At Caffè Panna, the Cream’s the Thing

October 15, 2019 Updated: October 16, 2019

Like in Italy, where gelato shops are frequented by people of all ages—from toddlers to nonnas—the newly opened Caffè Panna in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park is visited by ice cream lovers from young to old. It’s a corner shop, so it’s airy and the daylight floods in. One side serves ice cream, while the other has a coffee bar that dishes out affogatos, a decadent Italian dessert of ice cream topped with espresso.

For the owner, Hallie Meyer, opening the business has been a dream: “My whole life, I always wanted to have an ice cream shop,” she said. The Italian influence comes from her many trips to Italy, starting with travels with her family. Meyer is the daughter of Danny Meyer, the restaurateur behind Union Square Hospitality Group.

ice cream at caffe panna
(Bottom to top) Apricot Olive Oil, Blackberry Crunch, and Red Flag (sweet cream with strawberry compote and graham crunch) on a housemade lingua di gatto (Italian butter cookie batter) cone. (Liz Clayman)

She wanted to bring the kind of happy feeling she’d experienced at a bustling gelateria in Rome, such as the famed Giolitti.

Just as with Italy’s gelaterias, the menu changes daily. At the end of each day, Meyer ponders what the next day’s flavors should be—“it’s so fun,” she said. You won’t ever find ice cream that’s over 24 hours old here: “That’s the spirit of gelato—making it that day.”

Sometimes, in the few minutes before service starts, the staff scrambles to change the Scrabble-like tiles that make up the menu on the wall.

Meyer recalled a staff member searching for the letters he needed: “Joe was like, ‘Can I spell out crunch with a v?’ … ‘Cvunch? No.’”

menu caffe panna
The menu changes daily. (Liz Clayman)

Another Italian touch is the complimentary dollop of cream on top of the ice cream.

The cream is imported all the way from Piedmont, Italy. Meyer called it an “insane” thing to do, “but it’s worth it because the higher fat content just tastes super good.”

Meyer said she “just fell in love with the concept of panna on everything.”

hallie meyer at caffe panna
Owner Hallie Meyer was inspired by Rome’s gelato shops. (Liz Clayman)

I watched as a few customers turned down the complimentary panna, but I recommend you try it. It’s light and rich at the same time—and lovely!—and makes the ice cream even creamier.

Not everything is Italian-inspired, though. Where Meyer makes her mark is with the options for additional mix-ins.

When I dropped by, the sundae of the day was blueberry swirl, lemon curd crunch, Graham brittle, and peach panna—something of a fresh summer pie in a cup.

There was also an affogato sundae of the day, consisting of fresh peppermint ice cream with a fudge swirl, chocolate cookie crunch, and of course, the omnipresent panna, this time lightly flavored with peppermint. If you’ve never had an affogato before, it’s really as if you’re getting two experiences in one: the ice cream, and then as the ice cream melts, a decadent, creamy coffee drink redolent of the flavors you picked.

affogato sundae at caffe panna
Cinnamon Sour Cherry Affogato Sundae special with candied pecans and coffee panna. (Liz Clayman)

Meyer plans to add aperitivo service in the future, also inspired by what Rome’s cafés are all about—lingering the whole day and evening away, living la dolce vita.

Caffè Panna
77 Irving Pl. (at 19th St.), Manhattan
Open daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m.

caffe panna in gramercy manhattan
The corner shop in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood. (Liz Clayman)