By Lee Havlicek.
If you’re going to really lean into summer the way you should, there are things that are nice and things that are necessary. I suppose these mostly both vary from person to person, and for some people, maybe even from year to year. But for me, there will always be specific things that fall into the necessary camp—things so ingrained in the making of a summer that they’re indispensable. A day isn’t a summer day without them. I’m talking about days spent outside from start to finish, long meals that are deliberately unhurried and decidedly vibrant, the sorts of thunderstorms that only happen this time of year, evening walks through the neighborhood and backyard conversations, plenty of good, leafy trees, time spent near and in lakes/oceans/pools/rivers, at least one road trip, and even better, even more ice cream than I scout out the rest of the year. What kind of great summer doesn’t involve these things? I can’t remember a single one.
The even better, even more ice cream pursuit is what brings me to a particular moment in Princeton, New Jersey, a place that would already be too easy to fall in love with on a night like this without the crispy, crunchy, gooey grilled cheeses and the idyllically delicious coffee shops—and the destination I’m hoofing towards as fast as my flip-flopped feet and New-Jersey-Transit sleepy-legs will allow. I’m on my way, of course, to The Bent Spoon, imagining what new flavors might be waiting, which perfectly ripe, in-season fruits might make an appearance on the menu, and thinking about how much faster we’d all get to our ice creams if we didn’t spend our days sitting at desks. I have somewhere to be in an hour and I’ve got at least a 20-minute walk each way, so I’m moving: blowing past university buildings, slow strolling tourists and even slower strolling students, past sandwich shops and lawns that look awfully appealing. But when there’s only time for one stop in Princeton, it’s always The Bent Spoon for me. This is the home of the most seriously soulful, beautifully crafted arsenal of ice creams, after all. And how can you pass on that? You can’t.
As you take in The Bent Spoon ice cream case, which is something like the most delicious jukebox I’ve ever encountered, you’ll find that the range and richness of colors alone is enough to incite some of the most unapologetic, socially acceptable oggling outside of a really dirty movie. It’s a summer’s worth of beauty. But then you’ll get to actually eating, and you’ll understand the full extent of what you’re dealing with. Most ice creams and sorbets get flavor or texture right, but both is a rarity. Not so here on Palmer Square.
The immediate thing that you’ll notice about your Bent Spoon scoops is that you can actually taste all of the ingredients listed next to the ice cream names. The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s amazing. Only the most flavorful version of whatever ingredients that went into the making are used, which explains why all of your tastebuds are doing the Macarena. Rarely do whatever words you say when you order, whether it’s strawberry or chocolate or mocha fudge popcorn gooey dream surprise, match the ideal, but this is “farm to spoon” food.
As for the texture, somehow, both the ice creams and sorbets are impossibly creamy. Every time I eat Bent Spoon sorbet, I think: a) If this sorbet texture is possible, why aren’t all sorbets like this? And b) I would eat so much more sorbet if they were. (Full disclosure: As I write this, I’m digging into both Bent Spoon Blueberry Lemon Sorbet and Dark Chocolate Sorbet that my fiancé brought back with him to New York via New Jersey Transit trains. If you’ve ever been on NJ Transit, you’ll understand what an outstanding feat this is—this is love, if I’ve ever heard of it.) And while really creamy ice creams often sacrifice flavor, the creaminess dulling the punch of the coffee, the tang of the raspberries, the spice of the cinnamon, at The Bent Spoon, no matter what you order, it will be fresh and bright, with a depth of flavor that’s toe-curlingly unique. It’s just honest to goodness ice cream, the real deal—what you always hope your ice cream will be but it so rarely actually is.
Let’s say you’ve made it to the shop, you’ve worked your way up the line to the counter, and you’re now trudging your way through one of the tougher decisions you’re going to make today. Luckily for you, you get to pick two flavors, even for a small. But with great joy comes great responsibility: picking two flavors means not only considering which flavors you want most, but which of these will go together best, or, as occasionally happens, whether or not you want two flavors badly enough that you don’t care if they’re not totally complementary (see: Blueberry Lemon Sorbet and Dark Chocolate Sorbet). There’s Pistachio Ricotta and Indian Alphonso Mango sorbet, Milk Chocolate Hazelnut or Meyer Lemon Mascarpone, Rhubarb Sorbet… and what is Old Bay Sweet Corn? Oh, exactly what it sounds like? I’m in.
Finally, you decide on an especially excellent pair, one that I consider some of my very best matchmaking to date and maybe #3 out of my Top 5 Greatest Decisions (just below wearing spandex shorts under every dress I wore until college and just above not cutting myself bangs last week). Nectarine Sorbet and Crème Fraîche Ice Cream. Way. To. Go. It’s so good it’s almost—even ought to be—silly. Every ice cream eater within earshot is letting out some version of a surprised laugh or a contented expletive. Whatever is happening in their cups and cones is different than what they’ve come to expect elsewhere. The reason is easy to see, if not easy to execute—and it’s all for the love of ice cream.
Gabrielle Carbone and Matt Errico, who started The Bent Spoon back in 2004, have sought out the freshest, best ingredients from the beginning. Often, this has translated to local. Though it can be easy to forget, New Jersey really is the Garden State with good reason. So much incredible produce in this country comes courtesy of the farms of New Jersey. And though we should all know it by now, some people are still picking up on the facts: Local means fresher, which means all sorts of other good things, like more flavor, more color, more delicious.
It’s a lot easier to get wonderfully ripe produce when you don’t have to factor in several days of shipping. Many of the flavors on any given day at The Bent Spoon are inspired by area ingredients. Of course, there are some things you need to make a whole spectrum of great ice cream flavors that can’t be found locally—the best vanilla, cinnamon, mangoes—and in those cases, Gab and Matt have honed in on the right stuff even from afar. The combined result is endlessly inventive and yes, so, so good.
Did I mention The Bent Spoon also makes killer cupcakes, brownies, marshmallows, hot chocolates (yes, plural), and other sweet treats?
Oh, they do. But let’s not get off track… for now.
There’s a clear warmth, a sense of humor, a love of craft, of local ingredients, of farmers and makers in everything Bent Spoon. The flavors never stop surprising, even when it comes to the classics. You think you know what vanilla ice cream tastes like. Just wait.
From all of the above, you might guess that I would be excited to meet Gab.
You would be right.
Gab is everything you would hope an ice cream maven and owner of a beloved, inspiringly imaginative business would be. She’s exuberant, fast-talking, fast-moving, and as quick to give out a free taste of whatever new flavor batch she has coming together in the kitchen as she is to ask about her customers’ lives and days. Her love of her craft is palpable. Spend two minutes discussing ice cream, and it becomes clear just how much of Gab’s and Matt’s personalities go into each batch.
Tell us a little about the story behind The Bent Spoon. How did you guys get into owning your own craft food business, and, thankfully for the greater Princeton area, an ice cream company, specifically? First off, WE LOVE ICE CREAM! (That’s the key.) Also, we both come from food loving families (half-Italians!) and grew up in New Jersey with food being an integral part of all the events in our lives. And because of that, I think it became clear as we traveled in college that we wanted to create a business where we could be a part of helping to create food memories… What better way than with ice cream!
Not too long after we graduated and worked in Princeton for a few years, a series of serendipitous events led us to Palmer Square and The Bent Spoon was born. Hard to believe that this May was our ten-year anniversary!
The Bent Spoon is synonymous with fresh, local, and spectacular ingredients. I’ve never had an ice cream of yours that didn’t taste exactly like what it’s supposed to—and I’ve eaten a lot of Bent Spoon ice cream. Not only does your nectarine sorbet, to use one recent example, taste like you’ve packed a ton of nectarines into each scoop, but it tastes like you’ve packed a ton of perfectly delicious nectarines in there. How do you achieve such stellarly consistent taste and quality across such a wide variety of flavors? That sorbet is really a favorite of both me and Matt, and the answer is simple—it’s really just that we start with something already delicious and ripe and then just use A LOT of them! It also helps that the nectarines we get are from two local orchards (Terhune and Solebury) and then they are just ridiculously ripe—juicy down your face kind of ripe!
How do you go about sourcing ingredients? What goes into finding the best spices, fruits, flavorings, etc? How important is getting to know other local businesses and farmers in the process? It’s all about the community. At this point we have really long-standing relationships with farms and businesses that are committed to growing and producing really quality stuff, but lucky for us they don’t stand still. Our existing farmer-friends, CSAs, and producers are always growing, creating new things, or just finding ways to improve what they already do. Add to that more and more people who are interested in growing native edibles and creating school gardens [and] we have an ever-growing network of amazing ingredients!
Did you go into business with an idea of where you wanted to find your ingredients or were you surprised by how much you could find locally? We knew we wanted to use as much local stuff as possible (we were enamored with the idea of “The Garden State” and having that be TRUE!) but it was hard at first. We also wanted to use a lot of organically grown fruits and veggies as well—if we found an ingredient from a farm we liked, often they didn’t have enough to sell [or] we had to pick it up at odd hours, and sometimes they couldn’t sell it to us at all! An early example of this was when I was trying to buy cranberries from south Jersey… No one could sell to us because they all had long-standing contracts with Ocean Spray!
It took two more years before we found an amazing heirloom grower (Paradise Hill). Crazy! But, we persevered, and with the growing movement towards more organics intersecting with the demand for more local products, we were able to utilize both our contacts with our local co-op, Whole Earth Center, and emerging area businesses, Zone 7, Flying Fox, that were trying to fill the distribution piece of the local puzzle. We are operating a business in an especially incredible time… More and more top-notch ingredients are readily available each year. The community is strong!
Can you share a little about the ice cream-making process itself? The textures of your ice creams AND sorbets are ridiculous. They’re both so creamy! We use mostly italian equipment (so really low incorporation of air, making it much more dense) and our style is a nice hybrid between gelato and French-style ice creams and sorbets. We are always in pursuit of better flavors and texture, but mostly all of that comes from using really good ingredients—no stabilizers/fillers/corn syrup, etc.—and handling it well!
What goes into the process of creating new flavors? Is it a lot of what you’re craving at a certain time of year? Do you take customer hints? We are well beyond 500 flavors now and you hit the nail on the head: It’s mostly dictated by what we’re craving seasonally. We certainly take customer ideas, as well! It’s just amazing though, how, as the season changes, so do we. As soon as the warm days come rolling in, we want everything that screams spring. Just like as the leaves begin to turn, our thoughts are all about winter squash and warming spices. I think it’s always chocolate season, however. (For me, anyway.)
You use a lot of uncommon flavor combinations. Were you initially surprised that people were excited to try some of the more adventurous ones? What are some of the most unique flavors you’ve created over the years? We decided two things early on: Have a liberal tasting policy and encourage people to take advantage of our two-flavor small. That [allows] people to really be adventurous and try everything, no matter how strange! There have been so many unusual flavors! Our kale-based ice creams (Kale-Kumquat, etc.) are so beautiful and fun, but there are so many more wild ones ranging from Oyster Ice Cream to Chocolate Cipollini! We’ve done a whole series with different woods, mushrooms, bacons, herbs, rare fruits, so many kinds of beers, liquors, and unusual beverages. Really no limits!
Do you have a favorite of the especially unique flavors from over the years? These last few years, I continue to look forward to Norwegian Spruce and Balsam Fir Ice Creams (around the holidays we call it Christmas Tree)… It really tastes the way a Christmas tree smells and it just transports you back to all the holidays past—incredible memories while creating new ones. Ice cream is pretty special that way.
For a small shop, you sure have made quite a spot for yourselves in the hearts and stomachs of ice cream lovers near and far. How have you grown such a wide community of loyal fans? I know you get around to markets and food events pretty often. Is that a big part of reaching people outside of Princeton? I think it all comes down to the ice creams and sorbets. 10 years ago, this style of ice cream really wasn’t happening, and certainly not in NYC. Now there really are some great places! So when we came on the scene and were actually using real ingredients that were special—in season, local—and were transformed into delicious treats, word spread!
Doing markets (like the New Amsterdam in NYC) that believed in those same ideals connected us with so many like-minded people. It’s amazing.
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled with your ice cream? Hmm… I think at this point: Vermont! We made a couple of beer ice creams from two breweries that [Matt and I] both like near Waterbury and I was able to bring them up with me on a recent trip. That was awesome. Otherwise, our ice cream by itself has traveled all the way to Germany! We’ve sent it all across the country, too, but as the shipping options can be quite unreliable, we don’t do it anymore! We just hope people will come visit us in Princeton or when we’re on location in NYC or Philly!
Any plans for expansion? (A girl can dream…) Always! But I can tell you it won’t be in the traditional ways. Every year, we’ve expended our business in ways that aren’t easy to see (more restaurants, markets, etc.) but hopefully in the next year, we’ll be working on some more obvious ones!
Cup or cone? Almost always cone for me and Matt, as well!
Photos by Lee Havlicek.
The Bent Spoon
35 Palmer Square W
Princeton, NJ 08542