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The Great New England Ice Cream Debate

Like Edward Hopper, who used the rocky coast of Maine and sunlit buildings of Cape Cod as artistic inspiration during his lifetime, I married into a family that has strong ice cream allegiances in both locales.

Unlike Hopper, who essentially abandoned Maine in favor of Cape Cod after 1929—returning for only one brief visit before his death in 1967—I’d never be able to give up one in favor of the other.

Even Hopper’s dour disposition might have been improved by a scoop or two from the best ice cream in New England.

I’m talking about Round Top ice cream in Damariscotta, Maine, which he’d have been able to sample since 1924, and Four Seas in Centerville, which he might have passed by each summer since 1934.

Round Top ice cream in Damariscotta, Maine
Photo: Casey Barber

Both stands serve extra creamy custards with a silky, gelato-like texture that walk a fine line between hard scoops and swirly soft serve.

The gals and guys working each counter have no choice but to push and mold the ice cream into its cone or cup rather than scoop it into a perfectly portioned circle, and they’ll start to melt immediately upon leaving the freezer.

Four Seas is slightly airier, with an almost-whipped consistency, while Round Top’s denser ice cream buys you an extra 30 seconds before milky rivulets start to snake their way down your arm.

Four Seas Ice Cream

From its simple neon sign to the irresistibly swiveling stools at the small counter, Four Seas (360 South Main St., Centerville) plays up its small-town New England charm.

A small diner-style restaurant is nestled to the left of the entrance, should you feel the need to preface your ice cream with a grilled cheese.

Four Seas has 24 flavors constantly “on tap,” though you’ll always be able to find your signature flavor packed in a to-go pint if it’s not available in a cup or cone.

Four Seas Ice Cream on Cape Cod
Photo: Casey Barber

For Memorial Day weekends in Hyannis, it’s tradition to make a Four Seas run and stock the house freezer with quarts of peppermint stick, chocolate, coconut, butter pecan, and chocolate chip—though I’ve started bucking the trend and including lemon crisp as a bonus.

Fans of spumoni, that Italian frozen confection with candied nuts and fruit, should order a scoop of Four Seas frozen pudding as a worthy New England substitute.

Round Top Ice Cream

On another Main Street about 200 miles away, Round Top (526 Main St., Damariscotta) boasts 40-plus options, including a variation on Maine’s ubiquitous Moose Tracks flavor called Eagle Tracks, chunked out with Oreos and Reese’s peanut butter cups in vanilla ice cream.

You’ll find Round Top at a few other local Maine icons like Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro and Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, but to get the full range of flavors, the no-frills shop is the only place to go.

Round Top ice cream in Damariscotta, Maine
Photo: Casey Barber

There’s no neon here, no full menu of savories, just a whole lot of ice cream to choose from.

On sunny afternoons, you can slurp al fresco on a back porch that overlooks green pastures so photo-ready as to be a cliché. On rainy days, just stand at the glass door and look out onto the fields.

A word of warning that one cone might not be enough—with honest-to-god real berries in the strawberry ice cream and coconut flecks and full-size roasted almonds in my usual order, Almond Joy, sometimes it’s too hard to narrow it down.

Round Top ice cream in Damariscotta, Maine
Photo: Casey Barber

Stick with the small size and you might have enough room in your belly to try a second flavor. Or grab a pre-packed flavor from the cooler and bring it home for later.

So which is the best ice cream in New England?

There’s a cheap and easy way around picking a winner between Four Seas and Round Top, and it’s the way I’ve wiggled out of many a hotly contested debate at the dinner table: choose a favorite flavor from each place and don’t let them overlap.

Four Seas Ice Cream on Cape Cod
Photo: Casey Barber

That’s why lemon crisp is my dish on Cape Cod, and Almond Joy is my signature cone in Maine. Nary the twain shall meet.

When pushed, I’ll admit that overall I prefer a denser, firmer ice cream like Round Top’s, but a long Cape weekend without an oozing, melting pint of Four Seas peppermint stick would be a hollow vacation indeed.

And come on, it’s ice cream and it’s just plain good. There’s no granular texture, no ice chunks, no skimping on the flavors or ingredients at these two shops.

They’re both the best ice cream in New England, so you’re set wherever you happen to be.

When the quality bar is set this high, why restrict yourself? Don’t choose. Eat them both.

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11 Comments

  1. GREAT review of two favorites! It IS hard to choose an overall winner…there are no losers here! And no better way to spend some calories! Can’t wait for my Round Top visit next week!

  2. There’s a new ice cream worth trying in Wiscasset (right next to Red’s) called Lear’s.

    And Mt Desert Island Ice Cream (2 locations in Bar Harbor and one in Portland) was excellent.

  3. RB, we love Mt. Desert Ice Cream in Bar Harbor – didn’t make it that far north on this trip, but we’ll be reacquainting ourselves with their ice cream next summer. Will have to keep an open stomach for Lear’s next time too!

  4. If you’re a fan of real creamy ice cream….you must try the Creamery at Penn State. THE BEST!

  5. I am in Nashville right now and boy could have have some of that cool ice cream, and lots of it!!

  6. Summer is not summer without an ice cream cone. Now you’ve really got me drooling for one. I could easily have one a day, in fact…

  7. Love that you talke about Four Seas. I’m a fan of so many flavors there that I have ordering anxiety every time I’m there. Have you tried the mocha chip? It’s a personal fave…

    1. Aida, I think I could easily be persuaded to try the mocha chip at Four Seas. Go ahead, twist my arm to make me taste yet another flavor of ice cream…

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