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.

Gelato (Italian for ice cream) is both a little bit more and a little bit less than the premium ice cream Americans are used to. It's whipped up with less air, so each spoonful seems creamier, denser and heavier than what you get at Marble Slab or Mary Coyle. While portions are smaller (at least by volume, if not weight), you'll quickly discover that a little bit of gelato goes a long way. This Scottsdale place is one of 50 or so links in a nationwide chain that started in San Francisco. In fact, the gelato is shipped in weekly from California. The offerings here are very rich. The reverse chocolate chip is addictive--deep-chocolate ice cream studded with white-chocolate chips. Peanut butter chocolate and caramel pecan both feature big, chunky fillings. Coconut macadamia is a refreshing way to beat the heat. Mocha almond fudge and mocha chip are topnotch coffee-chocolate blends. But I wish the cookies and cream had been blended with something a little more interesting than Oreos. And the crunch in the carmello chocolate crunch was nonexistent. Don't look for jars of toppings or a display case full of mixings here. And don't bother with the forlorn waffle cone, either. Gelato is best downed unadorned. But I'm not sure I like downing it here. This store didn't sparkle with the pristine spiffiness I associate with ice cream parlors. The water fountain was out of order and the tables were sticky. Neither did the rest room inspire confidence. Gelato is positioned as a chic, upscale product. Give it the setting it deserves. Bavarian Alps Old World Ice Cream, Biltmore Fashion Park, 2452 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-8716. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Sometimes, we journalists ask questions that we really don't want to know the answer to. The woman behind the Bavarian Alps counter must have sensed this unease when I asked her how much butterfat there was in the homemade ice cream. "Don't ask," she said, smiling. She's right. It really doesn't matter, especially with the alpine white chocolate almond ice cream I scarfed down. This is probably the single-best-tasting ice cream flavor I sampled during my entire binge. Swiss almond chocolate and butter pecan were just about as good, studded with lots of sweet, crunchy goodies. Pralines and cream, chocolate peanut butter, and mud pie combined rich texture with deep, long-lasting taste. The marble fudge brownie and cookie dough, however, seemed deficient on the brownie-and-cookie-dough fillings. But Bavarian Alps doesn't seem like much of a "let's get in the car and drive there" kind of place. That's because there's no cool seating inside, except for an uncomfortable little bench. You'll have to consume your ice cream outside, at one of six umbrella-topped tables. The umbrellas will protect you from the sun, but not from the thermometer or the humidity. Need to use a rest room? The help will give directions to the Coffee Plantation, about 100 yards east. And how can an ice cream place run out of waffle cones in the middle of a summer weekend? That's like a Las Vegas casino running out of quarters during a slots tournament. Bavarian Alps makes great ice cream. And for folks wandering around the shopping center, it's a cool stop. But on sweltering August days, it may not be cool enough to justify fighting the traffic at 24th Street and Camelback.

Cold Stone Creamery, Hilton Village, 6137 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-1385. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

This store, part of an expanding local franchise, seems to have everything going for it. It's spic-and-span, with an icy-cold water fountain and a sparkling rest room. There's ample seating, inside and out. There are luscious, homemade waffle cones, too, made right before your eyes, rolled in thick chocolate, with coatings of Butterfingers, Heath bars, nuts and sprinkles.

What's the problem? At first, it's confusion. Look into the display case, and you'll see only a half-dozen or so dull flavors. Pretty skimpy, I thought. Later, I discovered that these flavors--like sweet cream, French vanilla, and chocolate--are used as a base to create more exotic ice cream combinations. But neither the menu board nor the help gave us a clue about this. I got the message only after I idly picked up a flier from the counter.

Second, watching how these new creations were fashioned gave me pause. For example, when I asked for rum raisin, I watched the server take out a scoop of sweet cream, throw in some raisins and squeeze on some liquid from a small, plastic tube. While I'm not the world's most squeamish guy, I don't particularly want to see adolescents squeezing things on my ice cream. And why go to the trouble of whipping up fresh, rich ice cream and then put the all-important flavoring operation into the hands of minimum-wage workers? And I suspect this seat-of-the-pants flavoring contributed to the low-intensity taste. This ice cream is certainly rich enough, but it packed less taste wallop than any of the others I tried. In fact, it helped me put an end to my lost weekend. But I think I've licked my ice cream problem. I'm ready to face the world, one scoop at a time.

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