When Michael Fertucci got a call to park his ice cream truck at a funeral home, he assumed it was a joke. Open caskets don’t usually call for ice cream sandwiches. But as the customer explained how his grandmother used to hand out ice cream to all of the kids in her neighborhood, the request didn’t sound so strange. Fertucci decided to give it a shot.
“I pulled right up to the place, and sure enough, everyone came out in sunglasses and black clothes — hysterical crying,” he says. “I was the first one to put smiles on their faces.”
Since then, Fertucci has brought his business to three more funerals. He does everything now, “From births to deaths and everything in between.”
The origins of Sweet Central Express, which he owns with his wife, Joanna, stretch back more than a century. On July 31, 1911, his great-grandfather, Alessio, arrived in the United States by way of Ellis Island. He left behind his life in Naples, but not his profession, which is documented on his immigration papers: “ice cream maker.”
Left to right: Cookie dough sandwich and mint ice cream / Photos by Katie Chirichillo
“It’s richer than gelato. It actually has a higher fat content,” he says. “My ice cream is similar to a mousse, but frozen. It’s that creamy, that rich.”Growing up, Fertucci learned Alessio’s ice cream recipe from his grandmother. Technically, the dessert is classified as a frozen custard due to the small amount of egg yolk added for texture.
Alessio’s legacy has served Fertucci at several stages of his career. A CIA graduate, he spent an extra year in the program to earn degrees in both culinary arts and pastry arts. He went on to work in the Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa in Florida and at enTantra, a supper club on Long Island for which the New York Times praised his desserts — including his ice cream.
“Which brings us to enTantra’s forte. The housemade desserts (including the ice creams) were wonderful. Michael Fertucci, the chef, is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who earned his stripes as a pastry chef at restaurants in Florida. (The other chef in enTantra’s kitchen is Sterling Smith.) Mr. Fertucci pops out from the kitchen to personally describe his sweet creations.
I could fault none of them, but my personal favorite was the bananas Foster, a big plate overflowing with caramel lace tuilles, homemade caramel ice cream and sautéed bananas. Raves were also in order for the rich flourless chocolate cake topped with strawberries and raspberry sauce, the triple chocolate mousse (a cylinder of flavors wrapped in dark chocolate), the puff pastry apple tart à la mode and the poached pear filled with flavored mascarpone. These delights sent diners home singing enTantra’s praises, possibly even obliterating memories of the uneven service and less-than-perfect courses that preceded them.”
– Joanne Starkey, New York Times
He was working as the head cake decorator at The Plaza when he got the idea for Sweet Central Express. He and Joanna had purchased a small bus to tailgate at football games. With a little renovation, they transformed their mobile hangout into a full-blown ice cream operation, painted front-to-back in with zany cartoons.
Once a week, Fertucci makes ice cream, incorporating the ingredients with a mixer and then folding the components together by hand. He produces about 36 tubs in an eight-hour workday. Flavors range from vanilla to cotton candy to pretzel chocolate chip, but the base — Alessio’s recipe — never changes.
Specialty flavors emerge at specific events. Take, for example, the Wine and Food Festival in Rhinebeck, where he drizzled a red wine reduction over chocolate ice cream with strawberries. He’s also done chocolate ice cream topped with warm roasted garlic, bacon maple ice cream, and — hear us out — barbecue chicken buffalo ice cream.
Left to right: Homemade cookie dough ice cream, photo by Sabrina Sucato / Chocolate chip cookie dough sandwich, photo by Katie Chirichillo
Still other flavors, like hemp black cherry chocolate chip, reflect Fertucci’s background and ambition. Infused with organic cannabidiol (CBD) oil, the ice cream is one of the few local forays into the surging trend of hemp flavored foods. There is no high or psychoactive properties associated with CBD, only a relaxing, anti-inflammatory effect. Regardless, Sweet Central Express gives Hudson Valley residents an opportunity hop on the latest craze sweeping Manhattan — although it’s only available from time to time.
A Celiac diagnosis cemented gluten-free offerings as a priority for Fertucci, and led to the creation of a gluten-free chocolate chip ice cream sandwich. The aforementioned pretzel chocolate chip is another Celiac-friendly treat.
Vegans and lactose-intolerant customers don’t have to miss out thanks to shaved snow, which Fertucci developed for his kids as an alternative to syrupy ice pops. He purees fresh fruit — such as mango, peach, or mixed berry — with a bit of sugar, freezes it, and then runs ice through a Hawaiian block shaver to slice the puree into icy, paper-thin ribbons.
Of course, the most popular items at Sweet Central Express are his ice cream sandwiches, which customers can order in pre-made flavors like chocolate chip cookie with Oreo ice cream or build their own.
Sweet Central Express serves private parties and events form Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. Their vibrant truck is unmistakable, especially to the kids at the summer camp that Fertucci rolls up to every year. He says there’s no feeling more gratifying and terrifying than 1,600 kids charging toward you.