I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and it’s still home to some of my all-time favorite ice cream (and frozen custard) places. Even though my four favorites have been around longer than I have, I didn’t discover them until I was a teenager (they are kind of off the beaten path). Now they’re all mandatory stops each time I’m back at home.
Sarris Candies and Ice Cream Parlour in Canonsburg, PA is one part old-fashioned soda fountain-style creamery and two parts chocolate shop, complete with a seasonally changing giant chocolate castle. They’re famous for their peanut butter meltaways and chocolate covered pretzels, but their ice cream is what keeps me coming back for more. I first became enamored with their unreasonably large (one size only) shakes – their chocolate malt (made with vanilla ice cream as the base of course) was my go-to order. Years after getting a shake each time I visited, I heard a young boy in line in front of me rhapsodize about his favorite treat – a sundae made with cookies and cream ice cream topped with marshmallow fluff and milk chocolate hard cap. Woah. I wasn’t ready to try it just yet, but the next time I visited that is exactly what I ordered. It was great, but the marshmallow made it a little too sweet for me. Nonetheless, it shaped my future standard order. Now I always get a sundae with milk chocolate hard cap. They put enough chocolate on top that huge puddles of it pool around the sides of the dish and stay warm and melted, while some forms a hard shell around the ice cream. Their portions of everything are huge and unfinishable, but that just makes it feel more special.
Cookies and cream ice cream with milk chocolate hard cap, whipped cream, a rolled wafer cookie, and a cherry
Pralines and cream ice cream with dark chocolate hard cap, whipped cream, a rolled wafer cookie, and a cherry
For years, my mother went to Sugar and Spice in the South Hills of Pittsburgh for cake decorating supplies so that she could make extravagant and inspired birthday cakes for me and other family and friends. I hardly realized they sold ice cream, let alone homemade ice cream, until high school. They have an old-fashioned vibe like Sarris, but without the crazy portions. My favorite flavor is their vanilla – it’s perfectly creamy, rich, and sweet, and it tastes unbelievably fresh. It’s currently the frontrunner for my favorite vanilla in Pittsburgh. I like to dress it up as a sundae, since they do such a nice job of making them look pretty in tall sundae glasses.
Front: Vanilla ice cream with caramel, Oreos, whipped cream, and a rolled wafer cookie
Back: Vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream, a rolled wafer cookie, and a cherry
Glen’s Custard, all the way out in Springdale, PA, is the first frozen custard that I ever tried. It’s kept at a higher temperature than hard ice cream, so it’s the perfect temperature and texture for eating, it’s denser than ice cream because it has very little air whipped into it, and it’s rich like French vanilla ice cream, since it has egg yolks in the base. Glen’s stellar reputation preceded it, but it was apparent at first bite that this was the real deal and it exceeded my expectations. Glen’s always has fresh vanilla and chocolate custard as well as a rotating flavor of the day (my favorite is their butterscotch custard). I tend to stick to some variation of their vanilla – either getting it as part of a sundae or pairing it with another flavor – because it is just that good. My mother loves their “gourmet custard flavors,” which are more reminiscent of hard ice cream than frozen custard to me. Her favorites are caramel cookie dough and malt shop brownie (which includes chocolate malt custard, marshmallow swirl, and brownie chunks). You can even play mini golf while you’re there since they have their own course!
Vanilla custard, butterscotch custard, caramel, and M&Ms
Peanut butter pretzel custard topped with a scoop of vanilla custard
Page Dairy Mart was my final discovery of these four esteemed frozen dairy institutions. Ironically, it’s also the oldest (open since 1951!) and closest to my house. Go figure. The sheer magnitude of their menu, which decorates the entirety of the storefront windows in no particular order, can feel overwhelming…but in a good way. Just driving up to this place is fun, and the absurdity and decadence of their creations adds to this energy. I was practically apoplectic when I realized that they serve Nancy B’s cookies (which is only open during working hours so I can rarely get to the shop) with their ice cream and it had taken me this many years to find out. Do your research, kids. After that epiphanic moment, of course, my first taste of Page’s was in the form of a cookie sundae. It featured their vanilla soft serve, hot fudge, whipped cream, and a warm Nancy B’s chocolate chip cookie. It was as amazing as it sounds. They have so many sundae options and soft serve flavors that I’ll never try them all, but everything I’ve had has been great – especially the birthday cake soft serve cone (with big chunks of vanilla cake throughout) and the arctic swirl made with crushed Nancy B’s cookies. There is truly something for everyone there.
Arctic swirl made with vanilla soft serve and Nancy B’s chocolate chip cookies