Italian ice in Philadelphia is better known as "water ice," although the phonetics of the Philadelphia accent pronounce it more like "wud-dah" ice. The term is popular in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.
The term is somewhat older than the Italian immigrants who popularized it. Recipe books from Europe reference it, and these may owe their origin to Café Procope, a 17th-century Parisian cafe operated by the Sicilian-born Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. He helped refine the older Sicilian recipes, and the storied cafe hosted many international visitors throughout its history.
By the early 20th century, Italian immigrants arriving in Philadelphia and inspired by Sicilian Granita were likely selling frozen treats from pushcarts. Industrial ice production accelerated in the early 20th century, and a number of "water ice" shops opened in Philadelphia about the same time similar shops were opening in Chicago and New York.
Michael Rosati first sold frozen sorbetto and ice cream in Naples before arriving in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. He continued selling ice in Philadelphia and eventually opened an ice factory using early, steam-powered refrigeration in 1912. Rosati sold ice blocks and Italian ice in the region, including the Jersey shore. Following his death, his son Sam Rosati took over and expanded the water ice business. Rosati grew into a wholesaler of Italian ice.
Filippo Italiano, better known as "Pops," began selling water ice from a cart in Marconi Plaza in the 1930s. The south Philadelphia neighborhood was home to many Italian Americans and his cart business blossomed. By 1938 he opened a physical store, and was known for flavors like ginger ale and lemon.
Italiano's Water Ice
Domenick Italiano opened the shop in 1974. The son of Pop's, the shop became a neighborhood staple in south Philadelphia. Italiano was not a full-time water ice man. He worked a day job at IBM and operated the stand on nights and weekends. Italiano's operated sporadically since the death of Domenick, and is mainly closed.
John's Water Ice
This family-owned water ice stand opened in 1945 and sells only four flavors: lemon, cherry, pineapple, and chocolate, although special flavors like strawberry occasionally show up on weekends. Third-generation owner Anthony Cardullo got his start cutting lemons, according to Patricia Madej at PhillyVoice. When the shop first opened, the ice was hand-cranked.
Bob Tumolo launched the company in 1984. He named the shop after his wife, although they divorced a few years later. The former firefighter ran the shop with the help of her mother for years. There are more than 550 locations now in over 30 states. The shop maintains seasonal hours and every year gives away free water ice on the first day of spring. There are more than 95 flavors, although they are not always available. In addition to water ice, the shop sells custards. According to Rita's website, Mango is the leading flavor followed by Cherry and Swedish Fish.
Fred Cooper started his retail and wholesale water ice business in 1988. He sells more than water ice, including ice cream, and snack foods. There are a handful of Fred's locations in the greater Philadelphia area.
D’Emilio’s Old World Ice Treats
Chris D'Emilio wanted to sell ice cream. The problem was buying ice cream wholesale wasn't profitable enough, so in 2013 he founded a company to make his own. He operated an old-style cart until opening a shop in 2019. The South Philadelphia location offers "fancy" water ice.
Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.