As a native Californian, I confess that I was pretty bewildered by New Orleanians’ obsession with the snowball. Maybe it’s because until recently I had yet to try their version until this—my very first— summer in New Orleans, but for me, shaved ice and syrup smacked of childhood memories of school carnivals and red-stained mouths; I didn’t see it as the kind of treat that followed one into adulthood. But I was impressed by the fierceness of local people’s defense of it. Likening a snowball to the more familiar sno-cone elicits the same response from a true resident that comparing a roast beef sandwich to a cheesesteak would get you in Philadelphia. The eyes narrow, the arms cross, and the voice says none too kindly, “No, they’re not the same thing.”
On the other hand, I completely understand the appeal of gelato; and fortunately for me, such shops are just as readily available in New Orleans as snowball stands. Makers of gelato are always quick to point out its benefits over ice cream; it’s more flavorful as a result of its higher density, has better texture, and, because it requires less milk fat than American ice cream, is healthier (I choose to believe this last one). It comes in an assortment of both traditional and intriguing flavors, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it makes people feel slightly bourgeois, as though a scoop of gelato comes with a villa in Tuscany and a vespa. If a snowball is for kids in cutoffs playing hopscotch, then I see gelato as fancier somehow, more refined.
Even through my bias, I love the fact that the snowball really is a true New Orleans invention; even better, its birthplace is still standing and still producing its descendants. Located on Tchoupitoulas Street, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz was founded in 1939 as an attempt to sweeten the hot Depression summers. It’s currently still operated by Ashley Hansen, the granddaughter of the original Ernest and Mary Hansen; she admits she’s almost “always there.” Hansen’s is offering summer syrup specials like homemade fruit punch, satsuma, and chocolate mint. I had my first snowball here and was completely converted. Unlike the hard grains of ice that I was accustomed to in a sno-cone, snowballs really do have the texture of fresh, powdery snow. And being that I am perpetually thirsty here, as a result of the scorching heat, that cold and clean taste was doubly refreshing.
Plum Street Snowball, located technically on Burdette Street, opened a few years after Hansen’s, in 1945. The two are generally accepted as the head honchos of the New Orleans snowball world. Each offers the expected syrup toppings associated with sno-cones, but also have fittingly jazzed up their menu with specialized homemade syrups and toppings like cream of nectar, condensed milk and crushed strawberries. Both Plum Street and Hansen’s are charming, friendly and delightfully ramshackle. Tee-Eva’s, on Magazine Street, was originally known for pralines and pies, but quickly noticed the necessity of some form of cool relief; you can still purchase the pastries, however, for after you reenter the air-conditioned world.
But in New Orleans, I learned gelato is just as old school as the snowball. Angelo Brocato’s on N. Carrollton Avenue, for example, was founded in 1901 by the well-known Sicilian immigrant who honed his gelato-making skills in Palermo before coming to New Orleans, and the place still proudly oozes the Old World gloss of a true Italian ice cream parlor. It’s currently owned and operated by his grandchildren. Brocato’s gelato is made from the “finest and freshest” ingredients and this summer is offering new tastes like honey sesame brittle gelato, and a variety of flavors of Italian ice, or granita. The more modern Sucre on Magazine Street, self-described as an “emporium of artisan sweets,” takes it to an undeniably trendier level, much like La Divina Gelateria, also on Magazine, both of which conform, not unpleasantly, to my notion that gelato makes for a swankier summer treat.
Fruit-flavored gelatos come in interesting hybrids, like Sucre’s coconut basil sorbet, and provide a refreshing jolt, while the chocolate flavors are as decadent as you would expect. And because of their dependence on the availability of fresh seasonal fruits, many gelato places’ flavors are constantly changing, making for pleasant surprises if you time your trips right.
But there’s one more thing to consider: while gelato may boast its nutritional benefits over those of ice cream, I doubt that it makes more caloric sense to choose a scoop of Stracciatella over a modestly-sized snowball. And many snowball places offer the option of topping their shaved ice not only with condensed milk but also with fresh fruit, making them at least a slightly healthier alternative to the heavier gelato. It is bathing-suit season, after all.
The moral of my snowball saga is that I stand corrected; while perhaps my west coast sno-cone is child’s play, the New Orleans snowball, with its many accoutrements, proves satisfying regardless of age (Ernest and Mary Hansen’s near-century of devotion are proof of that). But I can’t put one dessert over the other; New Orleans gelato holds its own. And with the endless sweat-drenched afternoons stringing steamily before us, I think that there’s plenty of time to give each frozen treat its proper due.