Aglamesis: Cincinnati’s Ice Cream Delight
On National Ice Cream Day, July 21, I was passing through Cincinnati, and I had to stop at a little soda fountain and candy store called Aglamesis Brothers. My sister and brother-in-law, who live in Dayton, introduced me to it about a year ago. I was completely charmed, and I want to share this quaint place with folks who may not know about it.
The shop is located on Madison Road there in Cincinnati (or “Cincin-daddy” as my nephew Emory says it). The building is painted pink, and has a white and pink awning—the colors of candy and sweetness. There is an ice cream place in south Florida named Sloan’s that also uses the pink motif effectively; perhaps the owners learned this trick from Aglamesis Brothers. Certainly the color scheme is redolent of sugary cotton candy twirled in wispy skeins to form a fluff of pleasure.
The name of the business too carries a suggestive power, painted in gold on the large front window. “Aglamesis” can be a little hard to get your tongue around, but once you do its combination of liquids, sibilants, and voiced alveolar fricatives ring and jingle around just the right vowels with the magic of the concoctions, colors, and sounds to be found in the shop itself. For when you pass through the door you find yourself greeted with just the right music of the 40s and 50s, just the right glisten of glass, turn of fans, glow of lights, and promise of delight.
The shop was founded by Thomas and Nicholas Aglamesis in 1908. Interestingly, these fellows immigrated not just from Greece, as their lovely last name surely betrays, but from the area around Sparta. I cannot help but comment on the curiousness of two fellows from a part of the world whose history is so often associated with laconic self-denial making their way into the New World and opening a shop dedicated to luxurious indulgence.
This original shop they called “The Metropolitan,” and it was in the Norwood part of the city. There they actually churned the ice cream by hand and then delivered it to people’s homes using the fastest team of horses in town. Soon after opening, they added candy-making to the ice cream, and the formula was set. By 1913, they had done well enough to open a new shop at the current location on Madison, and they spared no expense in embodying their sweets in the shop’s very structure. They had the interior filled with Italian marble and installed lamps in blooming flower shapes fashioned delicately of colored glass with marble stems. The manufacturers of these exquisite pieces—none other than Tiffany.
When the Depression hit, the brothers sold the Norwood location and gave the remaining business their own name. Keeping their nose to the grindstone, they managed to do what can be so difficult in business, which is to maintain the winning formula and essence while still adapting to new times and situations. They did so all the way through the Depression and then World War II. In the 1950s, Nicholas died and Thomas’s health declined, but Thomas’s son, James, stepped in, and he too proved adept at pulling off the trick of staying true to oneself while making necessary changes to continue in business.
James stays hard at it to this very day. He can be found at the shop, dressed in his tie, white shirt, dark slacks, and apron, his hair combed neatly in the style of the 40s when he came of age. He is the picture of grace, grooming, dedication. The present era looks shabby and dull when compared to this gentleman, who understands the importance of dressing up and professionalism.
Indeed, in this little shop the fallen world of our moment itself falls away. Outside the community bears all the marks of aging, decay, and the cheap trappings of contemporary culture. But inside Aglamesis Brothers an era of commitment to high standards and pride in one’s craft shine forth in quiet, assured, humble glory. Workers not only can dip ice cream, they can make you a true ice cream soda, a perfectly constructed sundae, and even a phosphate, which is something most folks have long forgotten how to make. Their skill appears too in the cases filled with the little varying lumps of chocolate that sit in silent humming rows, their curving mounds gleaming under the lights in smooth luxuriant richness.
The truly intriguing part of the shop is the part you do not see, however. All the way in the back, the wall recreates the outside front, with another white and pink awning over a pink wooden-slat doorway. This doorway might as well be the portal to the hope of all humankind. It both hides and opens up to the tantalizing place where all the pleasure is created.
Here Mr. Aglamesis disappears to oversee the crafting of the candies. The adult part of me knows that this space is probably a kind of laboratory, although not the ramshackle backstage of a fast food restaurant but the impeccable factory of a perfectionist confectionist. The wondering child in me, though, thinks it must be something else altogether—not so much Willie Wonka as a sorcerer’s cave, full of mysterious multi-colored lights that fade constantly from one to another. Here Mr. Aglamesis’s white apron morphs into a scarlet velvet robe spangled with golden ice cream cones, peanut butter cups, and twists of licorice and in his hand the all-powerful wand, dark chocolate tipped with vanilla, which the wizard tosses and taps into the air to conjure dreams into real-life delicacies. Surely no humdrum machine or regular human technique could create such fantasies—only some other kind of being and some other kind of creation.
Concerning Soda Fountains
Aglamesis Brothers requires no other justification to be loved than just itself, but my sister really wanted me to know about this shop because we have a shared history of working in a soda fountain. When I was in college and she was in middle school, my father dipped into his own memory of the 1950s and decided he wanted to open his own soda fountain. He managed to find a Bastian Blessing brand of fountain from that era and a marble bar made by the Liquid Carbonic Company probably in the 1930s. At the time, there was exactly one man on earth who knew how to refurbish and maintain soda fountains; he resided in Chicago and has since passed away.
My father came by a book of recipes from the 1920s (when soda fountains became big because something needed to be done with bars during Prohibition), but really he relied mostly on his own impeccable sense of taste. He taught me and my sister how to make the sodas, the sundaes, even the phosphates. In fact, we even mixed our own Coca-Colas, using the syrup and the carbonated water from one of the swan-neck dispensers. These were far more syrupy than most Cokes to be had now, and we had the liberty to mix them however we liked and to order. Very often we mixed mallow crème into the Cokes, and chocolate along with the more common cherry, vanilla, and lime. In fact, Coke is really just a kind of phosphate, which simply means a mix of carbonated water and syrup, except, well, there is one more ingredient: a secret one.
The memories my sister and I share from the days of working in that fountain are very dear to us. We had a regular circus going, taking the orders, grabbing the frosted mugs or glasses from the freezer, stepping aside and spinning away just before the other one passed by with a different creation. We would get the metal canisters on the milkshake mixers and stir in the malt, snatching them off at just the right moment and pouring the thick liquid in long strings into the glasses. We piled the sundaes high, high, and built higher still the flavored whipped cream we made ourselves. The banana splits were meals to themselves, a scoop of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate, the banana sliced in half and carefully placed along the insides of the glass boat. Then we would ladle on the pineapple, chocolate, and strawberry sauces and build up a mountain of chocolate and white whipped crème, syrupy nuts, and maraschino cherries.
All this we did while keeping up a patter over the strains of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby that wafted among warm glowing neon lights. There, just as it does at Aglamesis, another world existed. People might complain at first that we did not sell at 40s or 50s prices, but by the time the show was over, the talking done, the desserts consumed, they left feeling they had gotten their money’s worth, and gave us big tips for a little place.
It broke every one of our hearts when we had to sell that soda fountain. I had gone off to become a professor, and my sister had married and moved away. The fountain was part of my father’s gift and magic business, and he made the hard but correct decision to sell the fountain in order to make the space more profitable. But oh how we wished we could keep it, for it was more than just a way to make some money. For my sister, especially, it was her childhood.
It was sold to a place down the street, and for several years we could go by and see it the way one might visit a cemetery. Gone was the magic; no one worked it. Rather it stood like a museum. A few months ago, it was auctioned off to some place far away. My sister has long vowed that she will somehow, someday buy it back. Hopefully so.
But in the meantime, we have Aglamesis Brothers, which is now passing into the hands of a new generation of their family. The longevity of this dedication is, to me, awe-inspiring and admirable (although that last word looks so weak compared to what I really mean). I hope they can keep finding ways to change and stay the same. I will keep paying for it as long as they do.