To Toscanini’s founder Gus E. Rancatore, Cambridge was made for the ice cream shop. “College students eat enough ice cream to keep all these stores around,” he says.
According to Rancatore, places like Toscanini’s tend to thrive in more rigorous academic settings—where the libraries remain open later than the bars.
“Boston doesn’t have a reputation for being a hard drinking town,” says Rancatore. Instead, he continues, “You can arrange to meet someone in the middle of the night, have a few bites of ice cream, share a few laughs and get back to work.”
Rancatore is hardly the only entrepreneur to seize upon the economic possibilities of this storyline, familiar to many a Harvard student. With profits, student loyalty, and reputation at stake, it is no wonder that the history of Cambridge creameries is rife with intrigue. Since the 1970s, these stores have been characterized by the hint of acidity tossed into their saccharine façades.
THE FIRST SCOOP
The seed for Rancatore’s now world-famous business began in September 1973, when he started working part-time for the recently opened Steve’s Ice Cream in Somerville. Founder Steve R. Herrell was onto something, as the lines snaking out the door and weaving through the Davis Square streets confirmed.
Herrell had pioneered a totally new concept in the ice cream sphere: the mix-in. Says current business partner Judy U. Herrell, “He thought he could make a better ice cream than was currently available.” She continues, “He felt the ice cream needed to be creamier, richer.” So he began tinkering with his home crank freezer, mixing in cookies, candies, and fruits.
“He invented Heath bar crunch, he invented cookies-and-cream,” says Judy. “It became this idea of customizing the ice cream flavor.”
These, combined with a technique of slowing the ice cream motor so that less air entered the ice cream, proved to be the coveted secret ingredients. A week after Steve’s Ice Cream opened, it had to close again—the initial 30 gallons of ice cream had already run out. Three weeks later it re-opened, this time with a full staff and walk-in freezer.
“Working at Steve’s was like working at a club that was incredibly popular,” says Rancatore.
A journalist from The New Yorker came in once to write a story about the phenomenon (“Hub Roundup,” June 24, 1974). “I think it was the first time Somerville, Mass. was in The New Yorker,” says Rancatore, “and probably the last.”
And yet by 1977, Steve was feeling restless.
“The hankering to get out of a big city kept growing,” he says. “I enjoyed the ice cream business but it was very active and time consuming—we were open seven days a week.”
So he sold it to Joseph “Joey” Crugnale, moved to Northampton, and settled in with a job restoring pianos.
“My plan was to do a kind of home study and buy a plot of land and build my own house, grow my own food,” he says.
Nevertheless, by the early ’80s, the sheen of Herrell’s new American dream had begun to fade.
“I missed the ice cream business,” Steve says, “and I knew it a lot better and could manage it a lot better [than the competition].”
There was only one problem—Crugnale now owned an ice cream store with Steve’s name affixed to the window.
Steve, however, had a strategy.
“I got some legal advice to name my new store Steve Herrell’s,” he says. “This big law firm thought that I would get publicity out of this, that the people I sold Steve’s to would not like that.”
And in fact, Steve’s Ice Cream sued Steve Herrell over the use of his name in opening another store.
Steve says about the case, “It was recorded in the Globe and on the TV stations and there was a tremendous amount of publicity over it.” Finally, he admits, “I said, ‘OK, enough is enough; we got the publicity; now I’m just going to drop the Steve’s and call it Herrell’s.’”
The new store in Northampton eventually became a successful franchise with stores throughout the Boston area—including, until 2009, an outpost in Harvard Square. The venture was also tinged with romance, as Steve and Judy—who had started working with him at the Northampton store—married in 1985. Though they separated in 2000, they remain on close personal and professional terms.
“We were better best friends than we were husband and wife.” says Judy. “We were better business partners than husband and wife.”
SCOOP TO SLICE
As Steve reenacted his initial venture with the opening of Herrell’s, Crugnale was beginning another ice cream business. He had started his own shop—Joey’s Ice Cream—in the early 1970s, just up the street from Steve’s.
“We were competitive,” he notes, adding, “his was a much heavier denser ice cream and mine was a much lighter one.”
Once he bought Steve’s, however, Crugnale was worried about a possible threat to his business: the vacant storefront next door, which he was afraid would try to feed off his business.
Around that time, Crugnale visited his relatives in Diabutto, Italy for the first time in years, especially enjoying the pizza from his grandmother’s backyard brick oven.
“There was nothing like that in the United States,” he says. So, upon his return, he bought the vacant shop next door and, in it, installed a brick oven.
“We’d bring wine, we’d make homemade pizza,” says Crugnale. For him and his friends, “It was a hangout.”
The spot never became more than that until Crugnale started to become disillusioned with his main business, Steve’s.
“Everybody kept on copying us,” he says. “That was the part that just bothered me—everywhere I went I saw the same thing.”
Crugnale, then, decided to pay a little more attention to this brick oven pizza idea. On a trip to New York, he read a review of a play that had recently shown, with a character named Bertuccio. He liked it, liked the alliteration of the ‘B’ with ‘brick.’ So he sold Steve’s Ice Cream, moved next door, and opened up the very first Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizzeria.
Even though Crugnale eased out of the Boston-area ice cream business, the ways in which it has changed continue to strike a chord for him.
“The people who bought [Steve’s] ruined it,” he says. “These people said, ‘Well, we’ll make the [ice cream] in the factory and ship it out, we’ll save our labor and material’—but the whole concept was threshold-made .... It just ruined it.”
The proliferation of national chains like Ben & Jerry’s in Cambridge has prompted some to question the demise of the small, family-run ice cream shop.
Rancatore, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“[It’s about] making a product that’s kind of unusual or different from mainstream ice cream,” he says.
Places like Steve’s, Joey’s, and Herrell’s serve as reminders for him to, as he puts it, “invest yourself in the store—as a place, and in the product that you sell.”