Hand-dipped ice cream? Maybe later. Soft-serve custard? Perhaps a different day.
Five weeks ago, we asked you to help choose the ultimate Philly frozen treats, putting up 32 fantastic local producers who specialize in various styles of summer refreshers. After fending off others in their quadrant, the Final Four entered into our first cross-category fight last week.
Franklin Fountain (hand-dipped ice cream, made the old fashioned way) took on Siddiq’s Water Ice, but couldn’t withstand the intense following of the Temple favorite, which won in a landslide. On the other side, however, it was a close contest. Philly Flavors (up for its custard) nearly edged out world-famous Capogiro gelato — but not quite. The gelateria took the win by a margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent out of hundreds of votes cast.
And now we’re down to the final battle: Gelato versus water ice.
It’s an especially fun match-up, since both cooling sweets were brought to the United States from Italy — having first been popularized in Europe in the 17th century, after trade with Turkey and other Arab nations reintroduced the idea of snacking on sweetened ice. Subsequently, both have become uniquely Philadelphian.
Water ice is more obviously a Philly thing, if only because of the name. Other U.S. cities may serve “Italian ice,” but if you’re calling it that, you’re obviously not from here. (Yes, “water ice” is redundant, and no, we don’t care.) Also, it’s scooped and not shaved, giving it a relatively unique consistency that sets it apart from other, similar desserts. It arrived in this city with the great influx of Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, who were looking to recreate the granita so popular in their homeland.
Pioneers like Filippo “Pop” Italiano made the treat popular throughout South Philly, but it became a favorite in West Philadelphia and Northwest Philadelphia, too. As those neighborhoods transitioned from being enclaves of second-generation Italian-Americans into predominantly black communities, the popularity of water ice stayed strong. Siddiq Moore of Siddiq’s is just one of many African-American Philadelphians with a water ice business. His secret fresh-fruit recipes and upbeat self-promotion has made it a strong favorite.
Philadelphia can’t exactly boast the same ownership of gelato, but we do have a serious claim to fame. In 2011, National Geographic conducted a global search for the top places to eat ice cream — and declared Capogiro the best in the entire world. Anyone who’s tried the smooth, creamy, all-natural delight at one of John and Stephanie Reitano’s shops would find it hard to disagree.
The first Capogiro store opened at 13th and Sansom in 2002, and set itself apart by using the artisanal techniques common in Italy but not yet popular stateside. It’s estimated that Italy is the only country where the handmade frozen treats still outsell mass-produced varieties. The Reitanos decided to use mostly local dairy and flavoring products, and to let seasonality determine what flavors were available at any given time. The early adoption of what now seems like a farm-to-table cliché proved to be a success, and there are now five locations around the city serving up scoops. (Side note: One of those spots, Capofitto, is also home to a restaurant specializing in Neapolitan pizza made with the same exacting techniques.)
So! Which one of these frozen treats is your favorite? More importantly, which one represents the city best — which one is ultimately “Philly”? You have through Sunday to vote below. We’ll be back next week to crown the winner.