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Ice Cream Island: Creamy-cool Treats Soothe Hot & Hungry Hearts
Arthur Katsafouros drops his head and frowns while recounting the damage Superstorm Sandy wreaked on his humble beach-town ice cream shop.
“This was a lake,” he says, motioning with his hands outside Marvel Ice Cream & Yogurt one recent Thursday morning, the searing heat pushing the mercury above 90 degrees, the only breeze coming from cars zooming along Lido Boulevard.
As it did with so much of the South Shore, seawater slammed into the red-roofed, white-walled façade of his walk-up ice cream parlor (and its giant rooftop vanilla cone) Oct. 29, causing unprecedented damage. After nearly 30 years of putting in exhausting 16-hour days, everyday, the Greek immigrant almost gave up.
“I was so discouraged, I did not want to start it up again,” he says grimly, “that’s how bad it was.”
It was “devastating,” recalls his daughter Pauline Seremetis, squinting to protect her eyes from the boiling sun.
Katsafouros realized it wasn’t going to be easy to bid goodbye to his business, an institution in Lido Beach, and his customers, many of them also victims of Sandy’s wrath, came out in droves to voice their support.
“A lot of people have come to us and said, ‘Thank God that you guys are opened after the storm. The one thing we kept worrying about was whether you would be here,’” recalls Seremetis.
Katsafouros had purchased Marvel from its previous owner in 1985 after running a Lynbrook-based machine shop that manufactured aircraft parts for the government for two decades. He had to dig deep to reopen in time for summer.
Normally, from March to November, Marvel offers a rainbow of ice cream flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, pistachio, banana and half-a-dozen others. Hundreds of ice cream-crazed fans flock there daily; dozens of their photos adorn the place’s windows.
“We have an excellent product. People don’t come here for my looks!” quips Katsafouros, his humor thankfully not a victim of Sandy, either.
The visit to Marvel—one of the myriad of hometown ice cream parlors dotting the Island—came during the longest heat wave on record for LI, seven sweltering days made much more manageable by the frosty treats served up by some of the best spots in the region amid their busiest time of the year. They relished the opportunity to provide customers with a welcome respite.
“It’s a good feeling to know that I’m bringing some little piece of happiness to people,” says 59-year-old Dan Levine while adults and kids alike sprinkle into Rockville Centre’s Five Pennies Creamery, a cozy ice cream shop boasting more than 135 flavors—all made by Levine himself.
The North Park Avenue spot, tucked into the heart of the village’s shopping district, offers everything from waffle ice cream cones to delicious sundaes and frozen ices. (Mango is a particularly refreshing flavor, FYI.)
Levine, who worked at a small ice cream shop in Maryland before moving to Red Hook, Brooklyn, opened Five Pennies four years ago and makes it a point to thank every customer who walks in—and out—the door.
And the folks who saunter in often ask: What’s with the name?
Levine was inspired by the 1959 film The Five Pennies, starring Danny Kaye and featuring a song by the same name. Levine’s parents emulated its touching scene in which Kaye’s character sings “Five Pennies” to his daughter who couldn’t fall sleep. Levine sung the tune to his children as well.
So he and his wife decided to bring that childhood memory to the shop. The songs’ lyrics have been etched in gold lettering on the store’s wall by a Five Pennies employee, who also painted a mural of Levine serving ice cream from a retro ice cream truck.
“The idea of the store was to make an old-fashioned store that would bring back memories for the older children of when they were young and would allow the young children to get a feeling of what an old-time ice cream store was like,” he beams.
Hildebrandt’s in Williston Park also serves a scoop of nostalgia along with its goodies. The eatery has been serving tongue-tingling ice cream, sweet candy and other oddities, such as chocolate-covered orange peel, since 1927. Susan Strano Acosta and her husband are its fourth owners.
Furnished with the same stools and counter from the restaurant’s debut more than 80 years ago, the classy luncheonette offers a trip to a much simpler era.
“We want to get to know people and they want to get to know us,” Susan says of the iconic eatery, which mostly serves Italian dishes. It is decorated with photos taken by her father, a real estate agent, who had bought Hildebrandt’s 45 years ago after walking in for coffee one day and learning that the owners wanted to sell.
He kept the original ice-cream-and-candy maker employed, and Susan still has his leather-bound recipe book.
But the Acostas have also come up with many of their own flavors—apple pie smashed in vanilla ice cream is but one—because “it’s fun to invent new things,” she laughs.
“There’s nothing that’s not made downstairs,” she adds. “From the front of the store to the back of the store, it’s just a factory.”
John Murray, owner of Kilwins Babylon Village, never intended to go into the ice cream business. “I was just looking to go into a business I like,” he says. Now his customers tell him he makes the “best ice cream they’ve ever had,” he claims.
Kilwins, a chocolate paradise, takes the sweet and salty combination to another level with its soul-soothing arsenal of chocolate-covered apples, bananas, orange peels and bacon among loaves of thick, dense fudge and barrels of addictive ice cream with such names as “Salted Caramel” and “Babylon Mud.”
“We have people who drive from as far as Staten Island,” Murray notes.
What he and LI’s other homemade ice cream-and-treats purveyors share is a love for what they do—and of course, a love for their goodies’ effects on their customers.
After all these years, Marvel’s Seremetis still smiles at the thought of serving the community, and she is humbled by its unwavering support. She also knows how to sum up America’s obsession with this frozen dessert.
“It makes everybody happy,” she says. “It’s ice cream! There’s nothing negative about ice cream.”
-With Samuel J. Paul