Let’s not get it twisted — we’re not talking about snow cones, here — nasty, chopped up ice with syrup lazily dribbled over the top. Nor are we talking about slushies, either. No, when we say water ice, we mean water ice — a prepared dessert sometimes known as Italian ice. It is to the snow cone what a steak is to a hamburger — on another field altogether. Some accounts draw the history of water ice all the way back to the era of Marco Polo, where our beloved pool-sport adventurer brought the recipe with him back to Italy from his Far East explorations, while others suggest that it was a happy accident discovered by servants of the Roman emperor Nero while preparing wine.
But how does water ice differ from snow cones? It’s all in the preparation: water, sugar, mix-ins, and syrup are combined in a specialized machine to churn and freeze the ingredients together, and then stirred regularly to keep from clumping. They’re frozen together, instead of the snow cone method of ‘put syrup on ice’ — frankly, a homemade popsicle is a better touchstone.
Throughout Philly, the Rita’s chain has dominated the water ice industry, though there are still independent holdouts dotted here and there. (I have been informed by an adviser that Rita’s began as a local business, but that does little to change the fact that it is, indeed, a chain. Having roots in Philadelphia doesn’t mean much when you go that commercial.) There’s John’s Water Ice in Bella Vista, there’s Pop’s Homemade on Oregon Avenue, but for me, the end-all, be-all is Italiano’s on 12th Street. Open three days a week, for three hours, you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as more trouble than it’s worth and going somewhere else.
Fresh, bold flavor, always pleasantly cool, and easy to go down. If you get brain freeze from a water ice, that’s almost expected — any other way, you’d not be eating it fast enough. Italiano’s also incorporates fresh fruits with their syrup mixes, which creates a pleasantly uneven texture with the slightly gritty ice. A sister product, the gelati — water ice topped with soft-serve — is also available, and even better, when the flavor pairings are properly matched up. (Strawberry ice, vanilla ice cream.)
But even if you choose not to patronize super-niche South Philly establishments, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy water ice. While my aggressive local-business views lead me to view Rita’s with distaste, if it’s all you have, it’s all you have, and it’s decent. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, give it a try.