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Play it cool with a tour of Pittsburgh's best ice cream shops

| Monday, April 27, 2009

It might not be there yet, but you know it's coming. The stinking-hot, brain-melting Western Pennsylvania summer is stealthily stalking us as we speak, and soon it will have us cornered. There's no escape.

It's a path traveled only by the brave, the desperate and the sweaty.

Before we had a place with central air, my wife and I cooled off every summer night by heading out to get ice cream. Luckily, we lived in Squirrel Hill, where there were/are at least four ice cream shops in walking distance. Oddly enough, it worked -- but, as with any drug, you have to keep raising the dosage to make it effective.

When my sister -- whose favorite food is ice cream -- came to visit in 2005, I decided to show her and her fiance the city by way of its many distinctive ice cream shops. I dubbed it the ice cream "Road to the Super Bowl," choosing eight of my favorite spots, after the Stillers' eight consecutive wins on the way to the big game in Detroit. Eight ice cream shops in two days -- or in one -- will keep you cool, no matter how hot it gets. Plus, it's a fun way to check out lots of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

In 2009, most of those ice cream shops still are going strong, and a few new contenders have been added. To keep this to just one day, I've narrowed it down to the crucial Big Four.

11 a.m.

Klavon's, in the Strip District, is easily the most picturesque ice cream shop in Pittsburgh -- and maybe America. This charmingly old-timey, mom-and-pop soda fountain is so blissfully trapped in its own little world, that it seems surprising that everything doesn't turn black-and-white when you open the door.

Klavon's dates to the 1920s and wears its streamlined art deco design well, although the line on the wall from the floodwaters of '36 shows that it hasn't always been endless ice cream sundaes here. Curiously, Klavon's features a display of antique medicine bottles, dating from the days when it was pharmacists who doled out cherry phosphates and ice cream alongside your pills and elixirs.

This place would be worth a visit for historical/nostalgic purposes alone. But as a bonus, the ice cream here is fantastic. Get a Strip District Split -- the classic banana split -- or an ice cream soda, like the Ballerina-Creamsicle Soda, featuring orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, vanilla syrup and sparkling soda water. Or just get a Large Pecan Ball -- vanilla ice cream rolled in pecans, then covered in hot caramel, chocolate or hot fudge.

Klavon's, 2801 Penn Ave., Strip District. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, noon-9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Details: 412-434-0451.

1 p.m.

You cannot absorb Pittsburgh's weirdest and least traditional ice cream shop in one simple visit.

Oh Yeah! in Shadyside operates under the premise that ice cream can be a meal -- if it's really, really good organic ice cream, combined with all kinds of fruit, nuts and other surprises. See how easy it is to talk yourself into eating ice cream for breakfast?

Everything about Oh Yeah! is utterly distinctive, from its ice cream scooper door handles to its counters -- made from recycled bowling alley lanes -- to the floor, made from recycled truck tires.

Most of the ice cream flavors are from Canton, Ohio's Woo City, known for its certified organic Amish cream from grass-fed cows, and Woo Fu, made from silken tofu. There are more than 90 "mix-ins," from Swedish Fish to wasabi peas, Kix cereal, maple syrup, Oreos, walnuts, fresh ginger, and so on. The machine that blends everything looks like a miniature version of the monster drill-thing set to bore tunnels for the T under the Allegheny River.

For example, the "Morning Martian" blends vanilla ice cream with vanilla honey Woo Fu, pistachios, hemp protein (!) and "supergreen superfood" -- some sort of concentrated, scary healthful green stuff. The tofu-based Woo Fu balances out the fat content of the ice cream nicely.

FYI: Just because you can get bacon and habanero peppers on your ice cream, doesn't mean you should.

Oh Yeah! Ice Cream & Coffee, 232 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m.-midnight Fridays, 9 a.m.-midnight Saturdays, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-293-0955.

3 p.m.

Without leaving Shadyside, you can get an entirely different dose of frozen deliciousness from Mercurio's Mulberry Creamery. Right off the main drag of Walnut Street, up the stairs over elegant Italian mainstay Girasole, Mercurio's moved to the city from Kittanning several years ago -- everything still is manufactured there -- a fact some longtime fans still haven't gotten over.

It was begun by a doctor and his wife, specializing in the gelato they had enjoyed so much on vacations to Italy. This frozen Italian dessert is superficially similar to ice cream but has a lower fat content and is frozen in a different method -- making it seem smoother and denser than regular ice cream, with more emphasis on the unusual, distinctive flavorings than the cream.

If flavors like Caramel Green Apple, Coconut Mango, Tiramisu, Caramel Pecan Cheesecake, Chocolate Cashew, Dulce de Leche and Spumoni don't whet your appetite, then you probably don't like gelato, and should stay away from Italy in the summer.

Mercurio's Mulberry Creamery, 733 Copeland St., Shadyside. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1-9 p.m. Sundays and Mondays. Details: 412-621-6220.

6 p.m.

At this point, you might be incapacitated by brain-freeze, or otherwise stuffed to the gills with ice cream. But you must carry on, because the best has been saved for last.

An old USA Today article on the wall ranks Dave & Andy's as one of the Top 10 ice cream shops in America, and it's preposterous that any place could have knocked it from its perch since then.

It's small, there's no parking (it's in Oakland), and there's usually a line of college kids stretching out the door -- but ambience is for amateurs. The homemade waffle cones are without equal. The flavors are outstanding, ever-changing and frequently surprising -- lychee fruit• But the old standbys -- like the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream -- are simply unbeatable. You can get toppings, but you won't need them.

As a special prize, there's an M&M at the bottom of each cone, to keep it from dripping.

FYI: Find a safe place to concentrate on your cone. They're always so obscenely overloaded with ice cream that you need discipline and strategy to keep it from melting and running down your arm.

Dave & Andy's Homemade Ice Cream, 207 Atwood St., Oakland. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon-10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Details: 412-681-9906.

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