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A Most Unusual Affogato

It’s raining in Manhattan as I watch a man light another man’s cigarette with a neon green lighter. I’m sitting perpendicular to where they are standing, which puts me uncomfortably close to the action. This would be weird, even for New York, if it weren’t for the glass window and multicolored rock bar top that separates me from them. And so it’s like I’m not even there, because essentially, I’m not. They are outside on the corner of 19th and Irving. I, however, am inside, seated at the window bar at Caffè Panna, an Italian-inspired ice cream shop where owner Hallie Meyer, and her whole staff, greet you warmly when you walk through the door.

The publication I work for published an article about her just this week (something we briefly discuss as I’m checking out), plus I’d been following Caffè Panna on Instagram for a hot minute, and so that’s how I knew I had to try it.

I walk in to find the shop is spacious and sophisticated without being unapproachable. I go up to the counter and order the affogato of the day: Hazelnut Sweet Potato Bun ice cream with toasted hazelnuts overtop, panna (homemade whipped cream) and cinnamon cream cheese drizzle with a shot of coffee poured over the sundae when I go to pick it up.

I’ve never had this Italian sundae before, and now I’m convinced this is the perfect after-work treat. The flavors are fantastic, but the experience is insatiable. I start at the top with the panna and the drizzle (which I would happily eat all by itself). The cream is beautifully light but isn’t really sweet at all, while the drizzle is thick, creamy and tangy with that back-of-the-throat warmth from the cinnamon. It’s everything I knew I needed. Then I work my spoon down to the ice cream, which is sweet without being sugary and tastes primarily like hazelnut and a sticky bun that isn’t super cinnamon-y. It has pockets of brown sugar “goo” like you’d get in a cinnamon bun, and those little bites are the best. The ice cream itself is smooth and creamy, but not to be mistaken for gelato. It’s definitively ice cream. The weirdest part of experiencing an affogato for the first time is realizing that it is the antithesis of a hot fudge sundae. Where the chocolate sauce would add sweetness, the black coffee adds bitterness. It’s incredibly complimentary because it keeps the whole affair from ever becoming too sweet, satisfying a more adult sweet tooth. I don’t even like black coffee but with ice cream, I think it really works.

Hallie comes up to me as I sit at one of her shop’s barstools typing this, hood up, purse on her shoulder clearly about to head out into the rain. She asks me how everything was, as my glass sits there with what remains of my affogato, and I tell her that it was very good. I tell her I’ve never had one of these before and now I’m wondering why. She tells me that her take is hardly traditional. Seeing as she used to live in Italy, I trust her on that. I ask what would be traditional. She says, simply, vanilla ice cream with coffee poured on top. I like her way better, I say. She grins and offers to take my glass, saying as she turns away from me that she’s glad I enjoyed it. Then she slips out the door into the weather.

Hillary Clinton is down the street doing a book signing, amassing a line that bends around the block. And yet I’m the one who feels that I’ve just met a celebrity in her own right.