The Joy of Complacency

Izzy's Ice Cream Café
2034 Marshall Ave., St. Paul; (651) 603-1458
Hours: 1:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 1:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 1:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday. (Note: Izzy's is open March 1 through Thanksgiving.)

Generally, I think one of the greatest things we have going in America today is the pervasive belief that everything is going to hell in a hand basket. Why? It prevents complacency, encourages activity, and discourages too much sitting around. In fact, sometimes I think if we all considered how much better life is now than was in 1850 (when by my estimate, each and every one of us would be dead at 38 of gangrenous boils), why, who among us would ever get off the porch?

So, you see, I don't know what to make of Izzy's Ice Cream Café, a place so idyllic in some kind of old-timey, small-towny way it makes you feel like all is right in the world and civilization purrs sweetly in its nest. Consider: On a recent hot and sunny afternoon, I waltzed through the line and ended up with a banana split ($4.99) that was real and homemade on so many levels it might as well have been 1903. The real, homemade vanilla ice cream was flecked so densely with vanilla bean, it was mottled gray. The chocolate ice cream, likewise real and homemade, was dusky with the taste of expensive cocoa. There was buttery (RH) caramel sauce, velvety (RH) hot fudge sauce, strawberry sauce made with chunks of strawberries (real, and if not homemade, from a fancy jar), and (RH) cherries-jubilee ice cream made with big juicy pieces of cherry and a kick of brandy. And oh yeah--the whole thing comes between halves of fresh-cut banana, piled high with real, fresh whipped cream, and scattered with your choice of toppings like almonds, pecans, or peanuts.

I retreated to a back table with this behemoth and proceeded to...um, I really don't know. I had my notepad, and I assume time elapsed, because much of the banana split seemed to have disappeared. Other than that, the time passed as it does in soap operas: A hazy close-up of the beloved, all glossy with caramel, and suddenly, the story picks up in the future.

In the future, the table beside me was fully occupied. Three youngish boys, each with an enormous single scoop of bright-blue cotton-candy ice cream in a waffle cone ($3.33), and Mom, with something that looked like Izzy's Fine Grinds coffee ice cream, speckled with coffee grounds. At the mini kids' table, mini kids sat with mini kids' cones ($1), also bright blue. (If you've got nothing to do this summer, I can sincerely recommend taking up a study of children in those scant moments between order and receipt of ice cream. Some behaviors I observed included the holding of breath, a deep, slow-motion, knee-bending hustle, and a profound, wailing sorrow.)

Now, I know it's unforgivable, but I generally regard boys of a certain age with a gimlet eye. In my neighborhood they seem to be mostly interested in crashing unpiloted bikes into garages, pushing their little brothers into the roses, and carrying very large branches hither and yon with the aim of breaking up patches of girls. So it was with a certain wariness that I regarded a whole group of them filling up with sugar and cream. Truthfully I was relieved there weren't any stray tree limbs in the back of the chic wood-and-brushed-aluminum space. And what did the oldest of the little boys do when he was done with his cone? Carefully wiped his hands on his shirt, sweetly asked permission to play the upright piano in the backroom, and broke out into 20 minutes of one of those super-flourishy piano-lesson pieces that sound just exactly right with kid-shouts filling up the slow parts.

Turns out that a high regard for kids is what Izzy's is all about. Husband-and-wife team Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel opened the place last July after concluding a few things about kids. One, "When you have kids, you suddenly realize there's nowhere in the world for you to go where you're not disrupting adults," says Sommers. "Kids sometimes take up more than their fair share of space, through no intention of their own." At Izzy's, though, kids can sit out front in kid-size Adirondack chairs eating kid-price cones: $1, because Sommers and Hammel think it's a rip-off to have to buy a toddler her own adult-size cone.

The other reason to open the place was that Sommers, who is also a Minneapolis public-school English teacher, feared that his full-time schedule was burning him out. Izzy's, says Sommers, allowed him to work less than full-time and thus be a better teacher. (Though he must have been pretty good to begin with, since it turns out that the piano was a gift from a former student's family.) So Sommers went to teaching part-time and now thinks he's a better teacher, and I can only think that the net result has been the greater happiness of his kids, other people's kids, and student kids.

And it all worked out for the adults, too: For every pipsqueak who comes in for a sugar rush of Cotton Candy, there's an adult snaring some tart grapefruit sorbet, thick, mouth-coating cream-cheese ice cream, homemade praline butter-pecan ice cream--even the best vegan ice cream I've ever had, a very creamy soy-based mocha-chip made with an imported Italian base. Can't decide? Never fear: Every Izzy ice-cream cone comes topped with your choice of a cute, round, teensy scoop of another flavor that sits up top--what Sommers and Hammel call an "Izzy." Order a vanilla cone and you can put an Izzy of chocolate up there.

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