Fast Food Week

We Took an Italian Gelato Expert to the Pizza Hut Ice Cream Factory

“First of all, I think my nonna would turn her nose up at the pizza, and this ice cream would definitely be too much for her.”

by Daisy Meager
16 October 2017, 9:00am

The Pizza Hut Ice Cream Factory plays an iconic role in almost any British childhood. Sure, the Pepperoni Feasts and stuffed crusts were great, but it was the self-service, unlimited-refill ice cream machine that everyone really went crazy for. Being allowed to top up your bowl with ice cream and sweets AS MANY TIMES AS YOU LIKED was a hallowed treat reserved for end-of-term meals and birthday parties. Maybe a special Friday night tea if you were really good. After gorging on slices of Chicken Supreme and feeling like you might never be able to move from the tattered pleather booth, there was always room for a visit to the soft serve station.

A typical trip to the Ice Cream Factory goes something like this: You'll be given a chipped, off-white china bowl (inexplicably, the same bowls used for the salad bar) and plod across the sticky carpet to the restaurant's brightly signposted ice cream area. Here, you serve yourself as much vanilla-flavoured soft serve as your blood sugar levels will allow and shovel a tonne of E number-riddled sweets and sauces on top. Ride out the sugar high and repeat.

The Pizza Hut Ice Cream Factory. All photos by the author.

Despite the predictability of the Ice Cream Factory routine, building the perfect bowl takes skill. There's usually some kind of overspill because the ice cream only stops flowing about ten seconds after you lift the machine lever back up. Adding jelly babies, fake Smarties, chocolate chips, and toffee crunch pieces might seem like a good idea, but the sugar headache that'll hit you in approximately half an hour says otherwise.

So, to find out how to create the ultimate, well-balanced Ice Cream Factory dessert, I enlist the help of Sophia Brothers, founder of London-based gelato company Nonna's Gelato and all-round Italian ice cream expert. Brothers might make her living churning artisan gelato with Kentish cobnuts and homegrown mint choc chip, but this isn't her first Ice Cream Factory rodeo. From an easy-wipe booth in a central London branch of Pizza Hut, Brothers admits that the fast food restaurant was as much a feature of her upbringing as "proper" Italian food.

Jelly babies and fake Smarties.

"My nonna is from a tiny village near Perugia (she lives in the South of France now) and every summer holiday when I was younger was spent visiting family," she remembers. "In the evenings, we'd run around this fountain in the piazza and pester our parents for a gelato. We would either be lucky enough to be able to sit down in one of the gelatarias and have a big one with cream and wafers. Or we'd get a little tub or cone."

Brothers continues: "But back in the UK, I'd spend pretty much every Friday after school in our local Pizza Hut with my mates, eating pizza and then going back two or three times to the Ice Cream Factory. For the gelato I make now, I don't tend to use toppings because traditionally, gelato is meant to be very simple. It's meant to be the finest ingredients and flavours going into the actual gelato—no Flakes or sauces on top."

Chocolate and raspberry sauces.

A waitress interrupts to take our ice cream order and tells us to grab some bowls from the salad bar (some things never change). As we approach the machine with the giddiness of two greedy 13-year-olds, I ask Brothers to explain the difference between gelato, ice cream, and what we're about to devour.

"The main difference between ice cream and gelato is that gelato is a lot less fatty. By law in this country, ice cream has to have 10 percent fat for it to be called ice cream. Gelato usually has a four to eight percent fat content," she says. "That's because it's mainly milk with a tiny bit of cream and there are no eggs in it. And when gelato is churned, there's a lot less overrun [the amount of air incorporated into the ice cream] than in ice cream, which means the final product is quite dense and creamy, even though there's hardly any cream in it."

Popping the hood of the Ice Cream Factory machine and taking a look inside, Brothers says: "The ice cream is probably not made with proper milk, it's probably milk powder. But it is actually churned as you press the lever so you get that really beautiful soft serve, like a Mr. Whippy."

Sophia Brothers, founder of Nonna's Gelato, creates her blowout Ice Cream Factory dessert.

It's time to start building. First, Brothers demonstrates how she'd make a blowout dessert. After piling the ice cream high, she drizzles over both viscous chocolate and neon raspberry sauce. Despite the limited topping options at this particular Ice Cream Factory (just Smarties and jelly babies today—poor form, Pizza Hut) and having to battle with a tiny scoop, Brothers expertly scatters the sweets to fit as many into the bowl as physically possible. She even has the forethought to gauge how much the liquid volume of the ice cream will increase by once it starts to melt.

She explains: "I have gone OTT here because I would probably never put this many toppings on a gelato because you wouldn't really need it. But if I was really going to indulge, I would go this big."

Back at the table, Brothers deconstructs the ice cream monster.

Brothers' OTT dessert.

"The addition of the jelly babies is quite an interesting one. It's so sweet," she says with a slight grimace. "You get that brain freeze where you're biting into the jelly baby but you're actually biting straight into ice cream as well. I strangely can't taste any of the chocolate sauce even though I put the same ratio of chocolate and raspberry sauce on. The raspberry sauce is very overpowering but it's got that artificial taste—like glacé cherries that don't actually taste anything like a real cherry. The ice cream kind of clumps together around the sauce."

Back at the Ice Cream Factory station for round two, the friendly waitress tops up the machine with a cardboard carton labelled "Dairy Ice Cream Mix." I avert my eyes from the ingredients list.

Next, Brothers prepares to construct a more balanced ice cream bowl by pouring a generous, but restrained, portion of soft serve. She notes: "This flavour ice cream is probably closest to our fior di latte, which is a pure milk flavour. In my gelato, we use brilliant Guernsey cow milk from the Estate Dairy and it's all unhomogenised so it's in its rawest form. Nonna showed me the basics of a fior di latte. She's not necessarily a specialist in gelato, it's just that she's always made everything—pasta, pizza—from the real raw ingredients."

Of course.

Brothers makes her balanced ice cream bowl.

Brothers adds: "But when this ice cream melts, the liquid doesn't really taste of much. Whereas if the fior di latte gelato melts and you drank it, you would taste proper milk."

To the ice cream, Brothers drizzles a small amount of chocolate sauce and sprinkles over a few Smarties. "Less is more. If you're going for a balance of flavours, you just need a little bit of sauce and just a few Smarties," she says.

I ask to Brothers to critique my dessert: soft serve that peaks just above the bowl's rim; chocolate sauce and just a dash of raspberry; and equal amounts of Smarties and jelly babies.

"It's very neat," she admires. "I still don't think I could finish the whole thing. I don't know how I went up to the Ice Cream Factory multiple times, after eating pizza, when I was younger."

Brothers' dessert [left] and the author's creation.

As we reach peak ice cream, I ask Brothers what she think her nonna would think of Pizza Hut.

"My nonna has never been to a Pizza Hut. First of all, I think she would turn her nose up at the pizza because it's nothing like Italian pizza," she says, picking out a green, drowning jelly baby from her bowl. "And the Ice Cream Factory would definitely be too much for her. She'd probably just have the ice cream, and maybe a little bit of chocolate sauce."

"But sometimes, you have proper gelato and sometimes, this is just what you just what you fancy. Even if you know it's got nothing good in there for you or nothing natural."

I'll raise my chipped china bowl to that.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2017.