It’s Water Ice: How Expanding the Philly Staple has Led the Rest of the Country to Misnomer the City’s Best Summertime Treat


Courtesy of NPR

It’s Water Ice: How Expanding the Philly Staple has Led the Rest of the Country to Misnomer the City’s Best Summertime Treat

Jason Mitala Staff Writer

Make no mistake: the city of Philadelphia’s summertime staple indeed has its origins in a Sicilian dessert known as granita. That much is known. But when it comes to the ongoing battle of what to call the treat, Philadelphians find themselves at odds with the rest of the nation, as they proudly claim this food as their own.

Confusion over whether flavored ice treats should be called “Italian,” “water” or even “Polish” ice has plagued connoisseurs of fruity ice snacks as the product becomes more known nationally. In order to discover what we ought to call this beloved icon of Philly food, we need to turn to the past.


As far as any good historian can tell, officially licensed granita-esque foods began being offered in the city when John’s Water Icebegan selling the item more than a hundred years ago to hungry Philadelphians. The first confectioners of the product would hand crank the ice, mixing in the flavors during the process (in contrast to a sno-cone, in which one adds the flavoring at the end). John’sremains a staple in Philly to this day.


Skeptics will begin to insert their complaints here. 


“But what about Rita’s? They call themselves Italian Ice!” 


Indeed, according to Rita’s website, the company has branded its product as such. Rita’s, boasting locations everywhere from Pennsylvania to California, is generally considered the premier frozen treat location across the country. Founded in Bensalem, PA in 1984 and named for the founder’s wife, the company proudly markets its product as “Italian Ice.” Fair point.


But a dive into the company’s history reveals a crucial arguing point. The company’s original location proudly displays signs reading, “Rita’s (real Italian) Water Ice.” This presents quite a problem for consumers: which of ice’s two adjectives should we accentuate when referring to our snacks?


In another article courtesy of NPR, a New Jersey expat operating a fruity ice stand in Maryland relates the problems with branding the food.


People look at you like you’re crazy if you call it water ice here,” the expat said. 


Perhaps this is the reason for Rita’sfavoring of “Italian” in their national branding. Who can blame it?


Water ice comes from the same city that thought rolling a cheesesteak in a slice of pizza was a good idea. Maybe calling the granita-like treat “Italian” sells better. It’s certainly less confusing than having the contrast of “water” and “ice” in one phrase. And what sort of person pronounces “water” as “wooder,” anyway?


The point is, even if it doesn’t sound the flashiest, or sell the best for a national brand, calling your fruity ice a “water ice” is undoubtedly the right thing to do. It’s what Philadelphians have been doing for more than a hundred years. Sure, your friends might look at you with wild eyes and when you return home, and your parents might question the sort of education Villanova is providing. I am just reminding all “youse guys” that Rita herself called it wooder ice.