On a hot steamy day or a humid summer night, few things hit the spot better than a cool cup of water ice. It’s sweet, but not overly sugary. Frozen, but easily slurped. Often made with real fruit but still more brightly colored than a bag of jelly beans. And the best part — you won’t find it anywhere but Philadelphia.
Sure, other cities have their knock-offs. There’s Italian ice (harder, usually, requiring scraping with a wooden spoon), frozen lemonade (only one flavor = boring) and slushies (softer and prone to causing brain freeze). Along with being the only place to use the idiosyncratic name — ice made from…water? — Philly seems to have a lock on the particular consistency and flavor balance that makes real wooder ice so great.
The treat originated with Italian immigrants recreating the granita commonly served in their native land. Many settled first in South Philly, so it’s no surprise that neighborhood is still flush with a great selection (including a place to get it with booze). There’s also a good assortment of shops in on the north side of the city, and one or two in West Philly, too. In Center City there are a couple of independent spots worth noting, plus several locations of the ubiquitous chain that unceremoniously removed “water ice” from its name when it went corporate and nationwide.
Here’s where to get your water ice fix around Philadelphia.
A block or so from the Italian Market, this counter in a former auto mechanic garage has been serving since 1945. It’s now run by the second generation of the Cardullo family, whose secret recipes make use of fresh fruit. Don’t miss the rotating special flavors if you visit on a weekend (701 Christian St., 215-925-6955).
Now 77, Phil Mancuso has been scooping water ice at his family’s East Passyunk market and cheese shop since he was 8 years old. Stop in for a scoop of classic cherry, lemon or chocolate and pick up some killer housemade mozzarella while you’re there (1902 E Passyunk Ave., 215-389-1817).
Smack in the middle of a residential part of Lower Moyamensing is this walk-up window, where the Italiano family has been scooping dozens of flavors since the 1970s. Claim to fame (per signage at the shop): they invented the water ice/ice cream combo known regionally as “gelati” (2551 S. 12th St., no phone).
Legend has it that Filippo “Pop” Italiano started selling water ice from a pushcart way back in 1932, making him the true OG of the game. The Oregon Avenue shop his descendants now run offers many flavors, but iced tea water ice is the one to sample if you’ve never tried it. Bonus: open through 11 PM nightly (1337 Oregon Ave., 215-551-7677).
This family-owned corner shop on the southern edge of West Passyunk Avenue has been slinging frozen sweets since the late eighties. Look for flavors like blackberry and mango, and pick up a soft pretzel to go with for a well-rounded Philly snack (2335 S. Hemberger St., 215-271-0186).
Instead of a trip to the boardwalk, make your way to this two-decade-old Pennsport stand, where more than a dozen kinds of water ice are served along with funnel cake and fried Twinkies and Oreos. Also on offer: sugar-free water ice, and reports say it’s not half bad (2251 S. Front St., 215-465-4669).
In 1957, Mickey Nerenberg bought a truck for $100, outfitted it with a freezer and began selling water ice around the city. A few years later, he and his brother went brick and mortar and opened a store at the edge of East Kensington. With 48 flavors, the shop is now in its 50th year and still going strong (1950 E. Lehigh Ave., 215-634-8563).
Thirty-four years ago, Dennis Raffa taught himself how to make water ice and launched a wholesale business run out of his rowhome garage. A decade ago, he and his family took the leap into retail, and opened a shop in Port Richmond, where you can find flavors like bubble gum and root beer, along with traditional faves (2637 Ontario St., 215-288-4910).
A triangular corner is the home of this relative newcomer on the water ice scene, open in Olney since 2011. Despite its youth, the housemade ice is on point, with unusual options like granny smith apple, watermelon and passion fruit (6332 N 18th St., no phone).
Open since 1993, this mom-and-pop Roxborough spot offers a full breakfast menu, but from noon onward it’s water ice time. A variety of flavors are made in fresh batches throughout the day, including pineapple, grape and “mocaccino” (4240 Pechin St., 267-972-1902).
Overbrook in West Philly lays claim to what might be the longest serving water ice shop in the city, with a history dating back to 1925. Steven Caporaletti started working at the shop at age 15, and now runs the joint. Flavors are mostly classic, plus specials like blueberry, peach and mango (200 N. 63th St., 215-747-2909).
From kiwi to tangerine to pistachio, 20 flavors of water ice stock the menu at this Kingsessing stand which serves daily through midnight and complements its frozen sweets with late-night essentials like cheese pretzels and chicken tenders (5343 Chester Ave., 215-726-1918).
Since launching his first store in Fairmount more than a decade ago, Damon Andreacchio has expanded with two more locations, one in Rittenhouse and one on 13th Street (right next to Dirty Franks). Housemade ices come in more than 30 varieties (plus some sugar-free options), with sour cotton candy being a mouth-puckering favorite (2004 Fairmount Ave., 215-232-7748; 44 S. 19th St., 267-928-4079; 343 S. 13th St., 267-519-8982).
With an outpost on the pedestrian triangle between off Grays Ferry and South Street and another in Wash West, this new-on-the-scene sweets shop is dedicated to sustainability, and locally-sourced ingredients go into water ice that’s served in compostable cups and recyclable spoons (2223 Grays Ferry Ave., 267-858-4290; 1205 Walnut St., 267-861-0300).
This recently revamped spot at the weird intersection where 10th Street meets Passyunk meets Reed isn’t a stand — it’s a full on restaurant and bar run by the folks behind Royal Tavern and Khyber Pass Pub. It does, however, offer glasses or pitchers of boozy water ice, and they not only taste great, they’re powerful as all hell. Non-spiked versions are also available, for kids or times when you’re not looking to get sauced on sweet frozen slush (1338 S. 10th St., 215-800-1992).
This nationwide chain did get its start in Philadelphia, so each of the 35 Philly stores maintains a tiny shred of local cred. If you want a top #brand flavors like Swedish Fish or Sour Patch kids, this is where to go (multiple locations).