Mario de Caro: double scoops of ice-cream and inspiration

July 29, 2005

"Chocolate Sluggo is named after a fierce campus track coach; mango sorbet and khulfi were developed with an Indian scholar at Harvard"

Toscanini's Ice Cream
Cambridge, Massachusetts, US

Albert Einstein, so the story goes, claimed that our creativity is highest while we are in the three Bs - bed, bus or bath. That is, our best ideas come when we are doing something else. There may be a hint of genius in this but only partial truth. Other letters can seem no less relevant: some of us are at our intellectual best on trains, others at parties, still others while sailing. And for many who live in Cambridge, home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a "T" should also be considered.

This "T" refers to Toscanini's, the world's most inspirational ice-cream café, named after the flamboyant Italian conductor famed for the velocity of his Beethoven symphonies and for moving to the US after being beaten for refusing to play the Fascist anthem.

As an open-minded Italian, I can grant that Wagner is superior to Verdi, and that spaghetti and fireworks were invented by the Chinese. But I cannot work without my three daily espressos. So it was that when I arrived in Cambridge in the mid-1990s to work on my dissertation about the philosophy of the mind, I desperately wandered the streets in search of a decent coffee. I finally landed at Toscanini's. The espresso was excellent - but the ice-cream was amazing.

Add the eclectic mix of classical music, electronica and jazz, the sleek furniture and the heady company of academics from Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Boston universities, and you have an idea why Toscanini's became my headquarters. I have since worked on many of my writings there - including Naturalism in Question , an anthology that I edited with David Macarthur, an Australian philosopher who shares my zest for espressos and extraordinary ice-cream.

The stories behind the flavours can be as compelling as the tastes. Burnt caramel - no life is worth living without having tried this - was the serendipitous result of late-night ice-cream making; chocolate Sluggo is named after a fierce campus track coach; mango sorbet and khulfi were developed with the help of an Indian scholar at Harvard. For an MIT event commemorating Richard Feynman, a lemon, sweet cream and tea flavour was created. It grew out of the comment of a lady at Princeton University who, after hearing the physicist ask for both lemon and cream in his tea, remarked: "Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman", a line that provided the title of his autobiography.

When you visit Cambridge, go to Toscanini's and ask for Gus Rancatore, who orchestrates everything. After years of talking with gifted customers - including Henry Gates Jr., the chair of African and African American studies at Harvard; Robert Nozick, the late philosopher; Matthew Carter, the English type designer; Amar Bose, the acoustic engineer; and Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist - he has become a sort of encyclopaedic ice-cream vendor.

Recently, we discussed Mordecai Richler's novels, the political situation in Turkey, Frank Gehry's latest provocations and some minor Truffaut films.

At some point, Mr Rancatore referred to someone who does "haptic". I was baffled. "It is a newer science," he explained, "that studies the sense of touch and its possible simulations in artificial intelligence." This he had learnt a few hours earlier from a customer.

Being in the mood for cutting-edge ice-cream rather than engineering, I merely nodded - and went back to my dolce vita with a small cup of nocciola .

Mario De Caro is a researcher in political philosophy at Università Roma Tre, Italy, who also teaches at Tufts University, Massachusetts, US.

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