Vanilla or chocolate, cone or cup, with a sprinkling of maritime history

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / August 9, 2009

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We’ve always thought of the 24-mile stretch of the Connecticut coast between the Connecticut and Mystic rivers as a kind of sweet spot for family attractions. What we didn’t realize is how literally true that is. Not only is the region dotted with museums large (Mystic Seaport), small (the Custom House in New London), and medium (the Florence Griswold Museum), it’s a hotbed of artisanal ice cream makers. Not every member of the family is going to enjoy every museum and attraction. We can imagine parents’ eyes glazing over as the kids play with conning-tower simulators at the Submarine Force Museum while the kids wonder what the big deal is about American Impressionism. But the entire carload can probably agree on stopping for ice cream, if not the flavor to choose.

Old Lyme
Back in the summer of 1909, the little Connecticut shore village of Old Lyme was enjoying its heyday as the “American Giverny,’’ as both famous and aspiring Impressionists covered miles of canvas with images of salt marshes, flower gardens, and weathered farmhouses. That year Hallmark Drive-In opened its doors as a maker of fine chocolates, advertising that its candies were “Made in Ye Colonial Town of Old Lyme.’’ These days Hallmark is a favorite Route 156 ice shop and burger stop between town and the beach at Rocky Neck State Park. Folks stream in for towering cones of the shop’s signature flavor, Black Hall Mud (coffee ice cream with Oreos, chocolate chips, and walnuts), named for the near by Black Hall River.

“It’s our most original flavor,’’ according to Theresa Legein, the 11-year-old granddaughter of owner Peggy Legein.

“Vanilla’s the most popular, believe it or not,’’ says Peggy, who makes 600-800 gallons of ice cream per week in peak season. “That’s what most people want in their sundaes.’’

Old Lyme Ice Cream Shoppe & Cafe is back in town, much closer to the Florence Griswold Museum, the one-time summer boarding house for painters now expanded into a showcase institution of American Impressionism. “I think the painters would have liked maple walnut or butter pecan,’’ says Lou Mae Albert, who operates the shop with her son Steve.

Built in 1918 as a garage (you can still see the slabs where the gas pumps were located), the building was transformed nine years ago into an ice cream and sandwich shop by Steve. Lou Mae further speculates that the painters would probably have liked any of the seasonal cream and fruit concoctions as well. “Strawberries are done,’’ she says, “but peaches are coming.’’ Steve also likes making the unusual but tasty beer ice creams based on Guinness stout and Sam Adams lager. But the most popular non-standard flavor is toasted coconut, almost like frozen coconut cream.

New London
In contrast to Old Lyme’s leafy, almost bucolic tranquillity, New London is a lively old port town where the Bank Street business district is anchored by the Custom House, designed by Robert Mills and in continuous use since 1835. Its officers processed the slave ship Amistad when she was towed into Long Island Sound in 1839. The Customs Service office is rarely used but the building functions as the Custom House Maritime Museum with fascinating exhibits on Federal architecture, New London’s era as a US whaling port second only to New Bedford, and the antismuggling operations of the Revenue Cutter Service and its successor, the US Coast Guard. (New London was a very busy port during Prohibition.)

Only a block up the street, Daniel’s Dairy Downtown scoops hard ice cream made off-premises from recipes “handed down through three generations,’’ says owner Dan Karp. (The soft-serve frozen custard is made in the store.) Karp also produces fudge at the shop, and some of the most popular hard ice cream flavors have a distinctly candy-like quality, including cotton candy, chocolate almond bar, and the big hit, Extreme Chocolate. The super-dark scoop consists of dark chocolate ice cream swirled with thick fudge and blended with pieces of Karp’s chocolate fudge.

This narrow strip of coast known at various times for whaling ships and rum-running speed boats is better known today for the Coast Guard Academy in New London and the Navy’s submarine base in Groton - on opposite banks of the Thames River. En route to Mystic, it’s worth visiting the Historic Ship Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum. But Mystic itself also suffices - a village split between Groton and Stonington on the Mystic River rife with shops and graced by Mystic Aquarium and the sweeping maritime history museum village of Mystic Seaport. Since Mystic is a major destination for vacationers, it’s not surprising that two shops demonstrate the coastal district’s divergent styles of artisanal ice cream.

Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream might have the better location, since its porch provides a perfect vantage for watching the 1922 counterweighted bridge swing up and down. This occurs so often in the summer that we wonder how auto traffic can ever cross the river. History buffs should take note that a homemade ice cream shop occupied this same location in the 1800s, and that various ice cream artisans operated here in the early and mid-20th century.

The current channeling of the Mystic ice cream tradition runs the gamut from classic vanilla and coffee to embodiments of what we think of as the Ben & Jerry’s effect - lots of added flavors and textures, each with a pun in its name. Folks line up for Lemon Chocolate Kiss (lemon cheesecake ice cream with chocolate shavings), Sticky Fractured Finger (caramel ice cream with broken Butterfinger candy bars and caramel swirl), and Jamaican Me Nutty (mocha ice cream with pecans, almonds, and walnuts). While several spots along the Connecticut coast sell special doggie ice creams (usually kibble in a cream base), Mystic Drawbridge may be the only one with a flavor suitable for a pirate’s parrot. Bird Chip is honey ice cream infused with raisin/seed/nut trail mix.

Across the street, Mystic Sweets & Ice Cream Shoppe (where the sign shows a mermaid licking a cone) opts for a more elegant, less cluttered style of ice cream.

“When you’re doing ice cream, it’s always about the vanilla and chocolate,’’ says owner Rita Lara. Her vanilla is deeply creamy with a pronounced, complex Madagascar vanilla flavor. Her chocolate is super-dark with fruity overtones. Because her ice creams are all 18 percent butterfat (typical premium ice cream is 14 percent), they are unctuously rich.

Lara’s nonfat sorbets (try the blood orange) are sweet and refreshing, and her Italian-style gelatos are smooth and creamy but far less rich, typically containing just 5 percent butterfat. Over the years Lara’s favorite concoctions have changed, but right now, she says, “it’s the panna cotta gelato. I can’t get enough of it.’’

We know how she feels - though it’s also hard to tamp down a craving for Old Lyme’s toasted coconut.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@

If You Go

What to do Florence Griswold Museum
96 Lyme St., Old Lyme
Adults $9, 12 and under free.

Custom House Maritime Museum
150 Bank St., New London
Adults $5, under 18 free; free to all on Sunday.

Submarine Force Library & Museum and Historic Ship Nautilus
1 Crystal Lake Road
800-343-0079, 860-694-3174

Mystic Seaport
75 Greenmanville Ave.,
888-973-2767, 860-572-5315
Adults $24, ages 6-17 $15, under 6 free.

Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration
55 Coogan Blvd.,
Adults $26, children 3-17 $19, 2 and under free.

Where to eat Hallmark Drive-In
113 Shore Road (Route 156)
Old Lyme 860-434-1998
Cups and cones $3.50-$5.50.

Old Lyme Ice Cream Shoppe & Cafe
34 Lyme St.
Old Lyme
Cups and cones $3.50-$5.50.

Daniel’s Dairy
60 Bank St.,
New London
Cups and cones $3.30-$4.

Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream
2 West Main St.,
Cups and cones $3.50-$5.50.

Mystic Sweets & Ice Cream Shoppe
7 West Main St.,
Cups and cones $3.50-$5.50.