Salvatore “Sam” Caruso started making ice cream at home in 2018 with a two-quart Cuisinart machine, but he could never get the texture right. Despite his best efforts, it was always too icy, not smooth enough for his taste. Then, as the world shut down in March 2020, Caruso found himself with ample free time after being let go from his job. He used a serendipitous tax return check to buy a higher-quality ice cream machine for $1,300 and started experimenting.
What makes Caruso’s ice cream stand out is that it’s French-style custard, which includes “beaucoup” egg yolks, he says, as opposed to American- or Philadelphia-style ice cream, which only uses sugar, milk, and cream. Caruso is as liberal with butter and cream as he is with experimentation, giving his exceptional Laozi (pronounced “lousy”) Ice Cream density and richness with a tremendous depth of flavor and no danger of pesky ice crystals forming. The textural creaminess is unparalleled, peeling out of the containers in perfect scoops and melting evenly across the tongue.
Initially, Caruso imagined he would work from home three days a week, making ice cream and selling it to friends and neighbors. An interview published on a friend’s blog in May 2020 led to a surprise spike in demand, and he soon found himself working 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, to keep up. Caruso started by selling out of his house, but a cease-and-desist letter from the city forced him to move his operation into a local cafe in August 2020. By December, he was selling out fast: At one menu’s release, 180 quarts were out the door in just over an hour.
Before starting Laozi, Caruso struggled with drugs and alcohol for 17 years, spending most of his adult life unhoused, in and out of jail, institutions, and hospitals. He went to rehab three times in 2017 before getting sober in October of that year. A switch flipped, and he decided to “say yes to everything,” starting with a 12-step program. Today, Caruso is five-and-a-half years sober and counting, and he openly tells his story to provide hope for others who may be in similar situations.
As generous as Caruso is in sharing his past, he is eager to focus on the present (and future) of Laozi Ice Cream, which has developed a cult following. The name started off as a joke; Caruso read the Sun Tzu quote from The Art of War, “Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems,” misattributed to Laozi, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny to name a business Laozi Ice Cream?” The name stuck, and Caruso says the quote has kept him from quitting a few times.
Although he currently sells out of the back of Blue Dot Donuts in Mid-City, he is in the process of purchasing his own shop. Despite his growing popularity, Caruso says he still worries nobody will show up on his biweekly menu release days. On the contrary, he regularly sells out — 450 quarts of ice cream — in just a few hours. When he opens his door at 10 a.m. every other Thursday morning, there is always a line around the block, which cycles into a parade of happy customers exiting with several quarts apiece.
The flavors are “spur of the moment,” according to Caruso, and he draws his inspiration from just about everywhere. Smelling the blooming jasmine flowers on the breeze, he reminisced about a time he used a gallon of jasmine blossoms to flavor his cream, which ended up being too perfumey. He riffs on a pizza ice cream, imagining basil ricotta cream and sun-dried tomato, perhaps with smoked buffalo mozzarella. Another idea he’s been sitting on: an ice cream made with a mild blue cheese, like Stilton, and a balsamic jam swirl.
Puns alone are sometimes enough to warrant a new flavor, like “Burnt Reynolds” (brown sugar and vanilla ice cream with blow-torched homemade marshmallow fluff) or “REO Cream Wagon” (vanilla ice cream with Oreo wafers and condensed milk swirl). For now, his menus are what he describes as “comfort food,” intended to sell out quickly so he can regain his freezer space to churn more.
It isn’t just his ice cream that’s a work of art; it’s also the containers it’s hand-packed into, for which Caruso has been designing the labels since day one. In October 2021 he purchased a vinyl sticker printer to home-print his original label art; previously, he had been hand-drawing every top.
Caruso says, “I want to be a part of this community that I took away from for so long. Before, when people would see me coming down the street, they would hide their bike or their purse. Now it’s a reversal of roles that’s very strange for me, people smile when they see me coming and say hello; people know my name. People know who I am, and I’m not a bad person.”
Ultimately, Caruso hopes to build a “New Orleans institution in the neighborhood” with Laozi. If the past three years have been any indicator, the city is happy to embrace him.