Made with cold gelato and warm espresso, this treat merges two sublime pleasures in one glass.
In 1960, when John Steinbeck hit the road for the cross-country adventure that would become “Travels With Charley,” he wrote that he often stopped for coffee, not because he wanted it “but for a rest and a change from the unrolling highway.” I, too, turn to coffee on long stretches of boring road, but for me, one addition is essential: vanilla soft serve, for a concoction I like to call an affogato Americano. Go to any fast-food restaurant that serves ice cream and coffee (most do), order both and mix. Eat this in a parked car before the ice cream melts and the coffee cools, as I did recently on Interstate 81 heading south. The rewards are twofold: The coffee gives you energy, and the ice cream makes you happy.
But nothing beats a properly made affogato, which is to say some supercold gelato with a shot or two of hot espresso. The magic of an affogato is that even a bad one can be very good, but a very good one can change your life.
Affogato al caffè, or gelato drowned in coffee, is “one of Italy’s most delectable modern dishes,” Anna Del Conte writes in her authoritative book “Gastronomy of Italy.” Though the affogato’s origins are largely unknown, the fashion of drinking wine with snow or ice took off in 16th-century Italy. We can find evidence of modern gelato, made with milk, a century later. Single-shot espresso didn’t come into the picture until the turn of the 20th century, when the Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera patented a machine that forced, or expressed, hot steam through ground coffee beans. How the ice cream and coffee coalesced into the affogato remains a mystery.
Affogato means “drowned” in Italian, and you can drown just about any ice cream. Fior di latte and crema are most popular in Italy, though vanilla and chocolate are also excellent. Dulce de leche would be wonderful, with its caramelized milkiness, as would the bitterness of cherry amaretto. Pistachio is a welcome change from the unrolling highway of routine. Pisticci, a trattoria in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, drowns a tartufo — a bombe made with vanilla and chocolate ice creams with a Maraschino cherry in the middle, all encased in a hard chocolate shell — in espresso. The chef, Edmundo Garzón, told me that he serves 50 to 60 of these a week. “The secret is the coffee,” he said. “Espresso coffee. Very fresh, one shot. Double shot is too strong. Good coffee.”
But you don’t even need to use coffee in your affogato. According to the Tuscany-based food writer Emiko Davies, in Italy an affogato could be plain crema gelato drowned in chocolate or cherry syrup, or hazelnut gelato drowned in Marsala. “I’ve even seen a gelateria in Turin that does one with lemon and raspberry sorbet drowned in beer,” she said. A sgroppino, a scoop of lemon sorbet drowned in prosecco, might be considered affogato’s Venetian cousin. In Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” a recipe for “The Chimney Sweep’s Gelato” calls for dusting an egg-custard gelato with finely ground espresso and drowning it in Scotch or bourbon.
Nick Larsen agreed that the evening drink he regularly makes for himself at home — a float of salted caramel ice cream and condensed milk drowned in cold brew — might be considered an affogato. “It’s just not a hot extraction,” he said. The real stuff he saves for Sugar Hill Creamery, the ice cream shops in Harlem that he runs with his wife, Petrushka. I’ve had many a Larsen affogato, each time swapping out the ice cream flavor according to my mood. The savory hum of the malted vanilla ice cream brought out the complexities of the espresso. The coffee ice cream with turmeric and ginger candy had notes of masala chai, warming me with its electricity. Plain vanilla provided the duvet of cream and caffeine that kept me going back for more.
Hallie Meyer, the owner of Caffè Panna in Gramercy Park, said her shop gets a regular afternoon crowd of solo customers like me. They sit down, order an affogato and leave. “It feels almost mature to have espresso poured over your ice cream, you know?” she said. I asked Meyer to walk me through her ideal affogato. This is it: A clear glass, so you can see the ice cream drowning. No eggs in the ice cream base, “because I want to taste the dairy,” she said. The espresso should come one-half to three-quarters of the way up the scoop. And on top, her pièce de résistance: a dollop of panna, Italian for “cream.”
The best affogato for me is one in which you can’t tell where the feathered edges of the melting ice cream start and where the tawny foam that rests atop the espresso ends. One of the creamiest affogati I’ve ever had was at Gran Caffè L’Aquila in Philadelphia. I asked for a scoop of fior di latte, which I often enjoy in an affogato for its pure dairy flavor. The barista pulled the espresso and then had to walk across the cafe, to where the gelato was on display, in order to scoop the fior di latte. That walk was the perfect amount of time for the espresso to cool down ever so slightly, which meant the ice cream didn’t melt too fast upon contact with the coffee. The foam stayed thick and buttery — or was it the fior di latte?
In any case, you should eat your affogato quickly for the full effect. Luckily, this doesn’t take very long. I can down one in about two-and-a-half minutes. Even a drive-through cup of coffee mixed with vanilla soft serve delivers two distinct pleasures in one: first, a spoonable dessert sauced with coffee, and then, at the end, a cream-blushed drink to chase. It will fuel you for miles.