Forty Years Later, Are These Philly Favorites Still the Best?
Bassetts Ice Cream
45 North 12th Street, Center City | 215-925-4315
Then: Best Ice Cream: “Bassetts … has the purest flavorings and the highest butterfat content around. Great if you love ice cream. A little hairy if you’ve got a heart condition.”
Now: On a recent overly warm day, I walked over to Reading Terminal Market to take in the scene at Bassetts ice-cream stand, which you can’t miss if you enter through the 12th Street doors. There, on the left, an impressive line of toddlers, grandparents and everyone in between stood waiting for cookies-and-cream on sugar cones (my go-to), vanilla on waffle cones, and other varieties from among the 40 flavor options.
I imagine the line has been like that on most warm days since 1892, when the stand—and the Terminal—opened for business. While hundreds of other merchants have come and gone, Bassetts remains as the Terminal’s last standing original vendor. Back then, the ice cream was produced in the basement of the building, using ingredients purchased from other merchants in the Terminal, and there were just a handful of flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and peach.
Today, the stuff is actually made way out in Johnstown, and you can find more far-out flavors, like green tea and vanilla raspberry truffle. I asked Michael Strange, Bassetts president and the great-great-grandson of the original owner, to tell me about some flavors that weren’t such big hits over the years. “Well, the story goes that back in the 1800s, green tomato ice cream was one of our flavors,” says Strange, who was scooping ice cream as a teenager when our 1974 issue came out. “I’ve tried making it since, but I didn’t find it particularly palatable.”
Strange also tells me about the time his predecessors concocted borscht ice cream. “It was in honor of Khrushchev’s visit in the 1950s,” he explains. “I’m told it was made at the request of the State Department.”
Still, Strange says no matter how unpopular a flavor is, once he discontinues it, people crawl out of the woodwork to complain. “Even the least-selling flavors seem to have a dedicated hard-core cadre of followers,” he observes. “And boy, do they let me know about it.”
Strange credits his success, in part, to customer service (the counter employees are some of the nicest at the Terminal) and to the loyalty of customers who come back year after year. “You know the regulars when they ask for their ice cream in a ‘dish,’ meaning a porcelain dish with a metal spoon, the way they did it back in the ’30s,” says Strange. “The tourists, they don’t know to do that.”