It’s the perfect cool treat on a hot summer day. Authentic Italian water ice—fruit-flavored, with a texture as creamy and velvety smooth as Dean Martin’s crooning—was invented in South Philly.
Locally, you can find the best water ice in Little Italy’s neighborhood sub shops, pizza joints and outdoor stands between Pennsylvania
Avenue and Fourth Street in western Wilmington. The Philadelphia and Wilmington areas are home to the second-largest population of Italian-Americans in the country, according to the U.S. Census. The Italian immigrants who came to this region beginning in the late 1800s were working class people who sought a better life for themselves and their families.
They brought a culture that believed in hard work and taking pride in its neighborhoods. Long-time residents can recall their parents sweeping the sidewalks in front of their homes. Immigrants also appreciated good food and family—and Italian cuisine is all about bringing the two together.
In 1935, Rosaria Limmina introduced the submarine sandwich to Wilmington. “That was my grandfather, who was one of the first to immigrate to Wilmington from Sicily,” says Tom Limmina, owner of Yatz’s Subs & Steaks, on the corner of Seventh and Union streets. “His original sub shop was on the corner of Fifth and Madison. I’m a third-generation owner, and I’ve been making subs since I was 15 years old. Yatz was my father’s nickname— his first name was Ignazio.”
Yatz’s is in an area that’s in the midst of transition and renewal. A score of new townhomes is being built across the street. The area is a mixture of old and new. On this day, the sound of church bells from St. Thomas the Apostle Church—built in the early 1900s—mix with the backup beeping of a construction truck. This section of Little Italy used to be called “the Flats” or “FlatIrons.” Just up the street is the iconic Mrs. Robino’s restaurant, Dead Presidents Pub and Fusco’s, an outdoor water-ice stand that opened in 1957. At Yatz’s, Limmina sells plenty of sub sandwiches and a lot of water ice. “I’ve been making water ice for 33 years. The basic ingredients are water, sugar and fresh-squeezed juices,” says Limmina. “The secret is in the water/ice mixture. It has to be just right—not too hard, not too soft, just like the dough of a pizza.”
From April to November, Limmina makes it fresh daily. “That’s how you keep the right consistency and the smooth, creamy texture—the only way to get that is to make it every day,” he says.
A letter of appreciation from a young schoolgirl “for the delicious water ice” is displayed on the counter at Yatz’s. “A lot of kids come in here after school. We keep it affordable—only $1.25 for a small. We also send water ice over to a nearby nursing home and donate to a homeless shelter,” says Limmina.
Gina Caputo began selling water ice out of a stand at a gas station 35 years ago. Now, Gina, her 90-year-old father Pat and her sister Lisa sell Pat’s Water Ice wholesale to stores throughout the area and down at the beach. “It was my father’s idea to start selling it wholesale,” says Caputo. “He went to all the little corner stores in the city of Wilmington with his idea of selling fresh homemade Italian water ice. We were the first ones to do this.
Some stores have been Pat’s clients for more than 20 years. “We also sell retail to local schools, swim clubs and individuals who just want to have a party,” Caputo says. “When we first started we would go up to the Italian market in Philly and buy boxes of lemons. We had only two flavors—lemon and cherry—now we have more than 20.”
The history of water ice is something of amystery, but the general consensus seems to bethat it originated in the Italian-American section of South Philadelphia. The technologyfor making it is the same as the old hand-cranked ice-cream maker in a wooden bucket.
Today, though, it’s usually made inside a batch freezer, a stainless-steel machine with revolving blades. Water ice is different than ice cream or sherbet because it doesn’t contain dairy or eggs. The ice should be the consistency of wet cement and ladled out into a cup with a scoop or large spoon. Plenty of sugar is used, but authentic water ice uses no chemicals or stabilizers and is cholesterol free.
Bernie Malloy is the owner/operator of Bernie’s Original Italian Water Ice, which is also the home of the double-slice pizza. It’s on the corner of Eighth and DuPont streets in the hilltop section of Little Italy—an area that was seriously considered as a site for the nation’s capital in the late 1700s.
Some swampland along the Potomac was chosen instead, but this area has become the cultural center of Little Italy, thanks to St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church. Bernie’s makes the “official” water ice for St. Anthony’s yearly Italian festival. Satisfied customers include festivalgoers, local residents and former vice president Joe Biden.
“During the festival week, we don’t sleep—we make water ice around the clock,” says Malloy. “When I first opened in 1983, I just sold water ice. You could get a cup for 35 cents. Later, I added pizza. I’m called ‘Double Slice’ because I began cutting my pizzas in four pieces instead of the usual eight.”
And, no, Malloy is not an Italian name. “It’s Irish, but both of my grandmothers were Italian,” he says. “I always wanted to work for myself, and I opened in Little Italy because I remembered as a kid you had to come to this area to get the authentic Italian water ice. Over the years, I’ve watched kids grow up, and they come back for water ice and bring their children. One customer asked me to mail a five-gallon container to Georgia for her birthday.”
The shipping cost: $190.