Sunday, December 17, 2006

Great moments in ice cream

Toscanini's owner celebrates his published memoir

By Danielle Dreilinger, Globe Correspondent  |  December 17, 2006

Nothing energizes a book party like an open bar, no matter how the
booze is served.

Last month, chattering Cantabri gians slurped free Rum Raisin and other
frozen flavors to celebrate the publication of Gus
Rancatore's short memoir "Ice Cream Man: 25 Years at Toscanini's."

The work is just a taste, to drum up interest in a longer book he and
author Helen Epstein are writing that describes the changing world of
Central Square.

In that world, said his customer-fans, Rancatore, 56 , is the host of a
sundae salon.

"People just love listening to him," said Sue Bell, 23, who huddled
over a newspaper alongside other less-sociable regulars during the book
party at Toscanini's in Central Square. Bell, who lives upstairs, says
she stops in twice a day.

Said scooper Martin Gonzalez of Allston, 20, "He's here all day [but]
the number-one thing people say when they see him is, 'Gus, you're
never here!' " Rancatore opened a Harvard Square branch in 1997 , but
the original location on the MIT side of Central Square is his home

Rancatore chose the storefront for its affordable rent, foot traffic,
multicultural population, and -- most important -- its proximity to

"Students eat more ice cream than anyone else," he writes in the
memoir. Still, "you could not have called it picturesque." If he left
for home after midnight, he made sure the streets were empty first.

Those MIT students have treated the store well.

Rancatore still uses an ice cream machine built by "two superconductor
students offended by the noise and clunkiness of our equipment," he

At the party, he reminisced about three students who used to come in
barefoot in the '80s (don't tell the Health Department). When asked why
he remembered them -- one became a programmer, he says, and two math
teachers -- he said: "Of course you talk to somebody who is barefoot in

Although the square's fortunes have gone up since 1981, and the store's
menu has expanded to include coffee and even a weekend brunch,
Rancatore still sees the area as a colorful collection of this, that,
and everything.

He compares his yet-to-be-completed opus to "Tales of the City" by
Armistead Maupin. And he still often ends the day by talking with his
employees around the store's large wooden table.

Rancatore rules them with a velvet-wrapped scoop. When he hired Crystal
Kelley , 24, in 2003, his only rule was "not to bring any drugs,
knives, or guns," she said.

He encourages new flavors, which have included truffle fungus,
scrambled-egg-and-bacon, and Coffee Ice Cream Sandwich -- a concoction
Gonzalez calls "a meta ice cream; an ice cream of an ice cream."

The brainiac touch is characteristic. Although Rancatore never
graduated from college, ice cream hasn't turned his mind soft.

"I think you should be open to all sorts of ideas," he says.

"My information is so narrow compared to him," said Boston University
anthropology professor Merry White, 65. At the party, she pointed out
three of Rancatore's friends: a neon artist, a physics professor, and a
country singer.

Rancatore visits White's class every year to talk about ice cream as
identity. Naturally, he brings along his own personal ID card -- and
spoons for all.