What Is Italian Ice?

It’s official now: I am the “Philly Guy” at Sporked. The bigwigs here always turn to me and say, “Luke, we’re desperate for your knowledge of the many delightful foods that have their origins in the City of Brotherly Love! Please, bestow upon us your guidance!” Then I gently pat their heads and respond, “Fear not, my children! I am here to proselytize on behalf of our lord and savior, Gritty. Gather ‘round and learn!” In today’s chapter of the Philly Foods Gospel, we will be covering the Italian ice, which every self-respecting Philadelphian knows by its true name: water ice aka wooder ice.

What is Italian ice?

Italian ice is a descendent of Scilian granita, which was developed around the same time as ice cream in the 16th century. Ice is finely shaved and then flavored with sugar and fruit juices. In Italy, they also flavor their ice with almond, pistachio, and even chocolate.

When Italian immigrants landed in Philadelphia at the start of the 20th century, they brought granitas with them. Its texture and flavorings slightly evolved into its own thing: water ice (or Italian ice if you aren’t from southeast PA or NJ). An Italian ice you get in California might be slightly different than a water ice in Philadelphia, but it all boils down to the same thing: flavored ice.

best italian ice

Best Store-Bought Italian Ice

What’s the best Italian ice you can buy at the grocery store? We tasted flavors from the top Italian ice brands to find out.

Water ice really took off in southeast PA with the opening of Rita’s in 1984. Rita’s is quintessential Philadelphia; probably half the kids who I went to highschool with worked there over the summer. I recently learned that there’s a Rita’s in West Hollywood and I nearly lost my mind. It’s seriously that good. From there, tons of Italian ice brands popped up in the freezer aisles of most grocery stores in the country.

What is in Italian ice?

Ice, sugar, fruit flavoring. Sounds simple, right? But these are the same ingredients in sorbet, shaved ice, snow cones, and even slushies. So how do you distinguish between them all?

The main difference between all these desserts is how finely the ice is ground. In Italian ice, it’s very fine, especially when compared to a snow cone which is usually made of chunks of ice that are drizzled with fruit syrups. 

There is also a difference in the level of “meltiness.” Sorbet and Italian ice have a similar consistency—frozen to the point that they can be scooped. Shaved ice and snow cones are about as frozen as it gets, like chewing on actual pieces of ice. And the slushy is like “ice but water,” which is the actual scientific description of it (citation needed).

How is Italian ice made?

Italian ice is made in a process similar to ice cream: The ingredients are frozen as they are mixed together. In the commercial production of Italian ice, water, sugar, and flavoring syrup are all put into a machine that does both the mixing and the chilling. By mixing and freezing at the same time, the ice crystals that form are smaller, which makes for that smoother consistency.

Once the mixing and freezing is done, the resulting concoction is poured into buckets and then frozen again. Once the lid is cracked—at Rita’s, every ice is served within 36 hours of it being made onsite—the tubs get a hearty mix so that the consistency is maintained. 

Is Italian ice dairy and gluten free?

Yes and yes. Unless, of course, you order a “gelato” from Rita’s, which is a combination of water ice and soft serve ice cream; a confusing term, since it is nothing like actual gelato from Italy. But it’s still dang good. My normal order: gelato with chocolate ice cream and cherry water ice. I’m giddy just thinking about it.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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  • I’ve always wondered about the history of Italian Ice! I often get strawberry italian ice at the grocery store. I love that it started as local delicacy. I grew up in New Orleans (home of the sno-ball) and one of my favorite frozen treats is “Mango Freeze.” It sounds pretty similar to Water Ice. You can only get it at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest), and I try to get it every day of the fest! Now I really want to go to Philly and try out water ice.