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, 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.

Or, you can get an Izzy pop, an Izzy dipped in hard chocolate, speared on a stick. Izzy pops ($1.27 for one, or a platter of 25 for $25,) are perfect: Hammel and Sommers skipped the standard tasteless chocolate-dip stuff in favor of developing their own enrobing chocolate. They were helped along by much-adored local chocolatier B.T. McElrath, and these little ice-cream bonbons on sticks are, well, frankly, you know, they're bonbons. Roughly translated, they're a double-good. They're good-goods. As far as I know, a year ago there were no locally made ice-cream bonbons in town, and now there are.

What did I tell you? Life is sweet and, apparently, getting sweeter. Meet you on the porch?


MARSEILLES BOUILLABAISSE: My prize for the most incompetently hacked-up dish in recent memory goes to bouillabaisse. I have had frankly frightening versions over the past few months at La Fougasse, Red Fish Blue, and Zinc. I must admit it crossed my mind a few times in my travails that there is one authentically Marseillaise chef in town who might be pressured into making this authentically Marseillaise seafood stew, namely the Loring Cafe's Patrick Atanalian. Turns out I wasn't the only one who thought so. "Oh, I have a friend who always bugs me," Atanalian confessed in a recent phone interview, sounding harried indeed. "I always say I won't do it. I say no, no, no! Finally, I give up. I say fine."

And so, starting the second week of June, real bouillabaisse can finally be yours. "It is the real thing," says Atanalian, "The recipe has been in my family for a long, long time, and you know I already had a hard time getting them to give it to me. My great, great, great-grandmother gave the recipe to my dad, but my dad wouldn't give it to me. I had to ask my mom. I think I better do it right, or else I get 86ed from the family."

The reason you can't have the bouillabaisse until the second week in June is that Atanalian will be home in Marseilles for an early summer vacation and serious cook-off. "We have a challenge in the house every four years when we get together, me and my dad, a cooking challenge, it is going to be interesting!" At that Atanalian breaks into the kind of manic laughter that makes me think this cooking challenge may well be a cooking challenge to the death. But I hope not. Because I'd like to get one decent bouillabaisse in this town. Atanalian's bouillabaisse must be ordered 48 hours in advance and costs $70 for two people, including salads and desserts. Loring Cafe, 1624 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis; (612) 332-1617.

DISCUSSION TOPIC: THE 1950s So, why are the Fifties the one decade that gets official restaurant theming rights? There are a couple of them in town, including downtown St. Paul's Heartbreaker and Midway's Andy's Grill. But a recent visit to the 50's Grill in Brooklyn Center really brought the question to the fore for me. I mean, the place is staffed by teenagers in poodle skirts. What could poodle skirts and saddle shoes possibly mean to people born in 1985? And why do the 1950s get imbued with some mystical air of innocent purity? When I look around the walls of the 50's Grill, plastered with big black-and-white posters of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and James Dean, all I think of is misery, drug abuse, and intentional or accidental suicide. Logically, I know that all these places are basically holdovers from a late 1970s wave of nostalgia for the 1950s--think the movie Grease and the sitcom Happy Days. But it's now. Why are they still here? Is it just stubborn, stubborn boomer nostalgia? If you know, please write in and tell me.

And here's an even more frightening thought: If boomers are nostalgic for the 1950s because it was the magical period of their preadolescence, does that mean that echo boomers will be nostalgic for the 1990s, and we're all doomed to a coming wave of restaurants where servers with enormous pants strapped around their thighs serve chicken fingers under full-color blow-ups of the Spice Girls? Break into groups and discuss.

Or go to the 50's Grill for more concrete evidence. When I was there, I had some really marvelous homemade pie, a good old-fashioned phosphate (that's a soda, kids), a caesar salad that was as goopy and flavorless as any I've ever had, and the worst, driest pot roast in memory. 50's Grill: 5524 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Center; (763) 560-4947.