shave-ice bowl" comprises pristine lacy flakes infused with guilty-retro-pleasure condensed milk, crowned with trendy-new-friend fro-yo, guilt-free fresh fruit, chewy bits-of-heaven mochi chunks, and WTF-but-velvety-and-curiously-complementary red-bean paste.
Displayed in swirly peaks that soar above the rims of its containers to proclaim, I was made on the premises by a true-born Italian, Almare Gelato Italiano reflects Alberto Malvestio's youth along the gelato-happy seashores of Capri, Sorrento, and the Cinque Terra — and in his uncle's gelato shop, where he learned to compose sweet cloud-soft wonders before opening this place last year. Starting at 5 a.m., six hours before opening, Malvestio begins work in his laboratorio behind the shop, squeezing fresh lemons, cracking coconuts, peeling mangoes, scooping out melon pulp, pouring Sicilian pistachios and Piedmontese hazelnuts and Swiss cocoa into his Carpigiani machines with fresh milk — or water, if he's making sorbetto — to create eighteen flavors every day. Some are Italian classics: gianduia, fior di latte, a life-changing tiramisú. Others are his own: lavender/blueberry, Oreo cookie, a surprisingly compelling lemon-mint whose dual astringencies jingle back and forth in the mouth like charms on a bracelet. Malvestio's wares divulge the superior quality and authenticity of their ingredients, but are more than that: Each is an urgent message. Even the plainest flavors are complex, racing across the consciousness in flashes, rivulets, and waves, like love.
A block away at Gelateria Naia, flavors reign. Count 'em: 44 on any given day, crafted that day or very recently at the five-shop chain's Hercules kitchen, and intense beyond intense. Ever since its 2002 founding, Naia has been rightly renowned as the place where nearly anything you choose — rose, fig, roasted banana, Thai young coconut, Nutella, salted caramel, whisky, almond, even vanilla — will pound you right into the ground, but in a good way. Blocking out every other possible sensation, this is unbidden meditation. Naia's Cioccolate Mortale, "death by chocolate," means what it says. Like Almare, Naia uses only fresh fruit and no powders or mixes; other ingredients are sourced locally from premium suppliers such as San Francisco-based Tcho Chocolates (which replaces the Scharffenberger formerly used here) and San Leandro-based Pavel's yogurt. Soy flavors and sorbetti secure a strong vegan following. Currently in the works with the help of a prominent East Bay baker, cofounder Trevor Morris tells me, is a brand-new bread gelato. It will taste emphatically like bread.