How water ice became Philadelphia’s favorite summer treat


Despite what they say, it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia. But when the warmth and sunny days of spring and summer finally return, we celebrate with our favorite seasonal treat: water ice.

Moms line up with their kids, fresh out of school, at their favorite water ice stand. Excited children study the freezer full of colorful tubs. One asks, “Can I have strawberry on the bottom and mango on top?” The woman behind the counter happily obliges, filling the bottom half of the plastic cup with a strawberry ice mixture and then topping it off with another pale-yellow scoop.

Philadelphians have been enjoying water ice for generations, but the consumption of ice and fruit combinations goes back a couple thousand years to ancient Sicily (and can be traced even further back to Asia, Persia and Mesopotamia).

Enjoy a refreshing treat at John’s Water Ice — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano

To beat the summer heat, according to food historian Liz Williams, ancient Sicilians devised creative means to both refresh and delight. Long before the invention of coolers and refrigeration, the people of Sicily were ingeniously experimenting with ice. Runners were sent up the almost 11,000-foot Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, to collect snow and ice that could be combined with lemons, limes and other fresh fruits to create a cool and refreshing summer treat.

Over the years, Sicilians mastered a method of storing the ice in caverns beneath the volcano before transporting it to other parts of Italy. As they did so, the practice of mixing ice and fruit, known as granita, spread throughout Italy, with different regions developing their own versions of the fruit and ice combination, as well as sorbets and gelato.

Fast forward some 2,000 years to the early 1900s, at the peak of Italian immigration to the United States. Approximately two million Italians immigrated here at that time, the majority coming from Southern Italy with hopes of escaping the intense poverty back home.

Men and women looked for creative ways – like peddling granita – to make money while establishing themselves and seeking employment. Just as the different regions of Italy developed their own versions of granita over the years, American cities with high concentrations of Italians, especially Sicilians, began developing their own versions.

In New Orleans, the sno-ball (not a snow cone) is made with fluffy, shaved ice and topped with fresh fruit juices. In New York City and Chicago, they sell Italian ice – similar to water ice but creamier, smoother and much more solid.

And in Philadelphia, my home, we have water ice (pronounced with the local accent as “wooder ice”) which is oftentimes considered synonymous with Italian ice. But those in the know (a.k.a. natives) are quick to point out a few key differences: the Philadelphia version of granita is not as smooth as Italian ice, but it’s also not as gritty as a snow cone. It’s wet, more similar to a fresh, fruit slushie than anything else.

Traditional water ice is made with three simple ingredients: fresh fruit, sugar and water. While it was once made by hand, today the ingredients are combined in a metal, cylindrical machine. A mixer inside the metal barrel rotates and scrapes the edges as the mixture begins to freeze and stick to the walls. After reaching the correct consistency, the water ice is transferred into tubs and served up fresh.

As water ice has grown in popularity, some have attempted to take advantage of the nostalgia by opening new stands and selling mass-produced water ice. The founding fathers of Philly’s water ice stands, however, remain the most popular go-to spots because they are committed to continuing the use of fresh, natural (and usually local) ingredients.

Two of Philadelphia’s most beloved water ice stands sit on opposite sides of the South Philadelphia neighborhood: John’s Water Ice on the corner of 7th and Christian and Pop’s Homemade Water Ice on the corner of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.

John Cardullo, founder of John’s Water Ice, owned a diner in the heart of South Philly’s Italian Market neighborhood and often served water ice as a dessert option. In 1945, as the water ice grew in popularity, John decided to close the diner, turn it into office space for his heating repair company, and open a simple water ice stand next door.

The two seasonal businesses provided him with steady income in both winter and summer. John’s Water Ice still operates out of this original location and is run by his grandson, Anthony Cardullo.

Felippe Italiano, of Pop’s Homemade Water Ice, sold his homemade Italian water ice from a cart he pushed around the neighborhood. As word of his refreshing treat spread, he began to find children and families lined up outside his garage waiting for him.

Since he lived directly across the street from an urban park, Marconi Plaza, Felippe realized he was well-known enough that he could quit lugging the heavy cart around in the heat and have people come to him instead. In 1932, he converted his garage into a store front and 87 years later, his grandchildren are still serving water ice out of this same location.

If you’re visiting Philadelphia, head over to one of the mom-and-pop stands where you know you’ll be met with the tastiest and most authentic Philadelphia water ice experience. Just be prepared: most are cash only.

John’s is easily walkable from the Liberty Bell and Center City, while Pop’s is located right off the Broad Street Line subway, a perfect place to stop before or after a Phillies game. If you’re staying in Kensington or the Port Richmond area, Famous Italian Ices has been serving water ice for over 54 years and is just 3 blocks from a Market-Frankford Line subway stop.

If you’re looking to cool down after a day of hiking at Wissahickon or staying in the East Falls/Germantown area, stop by Tranzilli’s. They’re another stand still owned and operated by the original family and are celebrating 50 years in business in 2019.

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