In the Philadelphia area, warmer weather can always guarantee one thing: Water ice.
The unique Philadelphia dessert is similar to granitas, a frozen dessert from Sicily made from granular blends of sugar, ice and flavoring. What makes water ice different from the Sicilian treat is that it’s not made by adding flavoring on top of shaved ice but by freezing a liquid concoction while mixing the ingredients. The result is a smooth and creamy dessert with a sweet fruit flavor. (Traditional water ice even has chunks of fruit in them!)
Who first created the cold, sweet treat remains contested. But, according to Irene Levy Baker, author of Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia, there are a few things we know about where the treat first originated.
“[Water ice] seemed to arrive in Philadelphia with the Italian immigrants who were coming to Philadelphia in the late 19th century and early 20th century,” she says. “Filippo ‘Pop’ Italiano was considered the granddaddy of water ice. Back in the 1930’s, he had a cart that he pushed around South Philadelphia. One time, there was a heatwave, and he was dreading pushing the pushcart around Philadelphia [...] and he lifted his garage door — and lo and behold, there was a line of people already down his driveway waiting to get water ice.”
Eventually, Baker recalls, Italiano asked himself: “Why am I pushing [this] heavy cart around South Philadelphia when people will come to me?” And as a result, he turned his garage on 13th and Oregon into a water ice stand. The stand still exists in the same location today, albeit with a new building, and is run by Italiano's six grandchildren.
For decades, because of its sweet taste and smooth texture, water ice has been a Philadelphia food staple synonymous with good times and pleasant weather.
“There’s nothing like some lemon water ice on a 95-degree, humid summer day,” says Baker. “It’s just an easy, joyful thing to love.”
With many places reopening for the season, here are some of the best places in the Philadelphia area to stay cool and grab yourself a cup of water ice:
Pop’s Homemade Italian Ice
1337 W Oregon Ave. Philadelphia, PA
Since 1932, Pop’s Homemade Italian Ice has been serving some of the city’s best water ice. Whether you’re looking for a classic cherry or lemon flavor or want to be adventurous and try cappuccino and root beer, Pop’s has it all. Want more than water ice? Not a problem. Pop’s also has a variety of ice cream, gelati, and pretzels for you to try.
Open daily from 12:30pm - 8:30pm and until 9pm Friday through Sunday. If you’re in Delaware County, check out their Havertown location; same hours.
Rita’s Italian Ice
Originally founded in 1984 in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, Rita’s Italian Ice has been going strong and can now be found all over Delaware Valley and the country. With over 600 different locations in 30 states, finding a local Rita’s shouldn’t be an issue. While the menu has changed over the years, their traditional water ice with chunks of fruit or chocolate chips are still some of their most popular choices today.
Each Rita’s location has different hours, seating and delivery options. Call your local Rita’s for more details.
John’s Water Ice
701 Christian St. Philadelphia, PA
Located near the Italian Market in Bella Vista, John’s Water Ice is a South Philly classic. Since 1945, John’s has been using the same simple recipe of fruit, water and sugar. Their menu consists of four regular flavors — lemon, cherry, chocolate and pineapple — with the addition of one or two other specialty flavors like piña colada or mango on a rotating basis.
Open between 11am - 10pm Monday thrush Saturday and 1pm -10pm on Sunday. They suggest calling ahead if the weather isn’t great.
Dino’s Ice Cream and Water Ice
6 South Union St. Wilmington, DE
Dino’s Ice Cream and Water Ice specializes in eclectic water ice flavors and novelty ice creams. With over 70 different flavors of water ice, there’s something here for the most adventurous and picky of eaters.
Their brick-and-mortar store is open from 2pm - 7pm every day. If you’re in need of water ice for an event, call and book their ice cream and water ice truck to impress your guests.
Rose’s Real Italian Water Ice
Rose’s Real Italian Water Ice can be found all over the Roxborough-Manayunk area, with two stores — in their signature yellow and green façade — and a truck. Rose’s is known for their traditional flavors (lemon, strawberry and pineapple) and breakfast sandwiches.
Both stands are open daily from 6am - 9pm.
Diane’s Italian Water Ices
2999 Evesham Rd. Voorhees, NJ
Serving South Jersey since 1994, Diane’s Italian Water Ices sells homemade water ice and ice cream from their quaint shop in Voorhees, New Jersey. From traditional fruit flavors to cookie dough, there’s no shortage of water ice options at Diane’s.
Open daily from 12pm - 9:30pm, Friday and Saturday hours are extended until 10pm.
King’s Water Ice
With locations in North and West Philadelphia, King’s Water Ice has been a community staple in Philadelphia for years. Both locations are known for their low prices, selection — they have both water ice and ice cream — and soft pretzels. The West Philadelphia location is across the street from Overbrook High School, alma mater of Philadelphia icons like Wilt Chamberlain and Will Smith.
Open daily from 12pm - 9pm. Cash only.
Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice
Located in West Philadelphia and in Chester, Pennsylvania, Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice has it all: Hot meals, fresh fair food and frozen treats. Siddiq More is known for his water ice — he’s been serving it to Philadelphians since 1995! — but his halal chicken and seafood options at his Chester location are equally as good. In 2016, Siddiq’s was Billy Penn’s Ultimate Frozen Treats winner.
Open daily from 1pm - 8pm.