Few taste sensations can rival the cool, silky, sweet bliss of the moment your taste buds encounter the delightful perfection of hand-made, homemade ice cream, concocted in your favorite flavors. Here’s your sample of some of Southwest Florida’s finest.
Although not as elusive as the famed Junonia shell, finding confection perfection that is true, real ice cream isn’t necessarily an easy task. Every fast food chain and even many convenience stores offer up lesser, inferior versions of the original. Others have opted to switch out ingredients and proffer knock-offs by the names of custard and frozen yogurt. And of course, every grocery store’s freezer section is loaded with mass produced cartons of stuff that varies greatly in quality, texture and taste.
That’s why we set out to find Southwest Florida’s perfect ice cream as we defined it: fresh, hand-made with only the finest ingredients, created with passion by the brand’s founders, or those carrying on the founding tradition, with a legacy of at least 10 years of tasty success. Of those who met our criteria for greatness, we present three Southwest Florida ice cream artisans (alphabetically) who answered our challenge. Dig in!
ALL ABOARD THE LOVE BOAT
Founded in 1967, Love Boat is the oldie but goodie ice cream in Southwest Florida. Today, Love Boat scoops out of three locations: two within a mile of each other on San Carlos Boulevard in Fort Myers (the original is open seasonally), with a third on Sanibel Island. Brian Borst is the seventh and, he jokes, final owner of Love Boat, having purchased the company in 2014.
As his sister and store manager Jenny Borst explains, Love Boat is as much a destination for locals and visitors as it is an ice cream lover’s treasure, with more than 70 homemade flavors from which to choose. “We often have lines of customers here that stretch for 20 or 30 minute waits,” she notes, “but that’s part of our experience and something we’ve found most people truly enjoy. Standing in line, guests talk to each other, share their vacation or ice cream stories and meet people really from all over the world. It’s something of our signature.”
Part of the reason for the extended wait is Love Boat’s focus on customer service. “When people make it to our counter, we give them the opportunity to taste as many flavors as they’d like,” she goes on. “Some folks try five or 10 flavors before making their decision. It’s about great ice cream and great service.”
That great ice cream is made daily, following original recipes that date back over 50 years, choreographed by the capable hands of Jenny Roberts who’s led Love Boat’s homemade production for almost two decades. In season, that can amount to more than 100 two-gallon tubs each day — led by fan favorites Butter Pecan, Chocolate Peanut Butter and Coconut Almond Fudge. Love Boat also offers sundaes, shakes, malts, sorbets (for the lactose intolerant) and freezies (sorbets blended with fresh fruit). And while Love Boat can be found on the menu of select restaurants in the area, Jenny Borst encourages the full immersive experience. “Standing in line is kind of a thing with those who know us and love us,” she explains. “If they come in here and there’s no line, well, some of them are disappointed!”
NO LIE: PINOCCHIO’S IS GREAT
Tom and Donna Puma began vacationing to Sanibel Island in 1984 when their daughter Stephanie was just six weeks old, enjoying regular excursions to the islands amid the comfort of their East End timeshare only a few steps from Pinocchio’s Ice Cream, an evening treat they would frequent with great regularity (when they weren’t vacationing at their North Captiva home). Those years, Tom led a highly successful dental practice in New York, while Donna traveled the world as a global consultant for IBM. It was a wonderful life, but a hectic one — until then, opportunities began to knock.
The first came when Tom was unexpectedly approached to sell his dental practice to an associate — which he did, prompting his retirement “for exactly one year.” They moved full time to Sanibel, while Donna continued her rigorous travel schedule. And then, one day, Tom discovered that Pinocchio’s was for sale. And opportunity having knocked again, this time Donna answered too, as the Pumas in 2007 became the proud new owners of Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream.
A true family affair in the beginning, Donna, Tom and Stephanie (with a culinary background and business degree from Johnson & Wales) worked literally very early morning, noon and night to bring their passion, artistry, demand for quality and marketing creativity to “the little green store” on Sanibel. “Every year we would travel to Europe for two weeks, and invest one of those weeks in advancing our craft,” Donna notes. “We still do that today. We’re truly learning from masters, and we always make sure we bring back unique flavors and ideas we can incorporate into our brands.”
Those brands include, of course, the 38-year-old Pinocchio’s with its legendary favorites Sanibel Krunch, Dirty Sand Dollar and other island favorites — in all, more than 135 unique flavors, among which more than 30 can be enjoyed daily — along with Geppetto’s Beach Foodies next door, opened in 2012, where delightfully unique baked goods, gelatos and Italian custards can be most thoroughly enjoyed. “Everything we make, it’s created by hand and with only the highest quality ingredients,” Donna notes. “And the only place you can get it, with our famous ‘over the top’ portions, is right here. No restaurants. No stores. Just our location.”
That’s not to say, however, that someday there won’t be other locations. A year ago this November, the Pumas — operating as Gustare Foods, LLC — had yet another opportunity: they franchised the Sanibel location to Laurie Verme (another New York transplant with a varied, and highly successful, business background) and her daughter Alice. But with so much personally invested in their brands, and so much passion, the Pumas aren’t going far. “We think we have something that’s truly unique, something special,” Donna says. “We’ll continue to work hard to keep it that way, wherever the future may take us.”
ALL HAIL QUEENIE’S
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Vanessa Viglione who loved a specific brand of ice cream so much that she had it regularly shipped from its Ohio origins to Captiva Island, Florida. For her birthday, so this story goes, boyfriend Dave Jensen enrolled her in Penn State University’s famous “Ice Cream Short Course.” Armed with this knowledge and passion (she was voted “class president” of the course), Queenie’s Ice Cream was born in 1998 — and continues today, true to Queenie’s vision, led by the passion and dedication of Liz Marcantonio, who has been associated with Queenie and the brand since 2007.
Queenie’s Ice Cream has created its own unique recipe for success — focusing exclusively on but 10 core flavors, and distributing only through high end purveyors including boutique grocers, resorts, restaurants, coffee shops and marinas throughout Southwest Florida.
“We’re all about doing what we do best,” Marcantonio explains. “That means staying true to what we started 20 years ago and using only the highest quality ingredients. We’re not looking for quantity, but quality, whether that’s our core flavors, seasonal flavors or sorbets.”
Those original favorites include Key Lime Pie, Mint Chocolate Chip, Toasted Coconut, Very Strawberry and Cookies and Sweet Cream — while seasonal hits to be on the lookout for include Candy Cane, Georgia Peach, Fresh Pumpkin Pie and Pine Island Mango.
And no matter what flavor you fancy, Liz Marcantonio makes everything by hand with this promise: “Nothing has changed over the years. We make ice cream, and we make it the same way, with the same quality, as we did in 1998.”
By John Sprecher | Photography by Milissa Sprecher