Gelato, Custard, Ice Cream – Oh, My!

What distinguishes each of Door County’s frozen treats?

Every Door County resident or visitor probably has a favorite local frozen dessert – and they would probably argue that their type is best, whether that’s gelato, custard or ice cream. But what makes each summertime staple distinctive? Three local frozen-dessert makers gave us a primer.

Gelato at Door County Creamery. Photo by Rachel Lukas.


Sara Santaga is the owner and founder of Sara’s Artisan Gelato in Green Bay and Fish Creek. After spending time with her grandfather in Italy, she found that there was nothing in Green Bay like the gelato she’d enjoyed in Italy, so she spent about a month learning gelato-making practices in Bologna, Italy, before opening her business’s primary location in Green Bay. 

Santaga explained that the main differences between gelato and ice cream are ingredients and process. Gelato is made with whole milk, and ice cream is made with heavy cream – what makes gelato less heavy, she said. Gelato is also typically served at warmer temperatures than ice cream, which makes it softer. 

Gelato can come in any flavor, she said, but the most popular one she makes is Amarena cherry.

“It’s a really traditional gelato flavor, the cherries,” Santaga said. “We import them from Italy, so there’s a really unique cherry flavor.” 

A custard sundae from Not Licked Yet. Photo by Rachel Lukas.


Custard is the only one of the three frozen treats that is federally regulated, according to Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard founder and owner Clay Zielke, but he said he wasn’t sure why regulations surrounding custard came to be.

“It probably has something to do with going way back in history,” he said.

Custard must have at least 10% butterfat and more than 1.4% egg yolks, according to mandates by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Egg yolks are a crucial part of the custard-making process, differentiating custard from ice cream, which does not require eggs. 

Zielke – who co-owns the popular Fish Creek spot with his wife, Susie – makes three flavors each day: chocolate, vanilla and butter pecan. Then, throughout the season, they choose from hundreds of specialty flavors to add to the custard lineup daily. 

The Door County Ice Cream Factory sells about 40 pails’ worth of ice cream on a busy day. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Ice Cream

Todd Frisoni, owner of Door County Ice Cream Factory, said his ice-cream–making process begins with cream from farms in northeastern Wisconsin that is then made into a “mix” with sugar and other ingredients. This liquid mix, plus any flavor additions, goes into a batch freezer, which turns the liquid into solid ice cream in about 10 minutes. 

The final step before serving is blast freezing, which makes the ice cream thicker and more biteable. Frisoni said this step is the key difference between custard and ice cream: Blast freezing helps to create smaller ice crystals, which makes the texture of the ice cream smoother. It allows the Door County Ice Cream Factory to make and store dozens of flavors. 

All of its ice cream is made in-house at its Sister Bay location. During the summer, flavors change daily, but the “most popular flavor by far is Door County Cherry,” Frisoni said. “We use cherries from Seaquist Orchards, which is about half a mile up the road from us. 

“Death’s Door Chocolate is a close second. That’s a double-Dutch chocolate with bittersweet chocolate chunks,” he said. “But the other thing I’ve learned over the years is that it doesn’t really matter what we sell – everything sells. And everybody has their favorites.” 

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