In summer (and sometimes the other three seasons), little exists between a scoop of ice cream and paradise. But the year’s hottest season ensures that the call of those glorious orbs of creamy goodness can be answered at a range of convenient locales — roadside stands, neighborhood outposts, and beside green escapes. That’s especially true in New York. Despite the hype of Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s, Texas’ Blue Bell Creameries, and Pennsylvania's Hershey’s Ice Cream, New York possesses some serious ice cream cred, and, even better, a collection of local operations that make pairing a double scoop with an outdoor adventure easy as extra sprinkles.
“We have a lot of dairy farms around here,” says Charlie Miller, who writes about food for syracuse.com. “You get fresher milk, cream — all that stuff that makes the quality a little bit better. And you get more variety.” The quality is so good, in fact, that Miller believes Upstaters are a little spoiled. “I don't want to call them ice cream snobs, but I think they have high standards because of that.”
Miller and a colleague once went to Gannon’s Isle Ice Cream for an assignment that involved tasting all of their 38 homemade flavors. They spent about $70 on the small scoops of each flavor — and Miller completed the assignment despite one small gastrointestinal roadblock. “Believe it or not,” he says, “I’m lactose intolerant. So I was chowing down on lactaid all the while eating 35 cups of ice cream.”
But on that day and in most ice cream endeavors, his condition fails to curtail his dairy joy. “The whole experience was on the last day of school so you had kids running around. It was like Small Town, America was right here in Central New York,” he says. “Everyone was in a good mood. Ice cream makes people happy.”
So the next time you need a big scoop of happy, we offer five ice cream operations worth a stop, a detour, a visit.
Before you make it to the ice cream, the psychedelic art consumes your attention. In fact, the art serves as Gannon’s two southern Syracuse locations’ signature feature (beyond the amazing ice cream). The almost overwhelming images feature oozy depictions of ice cream cones with melting faces as they relax on the beach, sail through creamy waters on a pirate ship, and scoot around in cars in bold, loud colors. Many liken the style to that of Jim Phillips of Santa Cruz Skateboards.
But the wacky murals reflect the inventive approach to ice cream you’ll find at this beloved operation began by siblings John and Eileen Gannon in 1982. Their most popular flavor of the typical 35 offerings (eat your heart out, Baskin Robbins) is called Milky Way and is made with light chocolate ice cream with chocolate pieces and a caramel swirl. Swaths of cold caramel ooze from between the chocolate layers and large chunks of chocolate. They also offer seasonal favorites, such as Pumpkin Buttercream (pumpkin ice cream with a buttercream swirl) and unassuming gems, such as Sea Salt (light caramel ice cream with sea salt blended through), crowd pleasers, such as Pretzel Logic (chocolate ice cream with a peanut butter ripple and peanut butter-filled pretzels), and hometown nods, such as the popular ‘Cuse Trax (vanilla ice cream with a fudge swirl and mini peanut butter cups).
The Source: Gannon’s relies on locally sourced ingredients. Upstate Farms provides the dairy, Navarino Orchard supplies the fruit, and Half Moon Bakery delivers the brownies and cookies used in their creations.
The Range: On top of their hard flavors, Gannon’s sells a variety of soft serve ice cream and offers shakes, a range of sundaes, and an Oreo chipwich. But they also sell a signature concoction called an ice cream glacier — a slushie with a swirl of ice cream.
The Hours: Both the Valley location at 1525 Valley Drive and the Shadybrook Plaza location at 4800 McDonald Road are open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The Valley location typically closes for the season around Christmas and opens early spring, and the Shadybrook location is open when the snow is gone. Check the Gannon's website for definite dates.
The Bottom Line: A small serving of ice cream costs $4.
This local landmark first opened in 1957 and has created generations of fond memories as a gathering place for customers coming from little league games or as a sweet destination for local couples on dates.
Although Sno Top has changed hands several times over the years, the Giordano family operated Sno Top from 1974 until Jack Cushman (of Stingers Pizza Pub, another popular Manlius food stop) took over in January 2020. Cushman has pledged to run Sno Top in exactly the same way.
In a recent interview for syracuse.com, former owner Vincent Giordano reflected on Sno Top’s function as a gathering place for the community for the past 46 years. "On summer nights, people sit on the benches and picnic tables and meet their friends,'' Giordano said, “Or they know people in line, and they start talking. Their friends are all there.”
Its institutional presence in the community keeps it busy (particularly from 5 to 9 p.m. and 1 to 3 p.m., even on weekdays). But regardless of length, the lines move quickly.
Of course, the ice cream fuels the lines and the loyalty.
The Source: Sno Top uses the locally made Upstate Farms products to make their frozen dairy treats, and they make their ice cream flavors multiple times a week so the ice cream is always fresh.
The Range: Sno Top is popular for their soft serve, flurries, and old-fashioned sodas. Their most popular creation is a soft serve twist of Black Raspberry and Vanilla. Sno Top also has specialty sundaes for kids, called Trash Cans, which are trash can-like plastic cups with lids filled with vanilla ice cream and feature toppings like chocolate “dirt” and gummy worms.
The Location: 315 Fayette Street, Manlius, NY 13104
The Hours: All week from 12 p.m. until 10 p.m. They reopened March 13, 2021, and close for the season November 1.
The Bottom Line: A small serving of ice cream costs $2.80.
There’s much to love about Martha’s, but family owner Dennis Lafontaine believes that the greatest part is the community. “Every day is an experience at Martha’s,” Lafontaine says. “The customers we have and the people you meet. There's a fun story every day.”
Those customers range from Tiger Woods, the GOAT in golf, who once visited Martha’s, to two goats (their first actual goat customers).
The history possesses a stranger-than-fiction quality, which is detailed on the main window of Martha’s Dandee Creme. It features Martha’s founder, Martha Freiberger, who bought a chicken farm in the area in 1946 after visiting Lake George for the first time in her early 20s and falling in love with the place. She and husband Carlton Freiberger remodeled the farmhouse into a restaurant and later built a separate building for the restaurant and ice cream stand. A statue at the stand memorializes Martha’s pet chicken, Charlie.
The operation changed hands in 1982 when Dennis Lafontaine and his family, who vacationed at Lake George and were regulars at Martha’s, bought the restaurant and stand from the Freibergers. Dennis ran the restaurant after he graduated high school in 1983 and worked 100-hour weeks, seven days a week. Then in 1999, representatives from the Six Flags corporation made Lafontaine’s parents “one of those offers that you can’t refuse, and my parents sold it to Six Flags.”
But that failed to end Dennis’ time at Martha’s. “Ten years later, I was at a baseball game for one of my sons, and the president of Six Flags came up to me and said, ‘Would you ever consider buying it back?’” And he did.
Today Martha’s serves a whopping 37 flavors of delicious soft serve ice cream. Lafontaine claims that the most popular flavor is — boringly enough — Vanilla, followed by Peanut Butter, while Birthday Cake and Cotton Candy serve as their wackiest flavors. Lafontaine counts Pistachio as his favorite, and his wife Beth enjoys Strawberry.
The Source: A company just across the border in Pennsylvania supplies the dairy mix that comes mainly from nearby New York cows. Martha’s also buys local fruits for their fruit flavors and seasonal offerings, and they change their flavors every other day for maximum freshness.
The Range: Martha’s mainly sticks with what they do best — their soft serve. But they also have ice cream cakes, dandee cremewiches (flying saucers), and Dole Whip for those with dietary restrictions.
The Location: 1133 U.S. 9, Queensbury, NY 12804
The Hours: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. They reopened on March 13, 2021 and close for the season in October.
The Bottom Line: A small serving of ice cream costs $4.16.
Cornell Dairy Bar’s farm-to-cone operation makes it a standout. The ice cream is made fresh every week, and those who produce the milk that make this possible do so in a barn that sits only a 20-minute walkaway. To really drive this point home, the bar shares space in Stocking Hall with the statue of Cornelia the cow.
The Dairy Bar incorporates Cornell’s unique traditions and history into the ice cream flavors and boasts a few traditions of its own. In fact, Cornell-isms inform almost all 18 flavors, including the 19th seasonal flavor. For example, Dragon Day, one of Cornell’s best known traditions, celebrates the last day before spring break with the parade of a Chinese New Year-like dragon created by first-year architecture students. This event inspired the Dragon Day Mint Cookies & Cream flavor. Cornell’s original Big Red Bear mascot, a real bear named Touchdown, inspired the most popular flavor, Big Red Bear Tracks, a vanilla ice cream with brownie pieces and a caramel swirl. Cornell Dairy Bar also features four limited-time flavors that correspond to the four seasons. Alumni Swirl, a vanilla ice cream with fudge pieces and a cherry swirl made for reunion weekend in the summer, serves as the current seasonal offering.
Even Cornell’s leadership contributes to the operation. Each president creates their own unique flavor to be sold at the Dairy Bar. The current president, Martha E. Pollack, named her flavor Bits and Bytes (a nod to her AI research) which features a custard-like French vanilla with brownie pieces, white chocolate, and a banana swirl. And in the food science course Flavor 1101, students compete to make a new ice cream flavor, and the winning one is sold at the Dairy Bar as a limited stock flavor. This year, Apple Commons — an apple pie-like ice cream with a vanilla base, apple, cinnamon, maple, and chunks of graham cracker — won the competition.
The Source: Their very own Cornell Dairy Bar-farmed ice cream mix.
The Range: Cornell Dairy Bar is much more than an ice cream shop. It serves an array of the Cornell Dairy Plant’s products: milk drinks, butter, cheese, and yogurt. The ice cream is used to make milkshakes, sundaes, and sandwich cookies — and it's all kosher, literally. Cornell Dairy also provides a non-dairy mango sorbet.
The Location: 411 Tower Rd, Ithaca, NY 14853
The Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The Bottom Line: A small ice cream costs $3.01.
Owners Erik Bernardi and Jason Wulf’s stories are so linked, they might as well be a human swirl ice-cream cone. Friends since elementary school, the two are high school teachers and die-hard Western New Yorkers — and they both love ice cream. “Lake Effect Artisan Ice Cream is a passion of mine, and I'm dedicated to bringing our friends the best locally inspired, amazing ice creams anywhere,” Wulf says on the Lake Effect website. “Our flavors speak to the things that make us proud to be from Western New York.”
Lake Effect likes to get creative with its artisan sundaes, such as the Sweet-Salt-Smoke Sundae, which offers a new take on the banana split and features brown sugar-candied bacon and maple-soaked walnuts. Other crowd pleasers include Toasted S’more, which features frozen hot chocolate covered in flame-toasted marshmallows, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and honey graham crackers. The menu offers a nice mix of creativity and classics — from flavors such as Black Sesame to the Earl Grey-infused flavor London Fog and the eternal fan favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
Pro tip: Grab a cone at their Lockport location and walk along the historic Erie Canal just outside their door.
The Source: Lake Effect uses local Upstate Farms products for their dairy base, and as proud Western New Yorkers, Bernardi and Wulf collaborate with many other local businesses. One is the famous DiCamillo Bakery, the first bakery in Niagara Falls, NY, where Lake Effect gets its biscotti. Another is Public Espresso in Buffalo. Lake Effect uses their Revolution Signature Blend of coffee for their coffee flavor. They get shortbread cookies from Lou Lou Bakes and cinnamon crisp from Elm Street Bakery just outside of Buffalo. The list goes on and includes Chrusciki Bakery, Paula’s Donuts, and Platter’s Chocolates.
The Range: Lake Effect features their artisan sundaes along with milkshakes, floats, ice cream sandwiches, ice pops, and soda.
The Hours: The Lockport location is open every day of the week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. year round. The Hertel location is open every day from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. and closes December 30th. (Hours change in the fall.)
The Bottom Line: A small ice cream costs $3.78 after tax.
Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.