Big Feeling Ice Cream Creates Nostalgic Moments in Pints

Alex Maddalena's pop-up pint sales give customers joy in hard times through creative flavors made with thoughtful ingredients.
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Big Feeling’s sold-out rhubarb sorbet made with Harry’s strawberries and citrus fruits including kumquats, mandarinquats and meyer lemons. Photo by Alex Maddalena.

Ice cream brings back nostalgic memories from childhood and other special moments. That’s why ice cream maker Alex Maddalena wanted to channel those emotions when he came up with the name for his craft ice cream business: Big Feeling.

“I wanted it to reflect the literal feelings you get from having something so nostalgic and emotionally charged as a good ice cream cone,” Maddalena says. “Most people have a recollection from their childhood of a sweet treat or dessert that really stands out to them. I thought the name Big Feeling really reflected that experience.”

Maddalena started making ice cream regularly in 2016 after receiving a Cuisinart ice cream maker as a wedding gift.

“I thought it would be another item collecting dust on the shelf,” Maddalena says. “But I made one batch of ice cream and I got into this obsessive quest to improve with each time I made it.”

The ice cream maker is on a mission to create the type of frozen treats that can’t be found in stores using thoughtful ingredients procured from reputable sources. He started off in his home kitchen perfecting the craft, then handed out pints for feedback.

“I had a crew of our friends’ kids who were my taste-testers. That’s a critical demographic for the business,” he says. “You gotta impress the kids.” The very first time he gave out a pint, Maddalena scrawled the words “Big Feeling” under the child’s name, and he and the child’s parents watched as the child consumed the treat in a moment of elation. “They said, ‘how did you know he was going to react this way when eating it?’” Maddalena recalls. “It was kismet when I wrote that on the first pint.”

The business name also relates to the name of a song written by Maddalena’s friend, Ben, and it’s also reflective of feelings felt while working through his depression. Maddalena left a desk job to take up ice cream making full-time. “When at times it felt hard for me to get motivated and to do the things I once loved, it seemed that cooking — nay, making ice cream — was always a trusted antidote to parting the grey skies,” Maddalena writes on the Big Feeling website. “And even better was sharing that ice cream with those around me — you get to realize what ice cream means to people. Often, one little taste can open up neural pathways and unlock chambers in your memory bank straight to your childhood.”

Before the pandemic, Maddalena made the ice cream in the Rooms and Works commercial kitchen space in Providence and hosted popup appearances around town to dole it out to fans. But once the shutdown took place, he reverted to pint-only online sales. “We decided to go to a pints model, which ended up being a silver lining because it grew our audience,” he says. “Everyone was in a place where they wanted to have something to bring them a little light and joy during a universally miserable time.”

Now Big Feeling makes the ice cream in the former Knead Doughnuts location at 32 Custom House Street (now Coffee Connection) during the shop’s off-hours. They typically sell out within an hour of announcing that they are opening up sales through the Big Feeling Instagram account. Usually, sales open every Tuesday at noon for pickups at Bolt Coffee at 61 Washington St. in downtown Providence, but the ice cream business is currently on spring break through the end of April. “We got started in April 2020 doing weekly pint sales and literally haven’t stopped since, almost two years later,” Maddalena says. “We had been doing this nonstop weekly for two years. I hadn’t taken time to process what we’ve been doing, and we figured we might as well take a break now before the busy summer season.”

But when Big Feeling resumes in late April, Maddalena will be back to producing creative flavors using thoughtful ingredients. He thinks about every item that goes into the ice cream, including the vanilla beans from Laie Vanilla Farm. He learned about the beans from friend Andrew Mau, who previously owned the shop Island Boy in Warren and moved back to Hawaii. Vanilla beans are usually mass-produced in Madagascar, but this is a family-owned farm where a lot of care goes into growing the orchids that produce the pods, and they treat the employees fair, too. “They are noticeably excellent beans and I never thought I’d be able to know my vanilla supplier,” he says. “To have this small-scale operation really makes a difference in quality and flavor.”

The milk and cream comes from Wright’s Dairy Farm in Smithfield, and Maddalena procures seasonal ingredients (strawberries, rhubarb,etc.) through Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile. Citrus fruits and other fruits are ordered directly through farms, and spices come from Burlap and Barrel. “We use direct trade, because it really does matter with the spices to make sure every aspect of the cultivation chain pays fair wages, and there’s no exploitative labor practices in those spice procurements,” he says.

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That’s why the ice cream costs a little more than most are used to paying for a pint. “I put a lot of effort into writing about that on the website, just to justify the price point,” he says. “I want people to understand, it’s not just about buying the most expensive ingredients, it’s that the ingredients are priced a certain way when they are treated with care and respect down the line.”

Some of the flavors coming up for late spring will involve blossoms and early spring fruits. Popular varieties they’ve had in the past have been collaborations with friends, including a burrata and blueberry ice cream made with chef Nikil Navnish Naiker, who currently works at Fortnight, as well as flavors made with a friend named Q, who helps with production. Maddalena is planning to harvest sour cherries from a friend’s tree in Bristol for a flavor, as well as Magnolia blossoms for a sorbet that’s mixed with blackberries.

“We harvest the blooms and steep them in syrup and make a blackberry magnolia sorbet,” he says. “It has a nice gingery floral flavor that complements the black raspberries.” He will also continue to make a sunflower butter ice cream with a roasted apricot ripple for those with nut allergies (he doesn’t work with tree nuts at all because he understands the severity of the allergy).

Every week is an opportunity to come up with new ice cream flavors that excite his devoted fans. “We are selling out each week, and an important part of achieving that is cycling through new flavors and keeping it new and fresh and reflective for the time of year,” Maddalena says. “That keeps people excited to try it over and over again, and it keeps the brain sharp in terms of dreaming up new flavors.”


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