The flavors of Pittsburgh: Small businesses collaborate on frozen treats

Page Dairy Mart‘‍s Chuck Page does not just serve up an ice-cream treat, he provides a multi-sensory experience. The buttery smell of a warm bar cookie, crisp and brown on the outside, mingles with the textures of melted chocolate and toffee goodness on the inside. Juxtaposed with cool soft-serve ice cream and caramel topping, the sundae is a winner on its own. But also give it a catchy local name that only a Pittsburgher would love and you have a best-seller on your hands: The Yinzer Sundae! Worth. Every. Calorie.


Ann Gilligan on Twitter @gilligansorbet

One of the 10 specialty “Taste of Pittsburgh” items on the South Side ice-cream stand’‍s menu, the “Yinzer” does more than satisfy the sweet tooth and honor the local vernacular. It provides us with double the opportunity to support local food businesses. They are collaborating in interesting and delicious ways. With July being National Ice Cream Month, let‘‍s look at how some hometown creators of delicious frozen products are working together. 

Mr. Page is a good friend of Mike Runco, owner of Nancy B’s Bakery in Homestead. Their “world-famous chocolate-chip cookies” are featured in one of Page Dairy Mart’s “Taste of Pittsburgh” menu items. Mr. Page also sources baked goods from Pastry A La Carte in Pleasant Hills and an independent baker (the former owner of Greb’s Bakery from the South Side), ensuring fresh product for his sundaes.

Spreading out a little more across the state, he now uses maple syrup from Somerset County’s Milroy Farms to make a luscious milkshake. At first sip it seems like an ordinary vanilla shake; then, all of a sudden, there is a burst of maple on your palate. At 32 cents per ounce, local maple syrup is a pricey ingredient, but the money from our dairy-treat purchase stays within our state.

The Pittsburgh Public Market is a hub for small-food-business collaboration, with more than two businesses working together at times. New to the market is Family Farms Creamery, an offshoot of Clarion River Organics. Every one of its products contain ingredients that are sourced from small local businesses, starting with Brunton Dairy, which provides the cream for its 16-percent-butterfat ice-cream products. Other ingredients come from market neighbors. Care for a scoop of Chocolate Black Strap Stout? The beer comes from East End Brewing Co. right across the aisle and the chocolate from Mon Aimee just down the way in the Strip District. The Landlocked Vanilla Bean? One spoonful and you’ll find that this is not ordinary vanilla. Whole vanilla beans are steeped for at least a month in Wigle Whiskey’s Landlocked, a rum-like spirit made from Pennsylvania buckwheat honey, then incorporated into the ice cream with vanilla-bean scrapings.

Larry Nesky, the creamery’‍s manager and ice-cream guru, reflected on the benefits of local sourcing. “The big thing I think is flavor. By working with local businesses, I kind of come up with flavors that I would not come up with on my own. Having that pool of ideas to choose from and good ingredients always makes for a good product.” The selection fluctuates with seasonal produce and the creative innovations of his collaboration with other businesses. Recent offerings have included a blueberry balsamic sorbet, with the fruity balsamic from market neighbor The Olive Tap, and a cookie- or cupcake-crumb swirled ice cream compliments of Eliza’s Oven.

One row over in the market, Eliza Bowman creates boozy baked goods. Pairing a heritage of family baking with a business background, she works with the region‘‍s wide range of craft breweries and small distilleries. “I expanded into locally produced craft beverages. They’ve got the clout behind them -- you know, booze sells, they support me through that. But I also support them by buying their product, but they will also supply my product to sell at their place. Wigle Whiskey buys my Whiskey Kisses to give away at the end of their tour.”

A Kiva Zip investment enabled Katie Heldstab and her wife, Christa Puskarich, to start Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches just a few months ago. Their product is in demand everywhere they go, “pedaled” from their ice cream bike. This past weekend, they sold out rapidly at Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s Friday Night Market. Then on Sunday, in celebration of Roundabout Brewery’s first anniversary, they concocted ice cream featuring Bardstown Roundabout Stout and slathered it between chocolate fudge cookies. The “malty and complex” sandwiches sold out, along with half-pints of their ice cream.

Ms. Heldstab approached Chris Rhodes, owner of Zeke’s Coffee in East Liberty, with a question about cold-brewing coffee for ice cream. He answered her questions and offered her a production space. Many weeknights, after Zeke’s business hours, the women bake, churn out ice cream, assemble and hand-wrap each sandwich. Every one contains local or regional products: olive oil and balsamic from Olive and Marlow in East Liberty, Turner’s Dairy butter, cream from Trickling Springs Dairy in Chambersburg or strawberries from Simmons Farm.

The practical knowledge they gained from taking the Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State and more than two years of testing and product development have yielded luscious flavor combinations such as blackberry-balsamic-tangerine ice cream on bergamot (think Earl Grey tea) shortbread and coffee (from Zeke’s, of course) ice cream cushioned between soft cinnamon-coffee-cake cookies. For research purposes, I sampled both. Yum! Currently Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches are sold at Zeke’s and Lawrenceville’s 52nd Street Market. (Now I am packing a cooler any time I am in the vicinity of those establishments!)

Josephine and Gaston Oria own La Dorita Kitchen Share Space. Their Sharpsburg location includes a small event venue and commercial incubator kitchen space that start-up food businesses or caterers can use. Ms. Oria started a small business herself to manufacture Dulce de Leche, her grandmother’s recipe for Argentinian caramel spread, in 2009. As the business grew, so did her need for space, hence the Kitchen Share Space where the Orias also offer small-business consulting services.

Ann Gilligan uses the space to produce non-dairy sorbets and granitas with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients in that space. One of her frozen confections, coffee granita, is made with La Prima Espresso’s coffee and she tops it with Dulce de Leche, which Ms. Oria makes with antibiotic-free milk from local sources, Dean Farms and Wilson Family Farms.

Ms. Gilligan has a full-time day job and has been gradually getting her product into local restaurants, such as The Pines Tavern, which supplied its own honey for a sorbet. She also makes apple-cider sorbet with Soergel’s cider, plum-juniper with Wigle Ginever -- the possibilities are endless. By “dipping her toes into this (food) world”, she has found a collaborative and helpful network of small-business owners. The Orias and other small establishments that she has worked with “could not be nicer or more supportive.”

Ms. Gilligan seeks out businesses that “have the same sensibilities.” Chuck Page would not think of buying prepared cookie dough from a big manufacturer. He wants fresh product and to support other hometown businesses. From a Pittsburgh ice cream landmark to some enterprising newcomers, we can delight in artfully made, hometown frozen treats all summer long!

Beth Kurtz Taylor is a master's candidate in the food studies program at Chatham University:


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