Where to Get the Best Water Ice in South PhillyBy Danya Henninger
July 15, 2014
Water ice is an essential part of summer in Philadelphia. Originally introduced by Italian immigrants who wanted to recreate the granita served in their homeland, flavors of the sugary shaved dessert soon expanded beyond the classic lemon to include cherry and chocolate.
Flavors have gotten even more creative since then (even at the old-school originals) and the cooling dessert has spread far beyond its South Philly home. You’ll find a solid squadron of water ice shops in the Northeast, where many Italian families moved in the latter half of the 20th century. And then there’s the chain that ended up taking the concept national, even though the words “water ice” have been removed from the company name.
Still, South Philly is the classic place to get your wooder ice on. Here’s a guide to four stops in the neighborhood, and the stories and best orders at each one. One last tip that all real Philadelphians know: never use a spoon.
Anthony Cardullo’s first memory of water ice is being put to work cutting lemons when he was just five years old. In 1945, his father converted an empty lot near the Italian Market at Seventh and Christian into a water ice shop, and it’s stood there ever since.
Though his father wouldn’t allow any flavors past the traditional four (pineapple has joined lemon, cherry and chocolate here since opening), when Cardullo took over in the 1990s, he added specialty flavors on weekends — strawberry is a crowd favorite, and other rotating options include blueberry, cantaloupe and honeydew. He also added ice cream to the menu, available in cups or huge waffle cones.
701 Christian St.; 215-925-6955
Phil Mancuso works seven days a week, nearly 365 days a year. The 76-year-old native Philadelphian took over the East Passyunk shop from his father, and continues to pour his heart into the imported Italian goods and housemade treats, which include fresh mozzarella and also water ice.
Available in just the classic flavors of lemon, cherry and chocolate, the ice is cut fine, with chunks of fruit still floating in the slush (try the lemon, not too sweet and extra-refreshing). Mancuso is somewhat of a water ice expert — he’s been scooping since he was at least eight years old, as proven by a black-and-white photo that shows him holding a cup outside that exact store in 1944.
1902 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-389-1817
On summer weekend nights, a line stretches around the corner of this mostly residential neighborhood just north of Oregon Avenue, as families and dates and folks getting off work queue for a refreshing cup. After a year off, this shop is back again, doling out scoops just like it has been since the 1970s. Domenick Italiano had had a rough year (a stroke hit him in his sleep, plus his son Frankie died suddenly), but he’s back on his feet, so he and daughter Nancy Italiano are slinging ice once again.
Though it might turn your tongue bright green, the lime is a great option here, a nice change from the traditional lemon. In addition to around a dozen fresh-fruit flavors, there’s also ice cream available through the walk-up window, and the layered combo of the two, known as “gelati” — a moniker a sign claims was invented in that very spot, before it was appropriated by other shops around the city (and a well-known national chain).
2551 S. 12th St.; no phone
It was back in 1932 that Filippo “Pop” Italiano began vending water ice from a street cart, and he’s widely recognized as the very first to do so in Philadelphia. (All of these shops hold each other in high esteem, giving one another credit for their part in popularizing the summer treat.) The South Philly shop on Oregon Avenue is now joined by three other locations, all in the suburbs.
During the summer months, the original is open through 11 PM every night of the week, making it a perfect post-Phillies-game stop. Flavors vary; in addition to the standards, you can look for peach, lime and nonfruit options like iced-tea water ice. Ice cream and gelati are also available.
1337 Oregon Ave.; 215-551-7677