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Serving up scoops, Persian style

With ice cream shops sprinkled throughout the city, anyone craving a sweet treat in Durham doesn’t need to look far.

But a new player in town, Pistachio Ice Cream, is shaking up the oversaturated ice cream market — putting an ancient twist on the popular dessert.

Pistachio, which opened on Chapel Hill Road in October, draws inspiration from Persia (the historic region that preceded modern Iran), where ice cream production dates back to 550 B.C. and incorporates local flavors such as rosewater and saffron. 

The Choroomi Family, the shop’s owners, don’t just want to convert vanilla ice cream lovers into consumers of Turkish coffee and ginger rosewater (some of the unique flavors on Pistachio’s menu). They’re hoping to become a focal point of the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood, helping transform the area into a more walkable and family-friendly environment. 

So far, Pistachio has been a hit, its owners say. A warm winter helped attract customers during what’s usually a slow time for ice cream consumption.

“We weren’t expecting the volume of popularity we had in the beginning,” said Manial Choroomi, one of the owners. “During the first three months, we ran out of four flavors immediately.”

Erika Weinberg, who lives in the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood area, heard about Pistachio from “a bunch of people” in the neighborhood, she said while digging into a cup of cucumber sorbet on a recent Saturday. 

Olivia Goodwin first discovered the ice cream shop on a social bike ride, sampling a ginger rose water milkshake, and has visited twice since. 

“The times I’ve been here, it seems like it’s been busy — not overwhelmingly busy, but definitely busy,” Goodwin said. 

Pistachio’s ambiance is steeped in Persian culture, with Middle Eastern influences evident throughout. Among its most popular flavors are date, Turkish coffee and saffron pistachio. Each table contains canisters of lemon juice and sour cherry, allowing patrons to customize their Faloodeh, a traditional Iranian sorbet made with rice noodles. A replica of a samovar — a device used to make Persian tea — sits atop the ice cream counter. 

While Pistachio officially opened its doors in October, plans for the shop had been in the works for about five years. 

“We didn’t want to rush to do it and have regrets about things we would want to fix while we were open,” Choroomi said. 

“We started construction during COVID, and then things kind of slowed down for us during that point. But it was something that we thought about doing as a family since we were children,” he added.

Manial and his siblings were born in Los Angeles, California, but their parents — who are co-owners of Pistachio Ice Cream — left Iran during the revolution in the 1970s. Surrounded by a large Persian community in L.A., the Choroomi family regularly visited Mashti Malone’s, an ice cream shop renowned for its authentic Persian flavors. Choroomi also worked there in the summers, allowing him to learn the ins and outs of the business. 

The Choroomis now hope to serve a scoop of their roots to Durham’s small, but growing, Persian community. When he moved here in 1994, Choroomi said there were just “a handful” of Persian families, but he says that number has since grown significantly. 

Pistachio imports its ice cream directly from Mashti Malone’s in L.A. “We haven’t started any of our signature flavors yet, but we’re working with the makers to start making our own and they’re teaching us how to make it ourselves,” Choroomi said. 

This isn’t the Choroomi family’s first time running a business together; the mother owns Indigo Montessori, a preschool and kindergarten on West Main Street, and runs it with the help of the other family members. 

Despite occasional family disagreements, the biggest challenge, according to Manial, has been meeting growing customer demand. The Choroomis are gearing up for the summer, anticipating higher foot traffic in the warmer months.

“I got pints ready to go and ice cream sandwiches made,” Choroomi said.

They’re banking on Pistachio’s prime location — sandwiched between a pilates studio, a pet spa and a taco restaurant — to attract passersby and establish the shop as a cornerstone of the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood. 

The Choroomis recently installed a playground for children in Pistachio’s side yard and will soon offer protein shakes for people leaving their pilates workouts. They also hope to secure a beer and wine license to serve alcohol to “the parents who come with their kids.”

“We really want this to be a full-service stop for the walkable family,” Choroomi said. 

Above and center: Date, saffron pistachio and other Persian-inspired flavors are on offer at Pistachio Ice Cream. Photos by Mia Penner — The 9th Street Journal