John Ascrizzi, owner of John’s Ice Cream in Liberty, is in the memory business. “We’re a tradition for people. They come in for cones and ice cream sandwiches and they get their cakes for their parties, their birthdays, and” (because Ascrizzi’s shop is open all year round except for January) “for their Christmas cakes and Easter desserts.”
Ascrizzi has a great, gravely, New York accented voice, and he’s not one to throw around words like artisanal and bespoke. But for almost 20 years, he’s been churning out fresh, small-batch ice cream featuring local ingredients and fresh produce from rhubarb to ripe plums.
If you’re not in the mood to build an ice cream cake, he’s happy to build one for you. “There was an order last night for a peanut butter crunch and chocolate coconut almond cake. Then I just did one where they asked for a layer of strawberry rhubarb, just the fruit, between the ice cream layers instead of cookie crunch or chocolate. Sometimes it’s chocolate between the layers, sometimes just raspberries. I can pretty much customize anything. You tell me what you want, and I say, “Sure. We can do that for you.”
How did you get your start in ice cream?
I started back in 1974. I was actually put into the business.
That sounds kind of like a punishment.
(Laughs) It actually was, back then. A seven-days-a-week job when you’re 19? It’s like, “I DON’T WANT TO DO THAT!” There was a Carvel ice cream franchise up for sale in Florida and my sister and brother-in-law wanted to buy it. My father helped them and then he put me in as partner because he wanted to keep a hand in, to keep an eye on things.
How did you get from a Carvel in Florida to an ice cream shop in Liberty?
My older brother has been in Maine since the ’70s, and I really liked it here. I was tired of the hustle and bustle of everyplace else. I never wanted to be in Florida, so after many years of being there, I sold the business and came up. I didn’t think I’d be getting back into ice cream; I thought that was over. I got work in Liberty painting the Liberty Tool Company building. I was looking around for more work, and there were some people outside of Belfast starting an ice cream business, so I went to work for them. Working with them, I realized how much I knew that they didn’t know. I realized that I really know ice cream, all the little things that make the difference.
How did you get to your shop on Route 3?
That first year I was living in the village of Liberty and I had the use of a little truck, and we put some freezers on it, and I ran an extension cord out the back of the truck. So I was actually selling ice cream out of the village of Liberty before I found this location. It was all garages, so it was a lot of work turning a space with concrete floors into a food establishment. At first I thought, “I’m gonna hit the road, I’m not committing to seven days a week again.” I just wanted a production plant. But the location was so good—right on Route 3 by Lake St. George—I had to open it for a takeout, and now it’s 18 years later, and I’m lucky because I have people who drive past three or four ice cream places to get to us.
And how did the transition from ice cream chain flavors to handmade happen?
In Florida we were in the franchise for years, then we became independent, but we were still using all the commercial flavors, which is mostly how everyone does it. But I’ve opened enough cans, and I’m Italian and I’m a good cook, so every once in a while I’d run low on canned strawberries but I’d see some beautiful fresh peaches, so I started teaching myself how to work with fresh fruit, to make ice cream from scratch without all the corn syrup and
And when I started up here, my brother influenced me, too. He’d say, “We have all these great blueberries. Why are you using stuff from cans?” And I said, “You’re right.” And at that point, I really went for it, started teaching myself how to make coconut ice cream with real coconut and how to make pistachio without all that green coloring, with only pistachio nuts. Making small batches from scratch gives me the flexibility to make flavors that aren’t commercially available. Like I make a strawberry rhubarb that people love that’s not out there on the market. No one else can make it.
What’s your most popular flavor?
It sounds funny, but the most popular flavor is vanilla. Anything you hear otherwise, don’t believe it. It’s always vanilla. It’s a simple flavor and there’s nothing to cover up your mistakes. If you make a complicated flavor with lots of strong flavors, the ice cream may not be that good, but the flavoring covers it up. You always judge an ice cream guy by the vanilla he makes.
Vanilla extract or vanilla bean?
Extract for our vanilla ice cream, but we do use the bean occasionally—like, today we’re making some of our vanilla custard, so in that we add a little bit of the vanilla bean.
After vanilla, what are some of your most popular flavors?
We make a raspberries and cream, basically just raspberry in a creamy base without vanilla. And I make a peanut butter crunch, a peanut butter ice cream with a peanut butter swirl and a chocolate cookie crunch, and that’s very popular. The vanilla, and blueberry of course, raspberry chocolate swirl, ginger, chocolate coconut almond, strawberry rhubarb, raspberry and honey sorbet, real pistachio, the lemon custard. I got about 10 flavors or more that I have to make all year long because people will cry if they’re not here when they come in.
What’s the difference between the custard and regular ice cream?
Most of our ice cream is a dairy base—milk and cream without the egg. But we do use the egg custard base for some flavors. I make an old-fashioned lemon custard and we do the vanilla custard, and sometimes we’ll run a batch of chocolate custard if we have some leftover base. We also make sorbets, and generally you think of sorbet as nondairy, but if you go through recipe books, you’ll see that for something like a chocolate sorbet, for instance, you’ll use a little nonfat milk, and sometimes there will even be egg in sorbet, but generally folks expect them to be dairy free. When you add the milk to a sorbet, you know, it’s technically a sherbet, because sherbet is sorbet with a little milk in it.
How many flavors do you offer?
In the summertime, in the middle of the summer, I could have 50 or more.
That sounds like a lot of work for a small shop.
Well, I grew up on Long Island, and my father made pasta, so I grew up in a business producing a product, so you learn how to run the machines, rotate stock, keep your product fresh and good. Not as difficult as you’d think it is. It’s just knowing how to do it.
Where do you get your inspiration for new flavors?
When I was young, in order to keep my interest in the business, I started reading about the soda fountain days back in the ’20s, and I’ve picked up some recipes that come from back then. There’s a lot of history in ice cream, you know. I make a lot of old, classic flavors that everyone stopped making. Like lemon custard—it was really popular in the 1930s. I make real tutti-frutti occasionally; it’s rum ice cream with cherries, pineapple, raisins and nuts. They call it frozen pudding in some places; it’s another old one. Or I’ll imitate something that people like, like I make a chocolate coconut almond. But I don’t do what the other guys do and just put pieces of Almond Joy candy bars in the machine. I make a cream coconut base and layer it with almonds to replicate the candy bar flavor. And we just did a s’mores experiment with some toasted marshmallows and graham cracker in a chocolate base, and we’ll tweak it a little, so that by the time we make a tub of it, we’ll have tweaked it to where it’s really good.
Any future plans for John’s?
I grew up making pasta and I still make pasta. For Thanksgiving, we made 20 pounds of cheese ravioli. I’ve actually been trying to get that rolling, have some manicotti, some cheese ravioli for sale. Maybe this year. We have some space next door and we’re thinking we’ll slowly move in, and if we add more freezers we’d have room to add a couple of frozen yogurts and gelato to the menu. In 40 years, I’ve gathered a lot of knowledge, and it gets easier. I’ve been lucky because I think something out in the universe wanted me to be the ice cream guy. I’ve tried to get away from it but something out there always pulls me back. You know, I make a lot of people happy and that’s a good thing.
To set up the perfect ice cream, John recommends:
Makes 1 (8-inch) Ice Cream Cake
You will need:
1 (8-inch) spring-form pan
1 pint each of 2 favorite ice cream flavors
4 cups cookie crunch or layer of cake approximately
1 inch thick*
Whipped topping or frosting of your choice
* You may use nuts, fudge anything you fancy but please note, if you go with fruit, it will
To begin, place the spring-form pan in the freezer to chill.
While pan is cooling, place ice cream in the fridge to soften slightly.
Remove pan from freezer and press first ice cream layer into the bottom of the pan with spoon or spatula, making sure to press out large air pockets.
Place pan back in freezer to freeze first layer.
When first layer is frozen, add layer of cookie crunch or cake. Place in freezer.
When bottom layer is solid, add top layer, again making sure to press out air pockets.
Cover cake with a layer of parchment paper and freeze overnight.
To remove cake from pan, turn upside down and run briefly under warm water. Remove pan and turn cake over onto tray.
Prepare your favorite whipped topping or frosting and decorate as desired.
Place in freezer. When ready to serve, remove from freezer and place in fridge approximately 30 minutes or more before serving.