SCOOP DE GRACE

Marble Slab Creamery, Town & Country Shopping Center, 2045 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-8576. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Hello. My name is Howard, and I'm an ice creamoholic. Summertime holds the worst terrors. I see people drinking shakes, licking waffle cones and digging into chocolate sundaes. And I suffer. That's because when it comes to ice cream, I have no self-control. I became conscious of my problem in 1978. That's when, on my way to a Chinese restaurant, I decided, instead, to stop at an ice cream parlor and mainline a quart of premium ice cream. I plopped down on a Manhattan curbside, ripped open the paper bag and tore through the container. Twenty minutes later, I went into butterfat arrest.

I needed help, so I checked myself into the Mr. Frostee Wing of the Dolly Madison Clinic. There, I learned how butterfat, hot-fudge sauce, and crumbled Oreo toppings can mess with your head. I swore off ice cream. Until I had to live through August in Phoenix--about as dangerous a place for the recovering ice cream abuser as Central Park for the reformed mugger. My relapse began at Marble Slab Creamery, a Texas franchise that invaded the Valley last year. It features homemade, 14 percent butterfat ice cream, full of passionate intensity. This just-churned stuff, made in small batches, combines rich texture with lapel-grabbing taste. The chocolate rum shouldn't be served without an ID check. Double dark chocolate ought to require a prescription. The coffee-and-peanut-butter models are good enough to serve as industry standards. Both the butter pecan and sweet cream send your brain an unending stream of pleasure impulses. Only the cheesecake ice cream seemed light by comparison. But Marble Slab gets more than the ice cream right. It's got the fixings down pat, too. The thick, fresh-baked waffle cones, scented with vanilla, are fantastic, and they come in a variety of tempting models: plain, dipped in chocolate or rolled with chocolate and sprinkles, nuts or crumbled candy bars. Look for an unusually large assortment of fruit, nut, candy and cookie toppings, as well. When it comes to other elements of the ice cream parlor experience, however, Marble Slab doesn't fare quite so well. It's done up in corporate-looking pink and turquoise, with no festive, ice cream parlor air. There isn't enough seating, either--during my Saturday-afternoon visit, people marched around hopelessly looking to park their fannies, or gave up and sat outside in the blast-furnace heat. The water fountain, a critical ice cream shop facility, barely got the H2O cool. And there's no rest room, which doesn't seem very friendly. On the other hand, this was the only place I visited that offered a card giving frequent customers free ice cream after five purchases. Forget the free ice cream--it's worth paying for. Just reward loyal patrons with a reserved seat, cold water and the key to the executive washroom.

Mary Coyle Ice Cream & Yogurt, 1335 West Thomas, Phoenix, 265-0405. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 10 p.m. Unlike Marble Slab, Mary Coyle gives off old-time ice cream parlor vibes. That shouldn't be too surprising. This family spot has been dishing out wonderful ice cream specialties for more than 40 summers. No problem with seating here--you get a comfy booth, a menu and friendly service. It sure beats the slow-moving "Order Here" line I encountered elsewhere. The pink-and-white-striped wallpaper, the Norman Rockwell prints and the Coyle family pictures hanging on the walls also help get you in the right frame of mind. They conjured up nostalgic thoughts of family summertime fun, while keeping me from dwelling on the artery-clogging, 16 percent butterfat content of the homemade ice cream. And this is seriously good ice cream, ripping with flavor. Penuche nut features cashews in a subtle, caramel-tinged base. You better like heaping doses of mint if you order mint chocolate chip. Cookies and cream comes thick with dough, and mocha chip packs a real coffee-and-chocolate punch. The chocolate is properly intense. Butter brittle and pecan praline were the only less-than-satisfying choices. Maybe we got the bottom of the container, but crunchy bites of brittle and pecan seemed few and far between.

Don't bother with the second-rate waffle cone. If you want to gild your ice cream, go for the sundaes. Mary Coyle fashions them very wisely. Instead of coming glopped all over everything, the sauces arrive in little bowls so you can ladle them on yourself. That way, you can avoid icky puddles and stave off ice cream melt. My kid really enjoyed applying her chocolate and marshmallow sauces with scientific precision. Mary Coyle also serves up "The Mountain," a peak that might give even Sir Edmund Hillary pause. It features seven pounds of ice cream, four toppings, nuts and whipped cream, and it costs $34. Paramedic service is extra. When you factor in attentively refilled glasses of ice water, rest rooms and comfy seating with the premium ice cream, it's easy to see why Mary Coyle has become about as popular a hot-weather destination as San Diego. And it's a lot closer. Gelato Classico Italian Ice Cream, 4200 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 990-8492. Hours: Sunday through Tuesday, noon to 11 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to midnight.

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