The Craft of Ice Cream at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

I started working at an art school last year and since then have become a bit more in tune with the organizations that foster the visual and performing arts in the city. I’ve seen a couple of great exhibitions at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and was really excited when I started to get e-mails advertising events focused not only on the traditional craft and design mediums, but on the craft of particular foods as well.

To me, creating good food definitely does share some of the same elements that go into creating things like jewelry or glass. Many professional chefs and bakers, for example, spend years training in various techniques and continue to refine their skills over the course of their careers. They think creatively about how to use ingredients that make dishes interesting (both in terms of their taste and visual presentation) and keep customers coming back to their restaurants and businesses again and again. And, many of them then go on to train and mentor others to do the same.

The most recent installment in the Art Alliance’s food-focused event series brought together one of my local favorites—Franklin Fountain—and the Alliance’s new, on-site restaurant Rittenhouse Tavern for an evening focused on summer’s quintessential treats: burgers, fries and ice cream. Obviously, this was pretty much the perfect date night for me and Chester. I’m not sure if the pricing is standard for each event, but I thought that the $35 registration fee, which included the RT Burger and fries, the discussion and ice cream tasting was pretty reasonable for a night out (Note: Beverages were not included and there was also a $20 registration option that just included the discussion and tasting).

Rittenhouse Tavern has only been open for a few months, but I have been hearing good things about the food being created by chef Nicholas Elmi (formerly of Le Bec Fin) and the beautiful garden dining area (which was just listed by Philadelphia Magazine as the best outdoor dining spot on its recent “Best of Philly” list). The whole space, in general, is gorgeous. The décor is classic and elegant—distressed wood tables, leather chairs, and marble accents—that really complements the original artwork and details of the historic mansion that the Art Alliance calls home.

The burger, features dry-aged beef, provolone, watercress and “special sauce.” It’s served on a multigrain roll, baked with Yards’ Extra Special Ale, which gives it a rich, yeasty flavor.

Unfortunately, the burgers came out a bit more well done than our requested medium (me) and medium rare (Chester). Perhaps, in light of the number of people expected to attend that night, a lot of the prep and cooking was done in advance, making it difficult to get things just right. Overall, though, it was one of the best burgers I’ve had in awhile in terms of the flavor combination—the sharpness of the cheese, slight bitterness from the greens, and tang of the mayo-based sauce. I would definitely return to Rittenhouse Tavern to sample more of what’s on the menu. There were many appealing options listed, including the fish entrees and family style fried chicken supper, as well as an extensive cocktail, wine and beer list (For a hot summer night, I highly recommend the Tavern Lemonade, which has just a bit of rum and mint.)

After dinner, we went upstairs for the discussion with Eric Berley, who co-founded Franklin Fountain along with his brother in 2004. He spent about 40 minutes discussing how they built their business, from hunting down traditional soda fountain equipment, to working with antique ice cream making supplies and molds, to apprenticing with an ice cream maker in New York to learn the craft. Berley has quite an extensive knowledge of the history of soda fountain and ice cream in general. Since opening Franklin Fountain, he and his brother have made ice cream in the shape of Liberty Bells and colonial houses for special events and have been called upon as consultants for other entrepreneurs looking to refurbish old soda fountains in other cities.

Of course, there were samples, including a refreshing raspberry sorbet, creamy vanilla bean, and fresh blueberry.

From adjusting the amount berries that are needed to give the blueberry ice cream its subtle hue to achieving a perfect, thick consistency for hot fudge, to playing around with the amount of  syrup needed for a smooth coffee ice cream, Berley and his team go through an extensive trial and error process to ensure that each recipe is just right. They use local ingredients to craft traditional favorites, such as vanilla, rocky road, and coffee, as well as flavors with a historical context (such as  teaberry and huckleberry). This attention to detail and the use of natural ingredients ensures that Franklin Fountain ice cream and toppings taste exactly what they are supposed to taste like, without any hint of artificial flavoring or cloying sweetness.

I really enjoyed hearing the story behind Franklin Fountain and it made me appreciate the craftsmanship and passion that goes into making one of my favorite treats. The Art Alliance is planning a few future “Craft of…” events, including a November program, featuring Franklin Fountain’s sister business, Shane Confectionery. I’ll definitely be putting that on my calendar!

You can visit the Art Alliance website to sign up for its mailing list so you can get in the loop. Aside from the food related events, the Art Alliance shows a lot of great work. One of the current exhibitions, Shiny Monsters, features Adam Wallacavage’s gothic, under-the-sea inspired chandeliers and light fixtures  (if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you might remember that I posted one of his pink octopus chandeliers back in April, when he exhibited them in UArts’ annual fundraiser). They’re kind of crazy, but I kind of wish I had a place for one in my house.


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