Cyndie Delucia carefully scrapes the last sheet of salted caramel cream into a roll and, using tongs, she places it in a cup standing up next to a row of other loosely-wrapped soft spirals.
She tops the resulting rose-shaped ice cream rolls with whipped cream, caramel, shaved sea salt and crunchy pretzels to create her shop’s signature “Sweet and Salty” dish.
Delucia, a former nurse and professional photographer, opened Thai ice cream parlor NatuRoll with business help from her husband in late August. The small storefront, previously a newsstand, is tucked onto Butler Street in Lawrenceville, neighboring Industry Public House, a popular gastropub, and Smoke Barbeque Taqueria.
In Lawrenceville, a neighborhood that Pittsburgh Magazine dubbed the “Brooklyn of Pittsburgh,” Delucia was looking for an eclectic mix of retail shops and vibrant people. She specifically chose Lawrenceville over Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland to seek out more adventurous palettes in the city.
“I was so nervous for that first person that came in, that actually paid,” Delucia said of opening day. “And we had to make them the perfect ice cream. That was really, like, an eye opener … I’m so blessed. It’s a lot of hard work.”
Less than a month after opening, the self-described “ice cream artist” is now mixing four quarts of ice cream batter every 15 minutes on busy weekends and evenings.
Thai-rolled ice cream — a common dessert in countries including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines — is only recently gaining popularity in the U.S.
In just the past two years, locations serving the gourmet dessert have opened in New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In 2015, Zagat named Thai rolled ice cream summer 2015’s “hottest dessert,” after three shops specializing in the treat debuted in New York City that season.
Will Kyaw, a sophomore political science major at Pitt, remembered seeing the dessert while trooping through Chiang Mai on a backpacking trip: “The vendor set up his shop in a brightly lit, busy, open air night market surrounded by many other street vendors selling desserts and treats of all kinds.”
It wasn’t until Kyaw came back to the U.S. that he saw a video about Thai-rolled ice cream and realized how popular it was becoming here.
So popular, that when Delucia visited the Thai-rolled ice cream store 10Below in New York City, she waited two hours to get a taste of the trendy, artisanal sweet. But the experience left her feeling inspired, and she purchased her own ice cream rolling machine, equipped with a chilling plate and the necessary tools to open a shop. She practiced at home for six months before opening the store.
The allure of Thai-rolled ice cream lies in the spectacle of its creation, though it’s a laborious task for the ice cream artist — each order takes at least five minutes.
Delucia, or one of her employees, pours vanilla or chocolate ice cream batter onto a -10 degrees Fahrenheit plate, then adds either fresh fruit or cookies to the milky mixture. Once the batter begins to solidify slightly, she take two spatulas and crushes the ingredients into small pieces, then begins scraping and turning over the batter until it forms a small pile in the center.
Then, she uses the flat edge of her tools to evenly spread thin layers of the mixture across the plate, addings streaks of Nutella, caramel or chocolate sauce until the cream reaches the perfect rolling temperature.
After a minute of waiting, she checks the corners’ consistency, then slowly scrapes two inches of the mixture into a roll. She repeats this process four to five more times until there are five to six ice cream rolls laying on her plate, which she organizes in the cup and decorates accordingly.
The result is truly a work of art.
Abby Marodi, a senior communication science and disorders major, who operates the food instagram account pittsburghfoodie — which has 10,000 followers — posted a shot of her Cookie Monster ice cream on Instagram, impressed by the presentation.
“At first, I was a little skeptical, because it looked like they were just pouring milk onto a plate, and then I was amazed,” Marodi said in an interview.
Before the store opened its doors one late-summer morning, Delucia taste-tested pumpkin spice ice cream, one of two fall-themed flavors. She doled out spoonfuls to employees in exchange for their critiques.
Employees tossed around ingredients and jokes, backdropped by the store’s simplistic design: exposed brick walls and natural wooden floors and countertops. A daily chalk menu, with drawings of the Cookie Monster and monkeys holding bananas hung behind the rolling tables.
The Cookie Monster is one of several staples on the menu, including Delucia’s favorite, Very Very Berry Cherry, and the customer favorite, S’mores, which is topped with a torched marshmallow.
Delucia is open to hearing suggestions from patrons and her employees and in the future, she plans to add a vegan option to the menu and possibly move south and take her ice-cream-rolling skills along the boardwalk. For now, the self-taught ice cream artist said she’s happy with being the only Thai-rolled ice cream venue in the Steel City.
The niche she’s found in Pittsburgh’s culinary scene is what got her into Thai ice cream in the first place.
“I didn’t want the traditional scoop ice cream, because I wanted something different,” Delucia said. “I fell in love with this type of rolling.”