For about 80 years, the building at 236 Jefferson Street—on a quiet corner in the Ironbound section of Newark—has sold things that, in moderation, make people happy. As Frank Nasto Jr. remembers it, Newark’s Ballantine brewery operated a saloon in the two-story building after Prohibition. Then, in 1939, Nasto’s father, Frank Sr., an immigrant from a village outside Salerno, Italy, bought the place and turned it into a candy store and then a soda fountain. An ice cream machine was installed in a glass enclosure in the front window. People could stand on the sidewalk and watch Nasto’s ice cream being made, which enticed them to come in and try some.
People are still stopping in to buy ice cream cones as well as gelato, sorbet and ice cream cakes, many custom-made—all fashioned with real fruit, no artificial flavors and the same 14 percent butterfat content as Häagen-Dazs. “A lot of TLC goes into it,” says Frank Nasto III, 42, the current president.
The care shows. The mango, banana, coconut and cantaloupe ice creams are like eating those fruits, only more so—cold and creamy and intense. But vanilla is still the best seller.
“You add up all the trendy flavors—cookies and cream, chocolate chip cookie dough—it’s still a vanilla world,” says Frank III. The 2.5 gallon machine in the window was long ago replaced by large, modern equipment in the back. Nasto’s doesn’t sell as much as some other brands, but churning out roughly 3,000 gallons a week makes it “the largest ice cream manufacturer in New Jersey,” says Frank III. Most of the business is wholesale. “About 750 restaurants in New Jersey serve our ice cream,” he says. It’s largely a Jersey operation, though the milk and cream come from a dairy in Pennsylvania.
Jefferson Street is actually Nasto’s second location. Frank Sr., after serving in the U.S. Army in World War I and marrying Angelina Naporano, whose father came from the same village as Frank Sr., opened Nasto’s on Bloomfield Avenue in Newark around 1923. He gradually expanded the business and made it his life. In 1975, at age 77, he died in the store of a heart attack after attending morning church.
His oldest son, Al, took over until Frank Jr., the fifth of Frank and Angelina’s nine children and the second oldest boy, finished his service in the New Jersey National Guard. Al retired on January 1, 2011, at 80.
Frank Jr. retired last November, at 75. There is more family involved. Frank III’s brother, Dean, is sales manager, and Sherry Ringwood, the twin sister of Frank III’s wife, Jennifer, is vice president of operations.
“My ancestors created this,” says Frank III, the older of Frank Jr. and his wife Antoinette’s two children. “To be successful in life, I need to take it to the next step.” He plans to franchise the brand, creating a series of retail stores like those of Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. “I’d like to make it a household name,” he says.
In the days when the front was a saloon, the back, where the ice cream is made, was a dance hall. Frank Sr. kept it going even after he took over. “Admission was five cents,” says Frank Jr. “In the ’40s it was very popular with GIs. A lot of marriages were made here.”
So front or back, 236 Jefferson Street, Newark, has always been in the happiness biz. 973-589-3333, nastoicecream.com