Coffee Chronicles: In Search of the Legit Affogato

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

It's the coffee equivalent of the chili size, or maybe it's not. The affogato: that nearly obscene, but oh-so-subtle pouring of espresso over gelato or ice cream, refreshing and lush, a world of fast-melting contrasts. While summer clings desperately to New York skin like a damp, sweaty rash for which there seems to be no cure, the application of caffeinated ice cream treats might buy us just a tiny scoop of sanity.

The affogato gets around, that trollop, and is not new to these pages—earlier this year we dipped into some fancy takes on the old-school treat. Now I'm shifting to a more coffee-colored scrutiny: where are the city's finest affogati made with the city's most serious coffee? Thus, I've skipped the line for chocolate sprinkles and whipped creme and headed to four places rumored to make affogati that even a coffee nerd would respect.

And thus, in no particular order, I offer the following affogati.

Affogato #1: Ronnybrook Milk Bar, Chelsea Market

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Ice cream: Ronnybrook
Espresso: Gimme! Coffee Leftist blend
Price: $5
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Full disclosure: this affogato is off-the-menu. Cheating, if you will. But at a place renowned for their ice cream and serving top-of-the-line coffee inches away, you can't go too far astray. And indeed, Ronnybrook nails a soda-fountain-feeling combo: small ice-cream dish, two simple scoops of vanilla. Nothing fancy, but that's not why you come to a "dairy bar." The espresso refreshes Ronnybrook's ice cream, though it runs out too soon, losing some coffee flavor. The balance of textures is key to the affogato, and at best you want two elements moving in harmony—the espresso conducting a gentle assault on the ice cream, creating decadent little pockets as it vanishes into the frost. Ronnybrook's affogato does a good job, but quickly turns to coffee-milkshake-soup, a common exit for the affogato. There are worse problems.

Affogato #2: Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream

affogato-3.jpgIce cream: Van Leeuwen
Espresso: Intelligentsia Black Cat blend
Price: $5
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There's a luxury about being able to walk up to a truck and have a shot of espresso pulled fresh for you over top of artisanal ice cream, but when it's pulled directly onto the ice cream, the flavors can suffer. It's a subject of debate whether or not pouring espresso directly over ice, like in a highly contentious "espresso to go", can shock the shot, but in this case my espresso came out tasting as if it had already gone stale; luckily there was so very much of it that it wasted no time in melting the always-so-subtly flavored Van Leeuwen ice cream and creating coffee-milkshake-soup (in a handy paper to-go cup.)

Affogato #3: Maialino

Gelato: housemade
Espresso: Four Barrel Friendo Blendo
Price: $6
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Far and away the most delicious affogato on the circuit was Maialino's (pictured at top), a perfectly proportioned shot of espresso—thankfully not pulled long for extra volume as in some affogati—over a dense scoop of fior de latte gelato with a velvety, almost ricotta-like consistency. The shot is pulled into a small pitcher and the gelato is drowned tableside (rather ceremonially) by your server, causing the shot to cool off a little before its integration with the gelato—which means the espresso and the gelato play off of each other, instead of the former hastening the latter to a sloppy mess. The simple sizing, served in a classic brown cappuccino cup, gives you time to finish while the espresso and gelato retain their separate identities, an interplay of great espresso and fantastic gelato. We all win!

Affogato #4: The Knave (in Le Parker Meridien Hotel)

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Ice cream: Ben and Jerry's
Espresso: Counter Culture Coffee Aficionado blend
Price: $8
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Finally, moving uptown, slide into one of the velvet seats at The Knave and order a latte-sized cup of Counter Culture espresso over top of your bodega's finest scoops. The high-volume shot itself (and this would be a good time to mention that critiquing an establishment, or one particular drink, based on one shot of espresso, is putting a lot of pressure on one volatile, viscous moment in time) wasn't mindbending, but its marriage with two huge scoops of ice cream turns out to be pretty all right, before it evaporates into the inevitable milkshake-soup. That's okay—by the time you've exhausted the treat's espresso component, you'll be satisfied enough to leave the rest of the ice cream. This dessert is served with one the Knave's house lemon-quince crescent butter cookies, but I can't see how you'd have room to eat that after a dish of the bar's gratis deep-fried olives. (Never mind after a trip to Burger Joint).

The Verdict?

After this soul-searching survey, I think what you really want out of an affogato is not just quality but moderation. Only Maialino's showed a real understanding of proportion, and of not compromising the shot in order to make a dessert that will, more often than not, begin like a workaday ice cream sundae and end like a high-class milkshake. Note as well that coffee lovers in search of this relief in the waning days of summer probably won't find ice cream tubs at their favorite cafes, so they may have to seek out the restaurant crowd—though there's no shame in ordering your ice cream coffee soup at the bar and heading home early for the night. Nope, no shame at all.