Food critics are a famously tough crowd to please, as the New York Times’ Alice Gabriel showed in her review of Madison Kitchen a week before Christmas 2013, just a few months after the Larchmont, NY, restaurant opened its doors for the first time.
While Gabriel noted that the restaurant’s “New American food has a hunter-gatherer, everyman sort of spin” while praising the many highs and noting just a smidgen of lows on the menu, it was her review’s parting shot that stuck most with Chef Nick Di Bona: “As the clock runs down, take time out for dessert,” she wrote. “Trim, judiciously portioned beauties include crème brûlée, chocolate lava cake, apple and fig crisp, sticky date pudding and various homemade ice creams — we tried banana walnut, butterscotch and vanilla — which Mr. Di Bona should consider packing in pints to go.”
Nick not only loved that part of the review the most, he took the critic’s advice and is now briskly selling his completely original, homemade ice creams in three-gallon pails to restaurants throughout the Larchmont area. Di Bona, a recent winner in the Food Network’s popular “Chopped” television series, even has ambitious plans to expand sales to New York City restaurants as the swelling tide of praise continues on social media and word of mouth from local farmer’s market sales, and next year, open his own ice cream shop near Madison Kitchen.
The extremely talented, young chef says he got the idea to tinker with ice cream several years ago while apprenticing for a head chef who’d just invested in a large ice cream machine. His first foray was a butterscotch concoction using real scotch whiskey. It took eight months to perfect. “My whole concept of cooking is trying to do everything homemade,” Di Bona says. “If you use really great, natural ingredients and you make it yourself, that’s the best way to do it.” While he won’t divulge his signature recipes, he insists every flavor is hand-crafted start to finish. “I don’t simply fold mixes into a vanilla base,” he adds.
“This is the cool part. Because I’m a chef, I work homey, seasonal and local,” adds Di Bona, echoing the “hunter-gatherer” moniker from two years back. A week before the interview in early November, he was crushing pumpkin seeds and mixing them with brown sugar and sea salt for his original “pumpkin spice” flavor. (House flavors at Madison Kitchen currently include Vanilla, French Valrhona Chocolate, Coffee, Oreo Italian Cheese Cake, Nutella S’mores, Butterscotch, Banana Walnut, Backyard Mint Chip, PB&J, Super Dark Chocolate Sorbet and Strawberry Sorbet.)
When interviewed for this story, Nick had just finished developing a new concoction after New York State concord grapes were on sale and plentiful. The light purple base of the desert was a simple syrup made from crushed grapes, lemon juice and a little sugar.
Di Bona says he’s energized by the accolades for his deserts. “A lot of folks use the same words to describe them – ‘stupid good’,” he chuckles. And as any high-achiever will admit, the pressures to expand are equal parts scary and invigorating. He recently got an order for 1,600 pints of his famous tri-color rainbow cookie ice cream from the National Italian American Foundation for the organization’s 40th anniversary gala in Washington, DC.
“We’re in this weird position of growing really fast while I have this restaurant to run,” Nick says. “It’s great. Now I’m at the point of deciding what I need to do to take it to the next level. I just bought myself another job.”
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