It’s a steamy day in early June and Choudry Ali, the soft-spoken owner of Mattituck’s Magic Fountain ice cream shop, is anxious to get back to work. I’ve stopped by his Main Road store for a scoop of buttery coconut avocado. But there’s no time to chat when ice cream needs churning. Because in a few short hours, throngs of ice cream lovers from the North Fork and beyond will be squeezing into the narrow Mattituck shop. They’ll order sugar cones topped with English butter toffee, or waffle cones crowned with thick swirls of soft-serve vanilla, some glazed with a brittle chocolate coating, others smothered in rainbow-hued sprinkles. All of which means that this afternoon, the 44-year-old Ali won’t be straying far from his ice cream maker, a bulky stainless steel contraption that’s jammed into a corner of Magic Fountain’s tidy, compact kitchen.
It’s now a week later, and fans of Ali’s ice cream from Shirley and beyond are crowding the storefront. Danielle, who’s just arrived, asks for a cone with salted caramel and a soft serve vanilla for her daughter, three-year-old Bella. Then there’s Tanya from Mattituck. “I’m on a diet [but] I’m still here,” she says, laughing, as she testifies to Ali’s “amazing” ice cream. “The pistachio is to die for.”
When Halloween rolls around, Ali makes pumpkin ice cream—his biggest seller—for trick or treaters, who flock to the stand in costume. “People come from as far away as New Jersey,” says Ali, for the seasonal favorite, laced with bits of fresh pumpkin.
Ali’s owned the boxy, white stand, with its smiling ice cream cones painted on the side and towering sign announcing the week’s specials, since 2007. At first, he produced standbys like vanilla and mint chip. Soon, however, he expanded to 36 varieties. Now, in addition to 32 soft serve flavors, a rotating roster of 130 hard pack ice creams—including the edgy Guinness and favorites butter pecan and maple walnut—are on hand. There’s also a case stuffed with colorful ice cream cakes, stacks of pre-packaged cones and even dog biscuit ice cream sandwiches. But unlike Magic Fountain’s devotees, Ali, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and arrived in the U.S. in 1985, is not much of an ice cream eater. In fact, the Mattituck resident says he rarely touches it unless testing a new recipe. “… not a big fan,” he says as a ribbon of chocolate custard oozes from his machine and into a white plastic bucket.
So why did Ali decide to launch a business where, day in and day out, he’s producing the frosty dessert? For one, Ali enjoys making things and working with his hands. And like many ice cream makers before him—from Harry Burt who invented the Good Humor bar to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, creators of Ben & Jerry’s—Ali was bit by the entrepreneurial bug. Now he’s so successful, he’s expanding to other markets. Sometime next year, a second Magic Fountain will open, not on the North Fork or anywhere close by, but in St. George, Utah, where Ali and his Mattituck-born wife plan to relocate. The Mattituck shop will continue to operate, Ali promises, with his manager Llyana Mele producing the same selection of ice cream.
Meanwhile, on this June day, the 44-year-old Ali, in a green T-shirt and shorts, is busy churning enough ice cream to feed the roughly 1,600 customers who will visit the shop during a typical summer week. On busy days, that equals 40 plastic buckets of the frozen sweet dessert. On the day I drop by to watch him produce a batch of Rocky Road, he’s pouring a large plastic pouch of pre-made chocolate ice cream mix into his machine. Ali throws a switch and the mixer, which whirs and chugs like an overstuffed clothes dryer, churns the base for about 10 minutes until soft folds of custard gently unfurl into a bucket. Then he tosses in a quart each of the chips, nuts and marshmallows, stirs hard and finally lugs the ice cream-packed container across the floor and into a nearby freezer where it will remain for eight hours or until frozen solid.
Ali’s commercial mix, which he says is gluten-free, also boasts, he claims, a higher butterfat content than other mixes. By keeping overrun—industry jargon for the amount of air churned into ice cream—low, he creates a richer-tasting and denser ice cream, which accounts for its velvety mouth feel. When local fruit is in season, like strawberries or peaches, Ali will use them—if the prices match what he’d pay large suppliers. Storing just enough ice cream to feed that day’s customers is also key. It helps keep the ice cream tasting fresh and homemade.
During down times, especially the winter months—peak ice cream season runs from late spring through the fall—Ali plays with different flavor combinations. His innovations include a Pakistani-style kulfi, accented with cardamom, and a recent offering, nutty rose, which is infused with rose syrup and studded with pistachios, almonds and cashews. Sometimes serendipity plays a role. One night, Ali was sitting at home with a dish of ice cream while sipping a glass of black cherry bourbon. A few drops of the liquor fell from the glass on to his scoop of chocolate. “It was delicious,” he recalls. The result? Black cherry bourbon, chocolate ice cream laced with cherries macerated in the liquor.
But not every experiment results in a taste treat. “Some flavors when I test them, they don’t come out,” he says, such as a recent experiment of all natural sorbets made with honey that was deemed a flop. Those sorbets didn’t pass the taste test, but others have. Ali has created wine-based sorbets for local vineyards like Martha Clara and Raphael. Area restaurants—A Lure in Southold and Legend’s in New Suffolk—are customers.
Still, despite the success he’s achieved, dairy has never been in Ali’s blood. Sure, he downed an occasional serving of kulfi when a kid in Pakistan, but the future ice cream man says he could have easily gone without. In fact, when he arrived in the U.S., settling first in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and later, on Long Island, he worked in chains like 7-Eleven and as a school custodian in Setauket.
Eventually, Ali made his way to Mattituck and learned Magic Fountain was for sale. He cashed in his retirement accounts and maxed out his credit cards. “When I bought this place,” Ali recalls, “I didn’t know anything.” The former owner of the stand agreed to teach him. During his first year, Ali stuck to time-tested standards—serving up crowd pleasers like cookie dough and chocolate chip. But that winter, Ali says he “got bored so I played around making different flavors.” The next spring he rolled out his three-dozen-flavor menu.
Now the question is: Will Magic Fountain’s winning formula travel successfully to the red sandstone buttes of southwest Utah? And will Magic Fountain in Mattituck continue to churn out the ice cream treats that local fans have come to love? Ali promises it will. He says he’ll rely on high tech aids—video cameras will be operating in Mattituck and St. George—to help him keep quality high. “The cameras will be on all the time,” he says. “I can watch from a distance.”
Laura B. Weiss is the author of Ice Cream: A Global History (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press).