ANYTHING sweet is a friend of mine, I usually say, and as usual, I'm telling only part of the truth. Cookies do make up a scandalous portion of my diet, but I draw the line at anything cloying (and I, of course, define what's cloying). Just as wine-lovers say that all wine aspires to be red, to my mind all chocolate aspires to be bitter and all sorbet to be lemon.
Ice cream has thus held little appeal. It's harder for flavors with a balancing acidity to cut through butterfat and sugar than it is for clear fruit flavors to shine through the sugar syrup in sorbet. My frozen-dessert making has been focused on the perfect lemon and coffee granitas -- the uniquely refreshing Italian versions of slush. Granita can be made in ice-cube trays and requires no special equipment, although breaking up the crystals every half hour or so as it freezes is tedious.
Ice cream seemed not worth the effort until I discovered the burnt caramel at Toscanini's Ice Cream, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gus Rancatore, the owner, is the sort of eccentric who makes Cambridge eternally appealing. The original and largest of the three Toscanini's -- there are two at MIT and one in Harvard Square -- is a magnet not only for new Internet millionaires but also for artists, intellectuals of all stripes, and what remains of academic bohemia.
Many of Toscanini's original flavors are strikingly good: gingersnap molasses, for example, and khulfee (Urdu for "ice cream"), which includes cardamom, almonds, and pistachios ("This is a flavor that most people like when they try it," a sign from Rancatore reassures doubtful customers). Some flavors appear seldom but have their devoted admirers, chief among them Rancatore himself: saffron, avocado, halvah, cucumber sorbet.