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“Wooder Ice” - The Hidden History of a Philadelphia Delicacy

Posted on Friday, August 7, 2020

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Amid the heat of the summer, residents of the City of Philadelphia are cooling down with a refreshing and delicious local delicacy known as water ice. It’s not ice cream, nor is it a snowcone, and it’s definitely not a slushie, so what exactly is water ice? The answer: a tradition that’s as Philly-famous as the Philly cheesesteak and Philly soft pretzel. Plus, you can trace the history of water ice back thousands of years!

2,000 years ago in Sicily, mountaineers would climb the nearly 11,000 foot peak of Mt. Etna to retrieve snow for cooling wine. When combined with sugarcane and locally grown lemons, it made for a delightful sweet summer treat. The dish, called the granita, was enjoyed by Roman emperors and even made its way to the court of King Charles I of England!

When millions of Italian immigrants arrived in the United States in the early 20th Century, they brought their local granita recipes, modifying the ingredients and methods in slight ways. In 1932, Felipe Italiano sold his homemade variation of the granita from a cart he pushed around his neighborhood in South Philly.

So many hungry guests would line up outside his house for this special sweet icy treat that he decided to convert his garage to a storefront. Pop’s Homemade Italian Ice still stands to this day, as do many other family-owned water ice locations across Philadelphia that have been passed down from generation to generation, giving sweet summertime relief to a satisfied city.

Check out The Constitutional Walking Tour’s Senior Guide Michael as he samples the popular, the historical, and the hidden gems of Philly’s frosty favorite.

Those frozen treats sure looked delicious! Aside from the three that Michael sampled, below are a few of Philadelphia’s most popular providers of water ice:

D’Emilio’s Old World Ice Treats (Area: Passyunk Ave, South Philly)
1928 E Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148

D’Emilio’s Old World Ice Treats

Perhaps the newest water ice place in town, D’Emilio’s Old World Ice Treats only settled in its Passyunk home in 2019! Its founder, Chris D’Emilio, sold his “fancy water ice” from a cart until recently. D’Emilio’s takes pride in a more gourmet experience, as well as providing non-GMO, organic, and gluten-free ingredients in their prized products.

Dati’s Water Ice & Ice Cream (Area: Passyunk Ave, South Philadelphia)
2235 W. Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19145

Dati’s Water Ice & Ice Cream

Another priceless pearl of Passyunk, Dati’s Water Ice & Ice Cream sits at a corner on the southwest side of the famous street. Like many other water ice establishments in the city, it is family owned and has been serving its sweet treats since the 1980s!

Fred’s Water Ice (Area: Kingsessing, West Philly)
5343 Chester Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143

Fred’s Water Ice

Boasting a spacious outside eating area, Fred’s Water Ice is known for its exotic flavors, from Pina Colada to Passion Fruit. Serving a variety of other snack items until midnight for local latenight visitors, Fred’s also regularly participates in charity events to help foster their local West Philadelphia community!

Jimmy’s Water Ice (Area: South Philly)
2551 S. Front Street
Philadelphia, PA 19148

John’s Water Ice (Area: Bella Vista, South Philly)
701 Christian Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

John’s Water Ice

John Cardullo, a diner owner around the Italian Market area of South Philadelphia, frequently served water ice as a desert option. In 1945, there was such a higher demand for the water ice that John decided to close the diner and turn his office into a water ice stand. In the winter months, Cardullo would repair heating systems, while in the summer he sold his frozen treats. To this day, John’s Water Ice is run by Anthony Cardullo, John’s grandson.

Lucio Mancuso & Son (Passyunk Avenue, South Philly)
1902 E. Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA, 19147

Lucio Mancuso & Son

In 1939, a grocer that specialized in homemade cheese known as Lucio Mancuso & Son opened a water ice stand on Passyunk to sell their family’s treasured granita. They became widely known throughout South Philadelphia for putting lemon shavings, candied lemons, fudge chunks, and chocolate chips as toppings for their water ice. Today, they’re a local favorite for a refreshingly sweet cup.

Philly Flavors (Area: Fairmount)
2004 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130

Philly Flavors

The phenomenal Fairmount favorite Philly Flavors is celebrated for its frozen fresh treats. A more recent addition to the water ice variety, it nonetheless aims to please the sweet tooth in all its customers.

Pop’s Homemade Italian Ice (Area: Marconi Plaza, South Philly)
1337 W. Oregon Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148

Pop’s Homemade Italian Ice

Widely credited as the oldest water ice establishment in Philadelphia, Pop’s Homemade Italian Ice got its start when Felipe Italiano sold his homemade water ice from a cart he pushed around his neighborhood. When Italiano found people lining up outside of the garage he kept his cart in, he realized he had something special. In 1932, Felipe Italiano converted that very garage into a storefront, and to this day, Pop’s has remained in that garage, still run by the family.

Rita’s Italian Ice (Area: Penn’s Landing, South Philly)
239 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Rita's Italian Ice (Area: 15th & Spruce)
1511 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Rita's Italian Ice (Area: South Street West)
2124 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146

Rita’s Italian Ice

Founded by a retired firefighter named Bob Tumullo in 1984, Rita’s Real Italian Water Ice has grown exponentially into the largest water ice franchise in America. What was once a humble store in the nearby township of Bensalem, Rita’s now has over 600 stores spanning across the United States, coast to coast, border to border.

For all of you water ice enthusiasts out there craving even more places to enjoy a sweet cup of a Philly classic, below are some more beloved local places to satisfy your sweet tooth!

Rose’s Real Italian Water Ice
4240 Pechin Street
Philadelphia, PA 19128

Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice
264 S. 60th Street
Philadelphia. PA 19143

Tranzilli’s Real Italian Water Ice
5901 Belfield Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19144


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